Whitewashing the Future

4 Feb

Strictly from a reader’s point of view, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy has as its central drawback that common to utopian fiction, a lack of conflict in the story-line.  In a sense, this only reinforces the presumption of the truth quality of the narrative; if that described is merely a story, then the author would be bound to follow the conventions of stories and make it as interesting as possible.  By sticking to intricate travelogue (or in the case of Bellamy’s future United States, the Econo-logue), the narrator sticks to one solid, if unexceptional, trick, the gradual discovery of an alternate system for how things work in an ideal society, and the serious tone reinforces the quality of didacticism.  As Wegner points out, the process of mapping this previously unknown territory is central to the experience.

Two particular elements of Wegner’s commentary drew my attention to portions of Looking Backward that reflect on my personal interests.   In “Writing the New American (Re)Public,” he discusses how Bellamy espoused a popular sentiment where “assimilation was the only proper response to the present crisis of diversity besetting the American nation” (73).  The indication is that the bourgeoisie is the target goal into which all classes should morph since the entirety of the future society is based upon the pleasures of consumption.  Wegner goes to lengths to point out the generic face put on the labor involved in the productions of the products and services consumed by Future America, noting their invisibility.  Assimilation paired with invisibility suggests not so much issues of class to me as it does issues of race.  Charles Chesnutt, African-American contemporary to Bellamy, wrote “I see an epoch in our nation’s history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, molded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals” (93).   Chesnutt also looked to economics to provide the impetus to opening doors across society.  The question that comes to my mind is this: could a nineteenth century gentleman such as Julian West encounter a racially integrated society in the future and not comment on it, regardless of his own personal feelings, broad-minded or not?  It seems much more likely that this utopia was of the old Hollywood style, by whites for whites, where color has as conveniently disappeared as Wegner demonstrates labor has.

The second element comes from “Space and Modernity.”  In it, Wegner associates the birth and continuation of the genre of utopian fiction with moments of social trauma.  For instance, Thomas More originates the genre at the moment of the final shift from feudal to capitalist socio-economics, the shift from a “catholic” religion to individuated ones.  Recently, I was reading Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in 19th Century British Literature by Andrew Miller, and it provided the most convincing and comprehensive overview  (from a literary point of view – of course, the only one that is real to me) of the stress incurred in the shifting social outlook of the Victorians that I have ever encountered.  In particular, however, Miller provides a justification for the development of the internal life as a narrative tool, admittedly a model that does not resemble reality, because of the need, the craving for guidance that the pressures of the industrial age were invoking in everyone.  The result is that virtually no portion of literature fails to encompass this, either as direct didacticism or as a negative example, both with the same purpose.

To put these two elements together, briefly, I might suggest that the bleaching of the future that seems implicit in Bellamy’s work serves the overall purpose of reassuring his so stressed readership while guiding them.  This reassurance is only enhanced by glossing over an element of reality that does not necessarily fit.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “Race Prejudice: Its Causes and Its Cure.” Selected Writings. Ed. Sallyann H. Ferguson. Boston: Houghton, 2001. Print.

Miller, Andrew. Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in 19th Century British Literature. Cornell UP, 2008. ebrary. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.

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