CRF Blog

Magical Thinking

by Bill Hayes

In Magical Thinking in Lapham’s Quarterly, Ben Tarnoff looks at the utopian bestseller from the late 19th century bestseller Looking Backward and what it tells us about that time.

Fiction rarely influences politics anymore, either because fewer people read it or because it has fewer things to say. Yet novels have affected America in large and unsubtle ways: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle shaped the contours of the national current no less profoundly than our periodic wars and bank panics. More recently, Ayn Rand’s tales of triumphant individualism, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, inspired a resilient strain of free-market fundamentalism that continues to color our economic life. A Russian immigrant who adored her adopted country, Rand strove to become American in all things, and in the process became an especially American sort of storyteller: the kind whose stories are a means to a social or political end. It’s an honored tradition in American writing, one that acquits fiction of its perennial charge of uselessness by making it practical, identifying problems and offering solutions—pragmatic books for the purpose of the country’s self-improvement.

Few novels have sought to improve America as radically as Edward Bellamy’s bestseller Looking Backward, 2000-1887, published in 1888. Bellamy, like Rand, used fiction to popularize a philosophy, and with comparable results: Looking Backward sold nearly half a million copies in its first decade and appeared in several languages around the world. The book found many prominent admirers, among them Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan—the latter borrowed the language of his Cross of Gold speech from the novel’s final chapter. It inspired a political movement called Nationalism and energized generations of American progressives, from populists to New Dealers. More than a century later, it remains an indispensable zeitgeist book, an X-ray of the American body politic during the violent creation of modern industrial society, when many different futures felt possible. [more]