Arguing in utopia : Edward Bellamy, nineteenth century utopian fiction, and American rhetorical culture



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As Aristotle wrote, rhetoric is an art or faculty of finding the available means of persuasion in a given circumstance, and the late nineteenth century was a time in American history when many authors used utopian fiction as the best available means of persuasion. For a few years, the utopian novel became a widespread, versatile and common rhetorical trope. Edward Bellamy was the most popular of these writers. Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward was not only the third best-selling book of nineteenth century America, it inspired over a hundred other utopian novels and helped create a mass movement of “Bellamy clubs” along with a political party (Nationalism). During the latter part of the nineteenth century, American public discourse underwent a general shift from a focus on communal values to a focus on individuals as the source of truth. Utopian fiction of the era helps illuminate why and how this shift occurred. In nineteenth century America, literature was generally not considered to be rhetorical. At most, critics treated fiction as a form of epideictic rhetoric, aiming only to delight, educate, or create discussion. When fiction was used to promote legislative agendas and thus entered into the realm of deliberative rhetoric, critics argued that its transgression of rhetorical boundaries supposedly ruined its appeal. Utopian literature came the closest to breaking down the barriers between literature and rhetoric, as hundreds of utopian novels were published, most of them in response to Edward Bellamy. A close rhetorical reading of Looking Backward details its rhetorical nature and helps account for its rhetorical success. I treat each of the novels as participants in the larger cultural conversation, and detail the ways in which they address Bellamy, each other, and issues such as the temperance movement and the decline of classical languages in higher education. In modern times, though Bellamy has faded from the public memory, he has proven useful in a variety of contexts, from a political punching bag to a way to lend an air of erudition to various types of popular fiction.