Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward 2000-1887" remains the most successful and influential utopian novel written by an American writer mainly because the competition consists mostly of dystopian works, from Jack London's "The Iron Heel" to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," or science fiction works like Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Dispossessed." Still Bellamy's 1888 novel doesn’t get this honour by default. Magazine covers in 1984 were devoted to judging the track record of George Orwell's dystopian classic and Bellamy deserves the same sort of consideration now that we have reached the 21st century.
At the end of the 19th century Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy's protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000 (hence the novel's sub-title). Finding himself a century in the future in the home of Doctor Leete, West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy's sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period.
This rich, multi-faceted novel can be used successfully in a variety of courses. Younger students are fascinated with the time travel aspect as well as the predictions about Julian West's future, which is the contemporary reader's present. Older students are able to explore the frame structure and intricacies of Bellamy's themes.
Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) is also of compelling interest to students who enjoy biographical criticism. Attorney, newspaper reporter, novelist, and social activist, Bellamy enjoyed such a success in his own time that utopian societies formed after the publication of Looking Backward.