- Looking Backward 2000-1887
Edward Bellamy (1850-98) is famous for only one book, Looking Backward (1888). Before he wrote that book, he had been the writer of some rather unimpressive Hawthornesque romances. After the publication of Looking Backward, he produced an almost unreadable sequel, Equality (1897). After his death, a collection of his short stories was published, The Blindman's World and Other Stories (1898). Yet Looking Backward is an extraordinarily important and influential book, a work of true genius by an otherwise minor writer. It was a best-seller in its time (five hundred thousand copies were sold by 1935) and has never been out of print since it was first published. It led to the founding of the Nationalist movement. In 1935, it was cited by Publishers' Weekly as one of the four most influential works published since 1885. With hindsight, it is not hard to see why the novel matters, for it presents some genuinely radical ideas within the framework of an effective (if somewhat mawkish and clichéd) romance plot.
Whenever a new edition of a classic work comes out, I always ask two questions of it: Is it necessary? Is it well done? With this edition, the answers are both 'yes.' [End Page 314]
Although Looking Backward has never been out of print, until now there have been only two modern editions of interest: the Signet Classic version (first published in 1960) and the 1967 critical edition edited by John L. Thomas and published by Harvard University Press. The first appeals to teachers looking for a reliable, cheap text; the second to scholars looking to understand the differences between the 1888 Ticknor edition and the 1889 Houghton Mifflin second edition. This Broadview version offers a third alternative: a reliable text with a wealth of background material in nine appendices. I used this Broadview edition in a course on utopianism that I taught last year. It worked well.
So, if the edition passes the utility test, what of the editorial matter supplied by Alex MacDonald? The introduction covers the place of the novel in the utopian tradition, the context for the writing of the novel, the influence of the novel, and the radicalism of Bellamy's vision. All of this is familiar territory to students of utopianism, but MacDonald does a fine job of summarizing the material in thirty-one pages. There are some matters of interpretation where I disagree with his reading of the novel, but the judgments he makes are sound ones. I was particularly taken with the simplicity of one of his concluding comments: 'The universal idea [in the novel] which speaks to us over a century later, and which will continue to speak to our descendants in centuries to come, is simply the idea that we should be concerned to relieve the sufferings of our fellow human beings.' Stripped of its particular ideas, the novel does indeed promote just such a concern. My sole complaint about the introductory material is that the note on the text should have been more substantial. The final statement, 'A few silent editorial changes have been made where spelling, capitalization or punctuation seemed incorrect, or where the first edition seemed preferable,' needs to be significantly amplified.
The appendices are well chosen, for they do provide some useful background material that is not collected in other editions of the novel. We can read in Bellamy's own words the history of how Looking Backward came to be written; we can trace the relation between the novel and his earlier testament, 'The Religion of Solidarity'; we are shown how Bellamy's ideas grew between the publication of Looking Backward and its sequel, Equality. There are also appendices that offer fictional and non-fictional antecedents and responses to the novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry George, William Dean Howells, and William Morris. I would have liked longer excerpts, and I find one appendix (a contemporary description of Bellamy wife, Emma) not worthwhile. Overall, however, the appendices add considerably to the value of the Broadview edition, which should become the standard for...