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Looking Backward | Context

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Social and Economic Systems of the 19th Century

Looking Backward was written during what is known as the "Gilded Age" in American history, a time of exploding prosperity, increasing materialism, and widespread government corruption. The era, beginning in about 1870, takes its name from a novel of the same name by American author Mark Twain, which concerns itself with the greed of industrialists influencing crooked politicians. Many novels written during this time were forms of social protest. Along with the mechanization and increased production of industry came a variety of social ills, such as urbanization, unregulated working conditions, and consolidation of businesses into corporations and trusts that choked competition. Very few people became immensely wealthy off of the work of many. Moguls such as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie came to represent those who dominated whole sectors of industry. These powerful industrialists created trusts that placed power in the hands of a board composed of a few men who made decisions for all the businesses in the trust. The expansion of industry and transportation, including the new nationwide rail system, demanded increasingly more raw materials, many of which came from the American West where natural resources were plundered at never-before-seen levels. Late 19th-century America was a time of great inequality and social unrest. Those who contributed to great prosperity but did not enjoy its benefits agitated for change. This reality is most clearly presented in the well-known allegory of the coach in Looking Backward, where the wealthy enjoy the seats on the top of the coach, while the poor laborers below pull them along.

Even before the Gilded Age tensions between workers and owners had been increasing, as pressures for profit came at the expense of workers who experienced dangerous working conditions, long hours, and low pay. Labor disputes erupted and strikes frequently interrupted production, the type of strikes that disrupt the building of Julian's new home and that he and members of his class complain bitterly about over lavish dinner parties. Many workers at the time chose to unionize, particularly during the depression of 1873–78. The largest labor organization, Knights of Labor, formed in 1869. It saw increasing membership during this time, and lobbied for basic regulations such as an eight-hour workday. In 1886 alone there were more than 1,600 strikes involving some 600,000 workers. Perhaps the most famous strike of the era is remembered as the Haymarket Riot. A few anarchists took over after a peaceful rally, and a bomb exploded. Seven policemen were killed and many others injured. Eight anarchists were arrested and tried for murder; four were later hanged. In response to the riot, public opinion turned against the labor movement, and the Knights saw a decline in membership. However, the issue of labor and workers' rights had made a mark. In 1890 the Sherman Antitrust Act limited the industrial monopolies that had been so pervasive in the previous decade.

The women's movement, often known as women's suffrage, worked along with the labor movement to promote the rights of workers. Interestingly, many of the leaders of the women's movement, like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, also joined the antislavery movement to fight for the rights of both women and slaves. Aside from the freedom of slaves and women's right to vote, these early feminists also advocated women's rights to education and employment. In the novel, women are entitled to employment as well as financial independence, making it clear why Bellamy was a favorite of feminists of his day.

Socialism, Populism, and Nationalism

Socialism in the 19th century was defined primarily by the belief in public ownership of property and resources. Cooperative work and communal benefit made socialism an ideal opposite to free market capitalism in which a few private owners benefited from the work of many, amassing enormous wealth while most workers suffered in poverty. Under a socialist government scheme, because all property would be held in common, all workers would benefit equally. Socialism is most often associated with the work of Prussian philosopher Karl Marx and German philosopher Friedrich Engels who wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848, arguing that socialism would not be achieved by the establishment of a utopian community, but through class conflict in which workers triumphed. Proponents of socialism differ regarding the means necessary to establish a socialist state, but also in the extent and kinds of property to be held in common. They also differ regarding the levels of decision-making, whether centralized (by a single government entity) or decentralized (by many local governing bodies).

Populism is a movement that arose in 19th-century America to address farming concerns, but it more commonly refers to a political movement to promote the welfare of everyday people rather than that of a privileged, elite few. Just as the utopian society in Looking Backward ensures provision for every member of the society through a peaceful revolution, populism is concerned with giving regular people power to create reforms to better their lives. Edward Bellamy was influential in the creation of the Populist Party in America in 1892, inspiring many of its supporters through his utopian novel.

Generally speaking, nationalism is the belief that interest in, and loyalty to, a nation supersedes any single other interest. It is nation before self. Nationalist movements have existed and continue to exist across the globe. Bellamy chose to describe his ideal society as a nationalist one rather than socialist, because he believed socialism had been vilified in the court of public opinion and because he did not favor an authoritarian leader. Although the utopia in Looking Backward incorporates elements of socialism, populism, and nationalism, it is nationalism that best encapsulates the ideal of the society Julian encounters in the novel, in which the citizens do all for the good of the nation which, in turn, provides for and protects them all.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism, popular during Bellamy's time, is the theory that the principles of natural selection that drive the evolution of plants and animals, principles articulated by English naturalist Charles Darwin in On the Origins of the Species (1859), can be applied to society as if it were an organism. The basic tenet of Darwin's theory of evolution is natural selection, which means only the fittest organisms survive to pass on their genes, gradually leading to an evolution of the species. In social Darwinism, the same principle is applied to society as whole, leading to the gradual improvement of society. In general, this theory implies that as the strongest members of society grow increasingly more dominant and prosperous, the weaker members of society diminish in number. When only the fittest survive to procreate, societies improve.

At first, social Darwinism was most often used by those with imperialist, racist, or classist viewpoints to justify capitalism's class divisions and the consolidation of wealth. Edward Bellamy explores another possibility. In Looking Backward he presents an example of a society exercising sexual selection to achieve its moral and physical potential. Because women in the future are free to select their mates without worrying about class expectations or financial maintenance, they can choose men for their ideal traits. Bellamy contends social evolution is only possible when citizens are free from the corrupting influence of money. When the environment nurtures the best in people, they flourish, adapting to their surroundings. Bellamy argues that when this is applied on a national scale, significant physical and moral changes can occur in just a few generations.

Utopian Fiction

Utopian literature, which features imagined, ideal societies, was popular during Bellamy's time, and is technically a subgenre of science fiction in that it shares the following characteristics:

  • trust in science
  • time travel
  • futuristic technology
  • social and physical transformation of the species
  • fantasy

However, it could also be argued that utopian literature predates the genre of science fiction, because the first example of a utopian novel, Utopia, was written by English writer Sir Thomas Moore in 1515. Utopias then show up in a variety of time periods of literature, including the late 19th century with the social critiques of Henry Adams's Democracy (1880) and William Dean Howells's A Traveler from Altruria (1894). Utopian novels can also marry with elements of other types of literature, as in Looking Backward—it is both a picture of a utopian society and a romance. The introduction promises readers that "the author has sought to alleviate the instructive quality of the book by casting it in the form of a romantic narrative." As a romance, it includes a love story, exploration of the protagonist's thoughts and feelings, and elements of the wondrous and miraculous. Julian, who amazingly awakens in the future, explains his emotions at everything he encounters. Readers explore, along with him, not only the utopian society of the year 2000 but also how he comes to fall in love with his previous fiancée's granddaughter.

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