Young West: A Sequel to Looking Backward (1894)
Young West is one of more than 40 direct sequels or responses to Edward Bellamy’s hugely influential 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward 2000 – 1887.
I initially acquired this book because of its unique page treatment, as described on the publisher’s title page:
Is it not a deplorable fact that while reading invigorates the mind, if weakens the eyes? Or, that in the same proportion as the art of reading has spread and has become universal, eye-glasses have come into common use? Can nothing be devised to aid the eye or at least relieve part of the strain to which it is subjected? […]
How refreshing, when after reading for some hours we lift the eye to the blue heavenly clouds, or allow it to roam over the green expanse of field and forest. In eye infirmaries, we are told, yellow is a favorite color, expected to soothe the nerves of the eye.
Upon this valuable advice we have printed this book at an increased expense with
in three colors. The purchaser can choose either the blue or green or yellow tint, as he thinks either of these colors best fitting to the condition of his eyes.
And indeed, editions of the book were available with margins in one of these three colors:
Interviewed in the Boston Evening Transcript just prior to Young West’s publication, the author Solomon Schindler said, “All printing now is in black and white. Nature shows this is unnatural. If you look about you, you see at once there’s color everywhere. We have made a study of the prevailing colors, and so the different copies of my book will have borders of blue or of green or of yellow. Each purchaser will be left to decide the color that is considered preferable.” He added that the book was delayed because the first printing did not work, and today in some editions the colors are so faded it’s hard to tell which version they represent.
Though the colorful margins were a gimmick, the novel itself is quite good, and in many ways is unique among utopian books of its time.
The life and times of Julian West Junior
Bellamy’s original constituted a template that many successor or imitative utopian novels would follow: a man from the miserable present is transported (or falls asleep, or tumbles into a hole) and ends up in a glorious socialist future (or interior of the hollow earth, or Mars). The bulk of such stories is a long dialogue between the protagonist and one or more helpful utopian guides. Typically, nothing much happens.
In Looking Backward, this protagonist is Julian West, who falls asleep (in a hole!), wakes up in Boston in the year 2000, and is introduced to the future by a Dr. Leete. Dr. Leete has a daughter Edith—improbably she is the great-granddaughter of Julian West’s former fiance—and West marries her at the conclusion of the book.
Schindler picks up the story a few years later: Julian West has died of “exhausted vitality” two years into his marriage to Edith Leete. He is survived by a son, and the novel is the first-person life story of Julian “Young” West Jr., from birth to retirement. Young West is born in his father’s city of Boston (which Schindler inexplicably renamed “Atlantis”) and eventually travels across the continent and around the world. He is shadowed all his life by the fame and recognition of his father, about whom he is largely incurious, and gripes throughout that he is known as “Young West” well into his 80s
Despite being a sequel, Young West does not follow the plot contrivences established by Looking Backward. There is no proxy for the 19th century reader, no character to be astonished by the wonders of clean streets or universal public education. We instead follow Young West through his society’s boarding schools, his public service in the “industrial army”, and his eventual assumption of the presidency from the point of view of someone who has never known another way of life.
Solomon Schindler (1842–1915)
Schindler came to the United States as a German-speaking Jewish immigrant from Neisse (now part of Poland) in 1871. He was penniless but responsible for a young family, and settled in Boston as the reluctant lead rabbi of the Reform Temple Israel. Through most of his life he believed that American Jews should radically assimilate: he held his religious services on Sunday rather than Saturday, added a choir and organ, and advocated for interfaith marriage. (His grand synagogue on Columbus Avenue would itself be assimilated as a house of worship for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.) Eventually his reforms outstripped the zeal of his congregation and they parted ways. Schindler remained active in social and political life, though in 1911, at age 69, he re-addressed his old congregation and cast his radical views as a “mistake”.
His entrance into utopian writing came with his 1888 German translation of Looking Backward. Then in 1890 he wrote a “letter” from Dr. Leete to Julian West, in which Bellamy’s protagonist is hectored for his nineteeth century thinking. Schindler would expand on this inability for the past to connect with the future in Young West.
Ambivalent about all religion at the time, Schindler did not envision utopia as a Christian paradise and felt free to reshape Bellamy’s future to fit his own ideas. Young West reads a bit of the Bible but also the Vedas and the Quran and find all of them equally lacking. Bellamy cared little for the world outside of the U.S., but as an immigrant himself Schindler has his protagonist travel in an “aeroplane” (actually more of a slow-moving blimp) to the continent-states of Europe, Africa, and Asia, where he converses with world leaders in the universal language of Volapük. (The latter two states are predictably and unfortunately described as being backward relative to America and Europe.)
