Best known for his novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy, like many other notable authors of his time, began his career in fiction by writing short stories. He continued to produce short stories even as his novels brought increasing success, publishing a total of 23 between 1875 and 1889. What made this form of storytelling appealing to both writers and the American public, and how did Bellamy use it to build his own career? An 1885 essay published in Lippincott’s Magazine and the contents of Bellamy’s short stories offer some clues.
In the 19th century, short stories were often published in magazines, which looked different from the magazines of today. Even at the time that Bellamy was writing, circulation of national magazines was limited to those who were able to afford up to 35 cents per copy (a copy of the New York World, by contrast, cost only a penny in 1885). It wasn’t until the advent of new printing technology, an expanding middle class audience, and an increase in advertising in the 1890s that magazine prices were lowered to as little as five or ten cents.1 The audience for which Bellamy was writing in the 1870s and 1880s, therefore, was assumed to be comfortably situated and have discerning literary tastes.
An essay titled “The Philosophy of the Short-Story” by writer and future professor of literature Brander Matthews describes the characteristics of a successful American short story. Published in Lippincott’s Magazine in October of 1885, the piece explains that shorter fiction allows for more freedom of expression, as novels generally require an element of romance to hold readers’ attention. It goes on to say that writers of short stories must be concise and have originality and ingenuity, and, if they “also add a touch of fantasy, so much the better.”2 Focusing on “a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation,” a successful short story is a stand-alone narrative about a unified theme.3
While some of Bellamy’s short stories are light romances or are drawn from personal experiences, others are reflections on more serious subjects that range from sacrifice to social class—topics that are addressed in some way in Looking Backward. “The Cold Snap,” Bellamy’s first published story, for example, describes how a family comes together to help each other through a particularly difficult bout of cold weather. “Extra-Hazardous,” published in 1877, raises issues of social class and guilt associated with owning property, and “Jane Hicks,” published in 1879, describes the rewarding feeling that comes from doing good deeds, as well as the working and living conditions of factory workers.4 Each of these stories focuses on a topic that, according to Matthews, would not have worked as the sole theme of a successful novel, yet Bellamy incorporated these ideas into his best known work after experimenting with them on a smaller scale.
Of course, not all of Bellamy’s stories center around the ideas on which he built his vision for a better society. “A Tale of the South Pacific,” for example, contains imagery from Bellamy’s own trip to Hawaii, and “A Superfluity of Naughtiness” (1877) and “That Letter” (1880) both reflect his feelings for the younger ward of his parents who would become his wife in 1882. (The first of these stories is about a man who elopes with his parents’ adopted daughter; the protagonist in the second marries a woman who is ten years younger than he.) Delving into the realm of science fiction, “The Blindman’s World” is about Martians who have no memory, only foresight, and a society of mind readers is the subject of “To Whom This May Come.”5 The variety in the concepts behind these stories seems to validate Brander Matthews’ assertion that creativity was a key feature of American short fiction.
Bellamy gave up writing short stories for good as Looking Backward and the ideas it presented continued to grow in popularity. Concerned that readers would overlook the deeper meaning in his stories—and that critics would take advantage of an opportunity to dismiss him as a writer of frivolous fiction—he instead chose to focus on projects such as his weekly newspaper, The New Nation, and, later, his sequel to Looking Backward.6 While his short fiction has not enjoyed the enduring popularity of stories by other 19th century writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Edgar Allan Poe, a closer look reveals an exploration of some of the themes found in his best known novel, as well as an image of a writer with wider-ranging interests than he is remembered for.
- Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communication (New York: Basic Books, 2004) 256, 260-261.
- Brander Matthews, “The Philosophy of the Short-Story,” Lippincott’s Magazine, October 1885, 367, in Hathi Trust, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b5213356 (accessed February 15, 2021).
- Ibid., 366.
- Fittingly, “An Echo of Antietam,” which was one of Bellamy’s last short stories, also focuses on sacrifice for the common good, using the bloodiest day of the Civil War as its setting. It was published in 1889, a year after Looking Backward. Sylvia Bowman, The Year 2000 (New York: Bookman Associates, 1958), 48, 101.
- Ibid., 34, 58, 60.
- Ibid., 44-45.