While Edward Bellamy’s best-known work focuses on the future, he was also interested in the past. Nearly a decade before the publication of Looking Backward, he wrote a novel that challenged the generally accepted narrative about a turbulent time in American history and served as an allegory for the economic struggles of the present day. What was it, and what made it significant?
Economically, the 1870s were a difficult time in the United States, and the country spent several years in a depression. Strikes became regular occurrences as workers fought for better wages, with some turning violent; in 1877, federal troops were called out to end what would become known as the Great Railroad Strike, which took place in multiple cities throughout the country.1 Some people couldn’t help but compare this troubling period to the economic and political unrest of the late 1780s that led to the writing of the Constitution. The editors of the Great Barrington, Massachusetts newspaper, the Berkshire Courier, were among those individuals, as was Edward Bellamy.
In 1879, the Courier published a serial novel that Bellamy had written titled The Duke of Stockbridge. Set during Shays’s Rebellion, it told the story of a veteran of the Revolutionary War who led a group of men in armed rebellion against taxes, debt collectors, and the local courts. In their introduction to the novel’s first installment, the editors wrote:
[W]e have evidence enough that debt, poverty, and non-employment have lost none of their maddening influence upon the hearts and brains of working-men. The parallel extends even to the very schemes and theories by which the agitations of today, encourage and delude their followers, most of which are merely the revamped ideas of Shays and his lieutenants.2
As historians had generally taken the same negative view of the aggrieved Shaysites3 since a history of the events was written in 1788, the editors expected that Bellamy’s story would be an allegory written in the same vein. However, the writer had other ideas.
In retelling the events of the rebellion that took place in Berkshire County, Bellamy grounded his story in historical accuracy. Many of the characters were real people (his great-great grandfather, the minister Joseph Bellamy, even gets a mention), and he traveled to the Berkshires for research. The language, mores, superstitions, and religious beliefs portrayed in the novel are also generally correct for the time. More importantly, however, Bellamy took the time to explain the motives of the rebels, which were often overlooked or overshadowed in other retellings.4
While none of the characters are terribly well developed, they are also not categorized as simply good or bad. Bellamy generally portrays the rebels as desperate to improve their quality of life, and the well-off businessmen and government officials are obstacles to this goal. However, he also describes the drunken, disorderly conduct of some of the rebels and their disrespect for those who oppose their efforts. His more balanced view of events contribute to a strong narrative and even convinced the editors of the Courier to rethink their position:
Mr. Bellamy has seen more clearly than many historians and not a few political economists where to place the blame for the cruel misery that he depicts. […] While never permitting us to sympathize with the crude notions, dissolute ways and bloody designs of the armed mob, he does not let us lose sight of the facts that these are but the outgrowths of an ignorance and despairing poverty that the more favored families, and even the christian [sic] church, had taken absolutely no pains to alleviate.5
In the end, the writer who would later lead thousands to believe in his vision for the future successfully brought others to acknowledge a more complicated past.
- Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987) 15-6.
- Berkshire Courier quoted in Joseph Schiffman, Introduction, The Duke of Stockbridge by Edward Bellamy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1962) viii.
- “Shaysites” was the name given to participants in the rebellion, after leader Daniel Shays.
- Schiffman, The Duke of Stockbridge, ix, xix, xxiii-xxiv.
- Berkshire Courier quoted in Schiffman, The Duke of Stockbridge, xi.