looking backward


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.

more from Ben Tarnoff at Lapham’s Quarterly here.