When I first began teaching AP US History, I thought I knew a great deal about our nation’s history. I was wrong. Partly through completing graduate school, partly from leisure reading, and partly out of necessity, I’ve learned more about US History in the past nine years than I could possibly teach to my students in one school year. But that’s a good thing. I consider myself a lifelong learner, constantly reading and actively trying to learn new things. Something that surprised me through the years of teaching US History is how many influential writings there have been that I had never even heard of before I began teaching. Maybe I was supposed to have learned about them at some point but didn’t. At any rate, I have made an attempt to read some of these older novels, pamphlets, etc. that, at the time they were written, were influential in some way. Sometimes this works out; other times…not so much. Reading a Frenchman’s views on early America didn’t appeal to me, but one work that I did make it through recently was Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887.
Before I get into the story too much, I should probably explain the context of the Gilded Age, which is when Bellamy wrote Looking Backward. The period lasting from after the Civil War until about the beginning of the 1900s was a time of greatly expanding economic growth, but not everyone benefited from the supposed prosperity. The unequal distribution of income was such that there was a very small, almost nonexistent, middle class book-ended by a small group of extremely rich individuals (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, etc.) and a very large working class that was barely getting paid enough to live on. Keep in mind, this is before child labor laws, workers’ compensation laws, work place safety requirements, income taxes, Social Security, or unemployment insurance. Labor unions were in their infancy and were mostly looked down upon as socialists and/or anarchists (whether or not this was true) throughout much of the Gilded Age. So if you were a factory worker and you got hurt on the job through no fault of your own but could not go back to work, oh well. Hopefully there was someone to assist you. If you did stay healthy into old age, hopefully you had a child or someone else to take care of you once you were too old to work since people did not have retirement accounts and stock options. If not, you worked until you died or starved once you could not work anymore. What was the government’s role in all of this? Nothing. The predominant feeling at the time was that the government should mind its own business and leave business alone, a theory referred to as laissez-faire. To put it simply, if you weren’t rich, there was a good chance life sucked.
As the Gilded Age progressed and a middle class emerged, things did gradually get better for the working class, and the government found itself more and more involved in people’s welfare, but at the time that Bellamy wrote Looking Backward, things were still very rough for a good deal of the population, and many were looking to government intervention as one solution. The basic premise behind Bellamy’s novel is that his main character, Julian West, falls asleep in his basement in 1887 (he may or may not have been a little medicated) and wakes up in the year 2000. His house has been destroyed and a new residence built on top of it. I understand this is fiction and Bellamy was trying to make a point, but the truly remarkable thing was that no one in the future was surprised to see this guy who had been asleep for over one hundred years. They even made him a history teacher at the end of the book since he had first hand experience with the past. Bellamy was apparently trying to get the ladies to read his book as well; he even worked a love story into the mix.
Essentially the recreated society that West woke up in is what we would refer to now as socialism, even though Bellamy never referred to it as such. He instead used the term Nationalism, but the effect is the same. There was very little, if any, private ownership of anything, and all production was organized by a central body. Everyone specialized in some aspect of the economy and worked for the good of the community in what was basically an industrial army. No one was in need of any basic necessities, and there were a few luxuries that people could save up for and purchase with credits.
This may sound like a step backward in many ways to Americans today, but in 1888 when the book was published, this image of the world sounded ideal to many of those workers with meager wages and no help at all coming from the government. Within a short time of Looking Backward’s publication, there were over 150 “Bellamy Clubs” set up across the country to help foment some change in society at large. Though Bellamy’s future never came, he did inspire other groups and individuals during the time and after to reform society, the economy, and the government.
What moral (if any) can we take away from this tale? Don’t medicate yourself and fall asleep in the basement or you might end up as a history teacher in a socialist society 120 years later.