Sunday, October 29, 2017

Looking Backward and News From Nowhere : Studies in Utopian Literature

William Morris on Looking Backward 

     In William Morris’ review of Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s novel on Utopia, Morris focuses on Socialism, the political and economic system where social organization believes that the community as a whole must control production and exchange of goods and services. Although Morris does indeed recognize the romantic aspects in Looking Backward, he also touches on the importance of the novel, the hopefulness for change apparent regarding the popularity and sales of the book. Morris views Bellamy’s work as a wake-up call for humankind. 


     The central thesis of Morris in regards to Bellamy refers to socialists and non-socialists. Fictionalized as written in the year 2000, Looking Backward describes states of society after a period of evolution, a time of peace, when people began to realize that Socialism is only at its birth. Those that adhere to strict political parties recognize this; the public may not, thus setting a stage for the birth of a new system, often filled with strife. Morris brings up valid points in the dangers associated with Bellamy’s work, “It requires notice all the more because there is a certain danger in such books as this: a twofold danger; for there will be some temperaments to whom the answer given to the question ‘How shall we live then?” - Morris, Looking Backward, Commonweal.


     William continues to describe the dangers as pleasing and non-pleasing, meaning there will be those that will accept this book and its ideals as absolute fact even with errors and unrealistic suggestions and those that will inquire, including young Socialists, who will also accept the text as fact, yet question existence as a whole without hope. Morris suggests that when reading utopia, one must consider the author, their experiences, ideals, temperament and expression. An example of this is in regards to Bellamy’s style of writing. 


      In Looking Backward, the author constructed the book to speak to thousands of people; however, his temperament is one that is not modern, historic or artistic. This style suggests a semi change, or incomplete view of society. Bellamy proposes a world in which injustice, misery, and classes no longer exist and that ideal utopia is that of an industrious one only. Morris brings forth the ultimate debate. Can humankind overturn the machinery that controls society? 


     Morris continues to relay his dissatisfaction with the focus of Looking Backward, meaning the point of change being that of industry and machinery. The focus on freedom, art, nature, respect and appreciation for the natural order of things is missing, “A far better hope to trust to is that men having once got it into their leads that true life implies free and equal life, and that is now possible of attainment, they will consciously strive for its attainment at any cost.”- Morris, Looking Backward, Commonweal. 


     Morris believes that Bellamy, in regards to his book, overlooks that when any peaceful cataclysmic change occurs the organization of life must be forefront. In Looking Backward, Bellamy does not provide a peaceful scheme, more a vengeful change bordering on Communism and Nationalism. This statement made by Morris relates to Bellamy’s proposal that every man is free to choose an occupation and work is not burdensome, yet strict massive armies are created based upon production to satisfy everyone no matter the cost, waste or outcome.  Morris concludes that Bellamy’s worldview is short sighted and his focus only relates to his own environment and not the entire world. 


     The central ideas in William Morris’ review of Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy are related directly to the book’s themes on utopia. Morris wrote his own book two years later, News From Nowhere, as a direct response to Bellamy’s work. Bellamy created a novel about transportation from the nineteenth century to the twenty first century. Julian West, the main character, or narrator, born into an aristocratic family, delves into financial class systems between the rich and poor, prevalent in the nineteenth century. West was considered above the rest of society due to his financial standing. The book begins with Julian’s awakening, one where he was asleep in suspended animation for over one hundred years.

     In Looking Backward, Bellamy examines variances in centuries focusing on themes of finance, societal standing and production. Metaphorically, the author describes how people allow themselves to be dragged within the confines of society similar to a traveling coach by stating, “Humanity is harnessed along hilly and sandy roads.” - Bellamy, Looking Backward

     In addition, people did not choose the way they lived, their careers, how labor and production was controlled. They simply followed what society required them to do. The author makes sure to exhibit the importance of delusion regarding finance by explaining that oftentimes the poor think that what the rich have is better.  Bellamy saw this delusion as mass hallucination and witnessed this in people that became prey to financial class and status.

      When referring to Morris’ review, it is plain to see in Bellamy’s work that Morris is correct in stating that Bellamy’s utopia falls short of the natural order of things. Bellamy does focus intently on societal structure, financial class and status, disregarding nature, the arts, and communication. In Chapter V of “Looking Forward, the first political themes are addressed between Julian and Dr. Leete, a twentieth century representative who discovered Julian after his “awakening.” The industrial change, “The Great Trust”, is a nationalistic viewpoint, meaning all capitol of the nation was consolidated and controlled by one group. Although there were no wars or public enemies, the people no longer had freedom or control over production or their lives. 

     Morris refers to Bellamy’s temperament in his review of Looking Backward as a reason for various themes in the book. In regards to Bellamy himself, not the author, both grandfather and father were ministers yet had to leave their chosen fields due to “unorthodox” positions each held regarding the Calvinist faith. This in turn pushed Bellamy towards a disdain for dogma. Bellamy felt religion did not properly address the needs of humanity and unsuitable living conditions on earth with a leap of faith in an afterlife full of rewards. 

     Bellamy’s issues with the human condition began early which is why he focused on a career advocating for reform. He attempted various careers with success, however, a journalist and writer proved to be most fulfilling. Bellamy’s own life experience does not compare with the ideals he presents in his novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy was able to choose his career and change it if he did not find pleasure. In his own fictional utopia, the nation controls these choices for the people. It is here where Morris is correct in stating that the temperament of the author must be considered when reading, Looking Backward

     In conclusion, both Bellamy and Morris present utopian worlds that speak to different groups of people, a socialist viewpoint and a nationalist viewpoint. Bellamy’s purpose for Looking Backward was to inform nineteenth century society about the pitfalls of society with a focus on industry while Morris decided to focus on choice and autonomy. Both novels are about social reform, justice and economic fulfillment, however, Morris is the only one to address pleasure and the natural order of existence. It is in this vein that Morris succeeds in reaching a utopia where more people will find happiness. While Bellamy is brilliant in introducing the book to a fictional twentieth century audience as if it were a historical frame of reference, Morris goes further and suggests that along with social reform, personal reform is paramount.

Works Cited

     Morris, William. Looking Backward, Commonweal. Vol 5, No. 180, 22 June 1889, p.194-195. The William Morris Internet Archive: Journalism.
     Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. 2000-1887. Signet Classics. 2009. Print.

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