A perfect form of government does not free people from heartache or the vagaries of Mother Nature, and Young West must endure unrequited love, weather-related disasters, and even a global pandemic which they can only mitigate rather than cure:
Travel almost entirely ceased; intercommunication between the nations was practically cut off, excepting the aid which one country brought to another.
Had such evils befallen the inhabitants of this globe during my father’s time, when every one cared only for himself, and every member of society stood in a continuous warfare with his next-door neighbor for the support of life, a panic would have broken out; in the attempt to preserve life, suffering would have been greatly increased, and, panic-stricken, the human hand would have blindly destroyed what the evil forces of nature had left untouched. Only because we stood together in these disastrous days; only because the feeling of brotherhood united all the inhabitants of the earth, were we able to recover from all these misfortunes with less loss of life and property than would have been the case otherwise.
Young West first falls for a talented musician, who finds him amusing but ultimately friend-zones him. He eventually marries the more suitable Emily, who complements his skills and is an effective citizen in her own right, as most women are: “Girls learned to handle hammer and chisel as well as the boys, while we boys learned how to thread and use a needle or set a table as well as the girls.”
Because children are reared entirely apart from their parents, West has only a distant fondness for his mother and siblings. Indeed a curious feature of a novel is the way Young West makes and loses friendships casually as he moves through the stages of life. “But what of it?” he retorts to the reader. “Why should we not feel affection for classmates even after one day’s acquaintance? As our experiences were identically the same, it took us but a very short time to come to a full understanding with a new companion.”
A 120 year-old spoiler alert
Young West consistently presents his society as near-perfect, but there’s a sense of emptiness that pervades the whole book and which foreshadows the novel’s surprising ending. In its final pages, West and his wife discover a journal entry from his father, in which the time-traveler admits his own doubts about perfection:
“The very absence of worry, of care, oppresses me, like a calm on the ocean oppresses the sailor.
I do not live—I vegetate.
I miss the shadow that relieves the dazzling light of virtue.”
Yet at the same time the father is clear-eyed about the century he left behind:
“Were I to praise the past at the expense of the present, were I to express a wish for the re-establishment of the former social order, I should be untrue; so am I untrue when I extol the present.”
Stuck between worlds, the Elder West concludes, “It is well for me to die.” And his son and daughter-in-law agree, choosing to destroy his confession rather than taint his memory in the eyes of their contemporaries:
We cut the paper into small pieces, opened the window, and in small portions we allowed the wind to carry over hill and dale the confessions of Julian West Senior.
Neither a true utopian nor dystopian conclusion, this is a twist that presages the ambiguous utopia of Le Guin. (It’s a wonder Schindler thought to seek Bellamy’s approval for his subversive take and no surprise that Bellamy thought it might embarrass him.) The reader is left to realize that Young West was, at best, an unreliable narrator—a man with shallow friendships and few challenges who found happiness in a world absent of our greatest flaws, but who was no better equipped to pass judgment on it than his ill-fated father.
References and further exploration
Young West: A Sequel to Looking Backward by Solomon Schindler (green margins)
Hayes, Kevin J. The Future of the Book: Images of Reading in the American Utopian Novel, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Oxford University Press, 2022.
Mann, Arthur. “Solomon Schindler: Boston Radical.” The New England Quarterly 23, no. 4 (1950): 453–76.
Nordstrom, Justin. “Looking Backward’s Utopian Sequels: ‘Fictional Dialogues’ in Gilded-Age America.” Utopian Studies 18, no. 2 (2007): 193–221.
———. “Unlikely Utopians: Solomon Schindler, Henry Mendes, and American Judaism in the 1890s.” Utopian Studies 20, no. 2 (June 2009): 275–97.
Stoddard, Roger E. “Vanity and Reform: B. O. Flower’s Arena Publishing Company, Boston, 1890-1896. With a Bibliographical List of Arena Imprints.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 76, no. 3 (1982): 273–337.
Wolfe, Ivan Angus. “Arguing In Utopia: Edward Bellamy, Nineteenth Century Utopian Fiction, and American Rhetorical Culture.” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin, 2009.