Thursday, February 12, 2015

Isaac's Marriage Proposal

Ad from the local County Capital 
When the copy of Edward Bellamy's book, Looking Backward, arrived, Isaac Werner entered in his journal his enjoyment of reading about the main character, Julian West, who awakens in the year 2000, after having been put into a deep sleep in 1887 by a hypnotist.  When the fictional West makes his way up the cellar stairs of his former townhouse, he discovers a greatly changed world.  Isaac writes in his journal that he had to laugh out loud as West encountered baffling social changes, including the fact that women, rather than men, were the ones that extended marriage proposals in the year 2000.

The picture at right taken from the local paper to which Isaac subscribed (and in which his articles were frequently published), shows what a well-attired bride of Isaac's time might have chosen for her wedding.

What impressed Isaac about Bellamy's novel, however, were the descriptions of the amazing new world, with inventions such as credit cards, shopping malls, and electronic broadcasting imagined by Bellamy when the novel was published in 1888 and incorporated into his futuristic world of 2000.

Edward Bellamy at time of  Looking Backward
Bellamy's novel was first published in Jan. 1888 by Ticknor and Company, but Houghton, Mifflin and Company bought Ticknor, and Bellamy had the opportunity to make revisions for their 2nd edition published that same year.  Most modern editions use the second version.

The novel was issued during the Gilded Age, when great disparity existed between the wealthy and the workers like Isaac, whether farmers, factory workers, miners, or other laborers.  (See "Isaac and the Plutocrats," blog archives at 4-5-2012.)  The society of 2000 that Bellamy envisioned was a nation with full employment, material abundance, and a social structure described as "Nationalism," in which all citizens enjoyed benefits on a more equal basis.  Bellamy treated women as equals to men, sharing the nation's work and being paid equally.

Several places in Isaac's journal his belief in women's equality is expressed, so it was to be expected that he would have approved of Bellamy's gender equality society.  He would also have approved of Bellamy's ideas for reducing the social extremes between abundance and want, with opportunity unlimited for those with ambition.  Isaac was not alone in his appreciation for Bellamy's theories.  Across the nation people were forming Nationalist Clubs, the first one having been formed in Boston late in 1888.  Eventually there were more than 160 clubs established for the purpose of implementing Bellamy's political ideas from Looking Backward as a national reality.

Isaac spoke at one of the Farmer's Alliance meetings, sharing some of Bellamy's ideas.  Apparently some of the ladies in attendance decided to tease Isaac about his enthusiasm for Bellamy by challenging him to allow the single ladies of the neighborhood the opportunity of changing Isaac's marital status from bachelor to husband.  Their teasing was published in the County Capital, but Isaac made no mention in his journal of any proposals from his female neighbors!

NPS Photo of Belleamy's house in Chicopee, MA
A few years ago when we were in New England, I hoped to visit Bellamy's house, operated by the National Park Service, but hours were limited and I could not arrange a visit.  Many people alive today have never heard of Edward Bellamy.  Some of his ideas were absorbed into the People's Party, of which Isaac was a member, (See "Politics and Wealth in Isaac's Day," 10-18-2012 in the blog archives), and some of those were adopted by the Democrats, especially FDR's New Deal.  In his own time, Bellamy was widely known, and at the end of the 19th century, only Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had sold more copies.  Although Bellamy is not widely known today, reviewer Cecelia Tichi believes that "A century after its publication, Looking Backward holds its own as a work of contemporary relevance."  She concludes her review this way:  "His novel engages the continuously vexed relation in American culture between abundance and want, between work and leisure, between ambition and opportunity, and between occupation and identity.  The novel also remains compelling because, in a sense, it speaks to the alchemist in us.  For Americans have never abandoned the mission to transform a gilded nation into an exemplary golden one." (From her Introduction to the 1986 Penguin Classics edition.)

(Each year near Valentine's Day I post a blog having to do with Isaac Werner's flirtations.  If you are curious about Isaac and the ladies in his life, you may go to the archives to read my annual Valentine's blogs.)


Talya Tate Boerner said...

Wow. This is fascinating. What a forward thinking author. This sci-fi is our truth. Now I must read this book.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

It was one of the books on my Millennium Great Books reading list, so I was familiar with it when Isaac mentioned it in his journal.