How much does literature matter? Literature develops empathy, and it acts as a repository for cultural and social history. It also provides, through its very fictionality, a kind of truth—what William Faulkner called the truths of the human heart, the old universal truths which are love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Slavery
A classic example of literature that had a real-world impact was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s tremendously popular abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, serially published in 1851.
Though there are some differences of opinion among historians about the actual impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Civil War and the end of slavery in the U.S., Stowe’s novel is certainly a strong piece of evidence in support of the argument that literature does matter, that literature can change the course of history, whether dramatically or ever so slightly.
The Rise of Bellamy’s Utopian Society
It’s not actually that easy to accurately collate and calculate 19th-century book sales, because there are some differences of opinion. It might have been Ben Hur, but most historians think it was Edward Bellamy’s utopia Looking Backward, published in 1888. So whether Bellamy’s novel had an impact on the real world or not, it was very widely purchased and read.
Lots of people used to read it in Bellamy Clubs, or Nationalist Clubs, specialized book clubs that focused on actualizing the utopian ideas put forward in Bellamy’s book.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Bellamy’s Political Movement and Industrial Concern
Bellamy, who was a quiet, retiring man, started out writing a social fantasy rather than a blueprint for political change, but he got caught up in political writing and activism with his novel’s unexpected popularity. He wrote for The Nationalist and The New Nation and even became involved in politics when the Nationalist movement began to support the People’s Party in the early 1890s.
Bellamy initially preferred to call the movement ‘nationalism’ rather than ‘socialism’ because, for him, socialism was freighted with foreign influences of the French and the Germans. But as more union leaders joined middle-class professionals in the movement, he did come to accept the term socialism.
Bellamy’s main concern in political action, as in the novel, was with sharing his analysis of the problems of what was becoming known as The Gilded Age, a period of rapid industrial expansion that also created an ever-widening income gap. And Bellamy’s analysis was to answer the income inequality, poverty, and crime. The answer for him was plain and simple—nationalizing industry.
Learn more about apocalyptic literature in the 21st Century.
Analyzing Bellamy’s Looking Backward
As a matter of fact, what makes Bellamy’s novel a true contender as a literary work with real-world impact are three features: one, euchronia; two, provocative metaphors; and three, explicit engagement with what was called the ‘Woman Question’.
Now, Looking Backward is technically a euchronia, meaning that it’s set in a different time rather than a different place. This is crucially important. In fact, there is no island of Utopia and no gorgeous tract of lush land called Eldorado.
Looking Backward isn’t set in an unfamiliar place to the reader or the main character—it’s set in Boston, in the exact same location where the main character, Julian West, goes into a mesmeric sleep one night in 1887 and wakes up in the Boston of the year 2000, not having aged a day. There he meets a doctor, the doctor’s wife, and the doctor’s beautiful, nubile daughter, who is named Edith, the name of his own betrothed from the 19th century.
Future Boston is definitely a time and place anyone might want to be since it has none of the rampant poverty, crime, or inequality that plagues the Boston of Victorian America. All this evidence suggests there’s a certain political energy to a euchronia. If the writer can sell a vision of the future to readers, they may be moved to act. In many ways, Looking Backward provides pretty typical utopian fare.
Learn more about Yevgeny Zamyatin and dystopian uniformity.
Directions for the Utopian Genre
There is the well-known visitor trope, with Julian West finding himself completely defamiliarized when he awakes in a different society. He asks a lot of questions, often the same questions anyone might have as readers; he makes a lot of exclamations of disbelief; he recognizes that his own society is inferior to the utopia, and he falls in love. But the euchronia provides some important new directions for the utopian genre as well.
Because Julian is in an unfamiliar time instead of an unfamiliar place, the utopians—or euchronians—are more familiar with Victorian Boston than are the citizens of exotic utopias, who usually don’t really know that much about the utopian visitor’s European home.
This makes the social critique of the present doubly biting since it isn’t only Julian who realizes that his society is corrupt and inefficient. This judgment is confirmed by future historians who have thoroughly studied the 1880s, and who are nonetheless sometimes surprised by the depth of depravity revealed by Julian’s explanation of how a wealthy industrialist like himself once saw the world.
The euchronia also gives the novel a fair bit of narrative momentum. It contains some surprises, and actually one of the reasons this novel was so popular was because it’s more of a page-turner than a lot of the utopias of the day. But still, Julian’s disorientation, his romance with Edith, and the novel’s ending, all make it more than just a blueprint.
Common Questions about Literature, Edward Bellamy, and Utopian Activism
There is controversy among many historians about the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Civil War and the end of slavery in the U.S., but the novel is a strong piece of evidence in support of the argument that literature can change the course of history, whether dramatically or ever so slightly.
Edward Bellamy initially preferred to call the movement ‘nationalism’ rather than ‘socialism’ because, for him, socialism was freighted with foreign influences of the French and the Germans.
The Gilded Age was a period of rapid industrial expansion that also created an ever-widening income gap. Edward Bellamy’s analysis was to answer the income inequality, poverty, and crime with an answer that for him was plain and simple—nationalizing industry.