Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward—set in the year 2000—forecasted many things for the turn of the 21st century that we are still without: equality of the sexes, a classless society absent of war or crime, and the abandonment of capitalism, to start. Bellamy, however, was able to predict the future makeup of Washington Street between State and Temple: “Stores! Stores! Stores! miles of stores!”
The novel, written over the course of the 1880s and completed in 1887, tells the story of a young Bostonian, Julian West, who falls asleep toward the end of the 19th century and awakes in the year 2000 to find the world remade into a socialist utopia. Through dialogue with Dr. Leete, West comes to learn about the ways in which society has changed, ultimately all for the better. The novel’s title reflects West’s own process of looking backward at the ugliness of the 19th century and the growth of consumerism, capitalism, and the exploitation of laborers.
Though Bellamy was not the first to paint such a picture of the future—and had garnered only modest success up to the book’s publication—the novel sold half a million copies within five years, coming in behind only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur in the day. Clubs were established across the country to spread Bellamy’s message, which he called “Nationalism,” avoiding the associations of “socialism.” In the years following, dozens of unofficial sequels and responses were published.
A 1988 centennial review of the novel in the New York Times was entitled “We Have Seen the Future and It Didn’t Work.” Obviously, Bellamy’s utopia did not come to pass with the year 2000, but he did—in his own way—predict something like the telephone, online shopping, and the wholesale store. Of course, he also gave us a future vision of Washington Street:
“Interminable rows of stores on either side, up and down the street so far as I could see—scores of them, to make the spectacle more utterly preposterous, within a stone’s throw devoted to selling the same sort of goods. Stores! Stores! Stores!”