It may strike some as strange that Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward, was the second-best-selling novel of 19th-century America (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin). After all, its idealized vision of Boston in the year 2000, with citizens organized into a compulsory industrial army and living a blissfully regimented life, would seem an unlikely candidate to capture the hearts and minds of Bellamy’s putatively individualist American readers. No less strange is that the novel was the work of a quiet, polite sometime-newspaperman and former lawyer who had spent most of his life in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
His experience in Chicopee, most critics agree, was central to Bellamy’s vision of the future. But according to Mullin, a professor of urban planning at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, it wasn’t the town they think it was. Bellamy (1850–98) said he saw his boyhood hometown transformed from a New England village where “everyone who was willing to work was sure of a fair living” into something very different. But that can’t be true, Mullin says. Following the mill town model that had transformed Waltham, Lowell, and Holyoke, the Boston Associates company began to build an array of vast textile mills along the Chicopee River in 1822, nearly 30 years before Bellamy was born. By 1885, when he began working on his famous novel, Chicopee had become the sixth largest town in Massachusetts.
Bellamy wrote Looking Backward in his 15-room Greek Revival house on a hilltop overlooking the mills. “His involvement with local citizens was, at best, minimal,” writes Mullin. He seemed to live the quiet life of a country squire. (Yet in Boston, which he visited frequently, his debates and discussions were “renowned.”) The son of a Baptist minister whose downtown landholdings yielded a comfortable income, Bellamy had had a short-lived career as a lawyer, and then as a reporter for The New York Evening Post. He returned to Chicopee by the time he was 22, worked for a local newspaper, and eventually cofounded the local Daily News.
Bellamy’s hilltop perch put him in the perfect position to “be a dispassionate reporter and observer of the community,” Mullin says. What he saw was social upheaval—the spread of wretched tenements, outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases, and shocking examples of intemperance by the immigrant population. Those who were without work lived in hovels, barely staving off starvation. The 1870s saw a steady series of “strikes, booms, panics, recoveries, and depressions.”
Yet Bellamy also found himself fascinated both by the awesome extent of the mill complex, with its rationally designed streets and production processes, and by the military-like discipline of the workers as they changed shifts, walking to and from their nearby homes “in virtual lock step.” It is here, speculates Mullin, that “one can see the precursor of his concept of an industrial army.”
Bellamy was not alone in trying to predict what would emerge from America’s industrial turmoil; the same period saw other utopian works from Mark Twain, Ignatius Donnelly, and William Dean Howells. But Bellamy’s vision captured the nation’s imagination like no other. This quiet man living on a Massachusetts hilltop was widely seen as a prophet—his ideas helped inspire the Populist Party, whose candidate won more than a million votes in the 1892 presidential election. Bellamy, however, would not live to see the new century. Tuberculosis claimed him at his Chicopee home in 1898.