American Literature Edward Bellamy
Peggy Ann Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0182


Best known for his utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888), Edward Bellamy (b. 1850–d. 1898) authored short stories and novels that also explored social themes and employed similar literary devices. Bellamy was born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, which exhibited the class divisions and industrial problems that troubled the sensitive writer. His father was the town’s longtime Baptist minister, and his mother, a strict Calvinist, dreamed he would follow him into the ministry. Bellamy instead desired a military career but was devastated when his frail health ended his West Point ambitions. He next pursued a year-long independent study at Union College, followed by a year in Germany. Back home, he studied and then abandoned law, offended when his first case involved the eviction of a widow for failing to pay rent. Bellamy tried journalism, working at the New York Evening Post and then returning to Massachusetts to write editorials and book reviews for the Springfield Daily News. He and his brother Charles founded the Penny News, which covered their working class readers’ concerns. In 1875, his first short story appeared in Scribner’s Monthly. Over the next fourteen years he published twenty-two more stories and four novels before gaining worldwide fame with Looking Backward. His fiction attracted the attention of literary critic William Dean Howells, who compared him to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Bellamy combined realism and romanticism with psychological dilemmas in his writings, exploring themes of guilt, memory, and mortality. His unpublished writings, in particular “The Religion of Solidarity” (1874), outline his belief in human nature’s struggle between individuality and brotherhood. Married in 1882, he began writing Looking Backward four years later, intending to describe a better world for his children. Bellamy’s depiction of a future society characterized by economic equality and wondrous inventions captivated readers weary of the negative impact of urbanization and industrialization. Historians estimate that two million people had read the novel by 1891. Named after Bellamy’s social plan, more than 165 Nationalist Clubs sprung up to promote the novel’s reforms. An active Nationalist speaker, Bellamy refined his utopian vision in response to criticism of the novel and the movement’s association with the Populist Party. In 1897 he published Equality, a less popular sequel that offered dry details on his new society. His lifelong battle with tuberculosis ended months later. Although Bellamy’s popularity faded in the early 1900s, later economic crises revived interest in his ideas, which continue to be debated.

General Overviews

Towers 1982 is a standard reference work providing biographical details and context for Looking Backward. Rosemont 1979 is a good introduction to the author, themes in his writings, and Responses to Looking Backward. Widdicombe and Preiser 2002 go beyond the basics by reprinting fiction and nonfiction works not readily available. See also MacDonald 2003 (cited in Looking Backward, 2000–1887) for an especially comprehensive edition of the novel, including biographical and historic context and excerpts from additional works by Bellamy and his contemporaries.

  • Rosemont, Franklin. “Free Play and No Limit: An Introduction of Edward Bellamy’s Utopia.” Cultural Correspondence 10–11 (Fall 1979): 6–16.

    Thorough introduction to Bellamy and his writings, also discussing the Nationalist movement and Bellamy’s influence at home and abroad. Responds to detractors’ comments and criticisms, emphasizing that many have ignored Bellamy’s more revolutionary views. Identifies themes in earlier works and their inclusion in Looking Backward.

  • Towers, Tom H. “Edward Bellamy (26 March 1850–22 May 1898).” In American Realists and Naturalists. Vol. 12, Dictionary of Literary Biography. Edited by Donald Pizer and Earl N. Herbert, 14–23. Detroit: Gale, 1982.

    Accessible biography and discussion of Bellamy’s Novels. Provides economic and social context that help explain Looking Backward’s popularity. While acknowledging the novel’s impact and status as one of the country’s best known utopias, Towers is dismissive of Bellamy’s other novels. Somewhat dated in its assessment that his earlier works show little of his later social consciousness. Available through subscription database Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete online.

  • Widdicombe, Toby, and Herman S. Preiser, eds. Revisiting the Legacy of Edward Bellamy (1850–1898), American Author and Social Reformer: Uncollected and Unpublished Writings, Scholarly Perspectives for a New Millennium. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

    Especially useful for researchers who want to delve more deeply into Bellamy’s writings. Reprints short stories and newspaper articles for the first time since their original publication and offers insights from previously unpublished biographical essays and Bellamy’s personal notebooks. Examines the development of themes important to Looking Backward and Equality, including feminism and economic equality. Includes an update of Widdicombe 1988 in Bibliographies and critical essays on Bellamy, including several that discuss his current significance.

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