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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 801

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This is the grave of Edward Bellamy.

Born in 1850 in Chicopee, Massachusetts, Bellamy grew up in what is best described as an upper-middle class religious household. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother had that on her side too. He attended public schools and then went to Union College in Schenectady, New York. He sort of drifted around though. He only stayed at Union for a year. He managed to get to Europe and spent a good bit of time in Germany. He came back to the U.S. and started studying for the law. But that didn’t go anywhere either. So he started working as a journalist. He wrote for the New York Post for a short time and then went home to work for the Springfield Union.

However, Bellamy developed the vile illness that was just so overwhelmingly common in these years: tuberculosis. He was 25 years old when he received this diagnosis. So a long life was probably out of the cards. He needed to rest and take care of himself. He went to Hawaii in 1877 so he could recover in a warm climate. This is an interesting choice at the time, when there weren’t that many white Americans in Hawaii other than sugar planters and missionaries. But he came back to the states in 1878, got married and had children. He had to support them but also couldn’t work hard. So instead of working as a journalist, Bellamy attempted to make a living as a novelist.

Supporting yourself as a novelist wasn’t any easier in the 1880s than it is today. Plus Bellamy really wasn’t anything special as a stylist. He published his first book in 1878 and then a few more after that. They didn’t sell well because they were just unremarkable in all ways.

But this was the Gilded Age. Americans were trying to figure out what the heck had happened to their country. The promises of free labor and industrial capitalism were shown to be lies. But people really, really, really wanted to believe in them, especially native-born whites. So they assumed the system itself was as strong as ever, governed by natural law basically, but that things had gotten slightly out of whack. If only this one thing could be fixed, then the equilibrium would again distribute wealthy relatively equally among hard-working white men. This could lead to all sorts of one-off ideas to fix the economy and nation. The Chinese Exclusion Act was heavily influenced by this idea, in this case that if you got rid of the Chinese that white labor would again take their proper place in society. Henry George‘s Single Tax plan was definitely part of this. So was the Knights of Labor and the focus on the 8-hour day, though this at least was a good idea.

But no one responded to all this in a way that more influenced Americans than Edward Bellamy. In 1888, he published Looking Backward, 2000-1887. This ridiculous story is of a man who is put under hypnosis in 1887 in Boston. He wakes up 113 years later. And society has changed dramatically. All the economic and social problems are solved. Moreover, they aren’t just solved, but it happened through everyone realizing it was their interests to do so in a cooperative manner, without any messy revolutions or violence. The novel primarily consists of the lead character interviewing people at the time to get their feelings about the changes. This means that chapters start with lines such as “What about the labor question?” which then led to long discussions about how workers and employers realized they had the same interests and put aside all that exploitation and all those unions. A sort of cooperative socialism has resulted, though Bellamy never wanted to call it that.

Basically, Looking Backward is a vision of politics without politics. And it was just what Americans wanted to hear. They wanted that perfect society. But they didn’t want to admit that it would take political struggle to achieve it. The cooperative commonwealth then became the most popular idea of the Gilded Age. Although published in 1888, by 1900 it was the third best selling book by American writer in the 19th century, only behind Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur. Over 200,000 copies sold in the first year. Hundreds of thousands of additional copies were sold in Europe.

Bellamy himself was a bit taken aback and didn’t see himself as any sort of political leader. But people started Nationalist Clubs (Bellamy’s preferred term instead of socialism) around the nation. At least 162 of them existed by 1891. Bellamy naturally decided to take advantage of his newfound fame and wealth. He started a magazine, The New Nation, to promote his ideas in real time. He was close to the Populists and worked hard to help their cause. The magazine itself went under in 1894, but still was an influential publication of the time. He also started working on a sequel. Equality came out in 1897 and was not the success of Looking Backward, but was still a big seller to those who believed in his ideas. Moreover, his influence was really quite strong until the 1930s, when the Great Depression finally forced people to realize that their cooperative fantasies were never coming to fruition and people needed politics to achieve change.

I once framed a course on the Gilded Age by having the students read Looking Backward to start the course. They hated it and me for the rest of the semester. It was probably the least effective course I’ve ever taught. To be fair, it is almost unreadable, though I still use excerpts in classes today.

Bellamy’s hard work promoting his ideas did not help his consumption. He died of it in 1898. He was 48 years old.

Edward Bellamy is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Chicopee, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other 19th century writers no one reads anymore, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lew Wallace is in Crawfordsville, Indiana and Bret Harte is in Frimley, England. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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