American literature over the course of the first century of its existence—give or take an extra decade or two at the end there—was composed within the purview of one dominant, overarching theme and purpose: establishing an American for the upstart country formed in the crucible of independence from its European roots while at the same time firmly grounded in the traditions and conventions of that ancestry. Like all journeys toward self-identity, that process of discovery ultimately yielded a personality based as much on myth as on any acknowledgment of deep-rooted truths. The succeeding century American literature—give or take another decade or two there at the end—has been a slowly evolving process of attempting to separate the truth from the myth and acknowledge those deep-rooted truths too painful or contrary to the ideal of the American Dream to deal with by writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In a very real and tactile sense, American literature can be divided into two almost chronologically equally eras: one-half driven by an urgent need to create a unique mythic character for America and one-half driven to tear that myth apart and reconstruct the American character based on truth. In the past century, America endured two World Wars and unnecessary long-term military engagements in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. This period also saw the country fall from the economic heights of the Roaring Twenties almost overnight with the 1929 stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression. Along with the hyper-paranoia marked by the Red Scare of the Cold War, the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, the final deconstruction of racist post-Reconstruction policies and the demand for equality for women, the 20th century can fairly be characterized as a period in which every single tradition and convention of morality, politics and economics which converged to create the myth was revealed as hollow. The credit for much of this progressive march forward can fairly be given to creative writers who used the power of the word through novels, plays, films, songs and other literary genres to push for recognition of the empty quality of many cherished ideals.
A fool’s errand is the only apt description for the task that calls for isolating one singular piece of literature as the defining point of the divergence between the two eras. Nevertheless, if one were to pursue the folly of tracking down an individual tome after which all American literature changes, one could certainly make an exponentially more foolish choice than the nearly forgotten second-best selling American novel of the 19th century penned by a remarkably little-known author named Edward Bellamy. Even the title of this fascinating and remarkably prescient example of utopian fiction fits perfectly within the context of a distinctive division within the history of American literature: Looking Backward: 2000-1887.
The title of Bellamy’s novel derives from the structure he chose to present his 1880s American readers with the portrait of the future of the great experiment in the rule of the people as described by one of their very own who had seen the future for himself. Almost certainly one of the inspirations for the animated series Futurama, Looking Backward 2000-1887 is about a man who falls asleep in the late 1880s and does not wake up again until more than a century has passed. The American that Bellamy’s protagonist wakes up to is as different from the one in which he wrote as it is similar to the one in which we live today. Among the familiar aspects that Bellamy predicted for the America of the 21st century are items that bear a distinct similarity to debit cards, giant warehouse stores and treating criminal behavior as health problems; all taking place within an overarching context in which the primary agency of remaking the American myth into the genuine American character is the elimination of economic inequality.
The agency for protecting this utopian vision of an American in which the themes of equality outlined in the Bill of Rights become actualized is a well-regulated militia called the Worker’s Army which exists not for the imperialist spread of democracy around the world, but to ensure the continuation of a government that has adopted an ideology based on the rejection of the excesses of capitalism. The ideals constructed as the American identity in the literature written before Looking Backward: 2000-1887 becomes in Bellamy’s vision a rejection of the Great American Individualist Myth as it transforms into a concept of paradise found through communal effort and collectivist reward. In a genuinely accurate manner, Bellamy’s runaway best-seller becomes the book that kicks off the 20th century literary insurrection against a century of mythologizing America to reconstruct the country’s identity based on its authentic greatness which is only enhanced by the honest recognition of the most fractured aspects of its psyche.