“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”


Donnelly repeated the formula during six weeks of furious writing the following summer— Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel . “Remember then, in the discussions that follow,” he cautioned his readers, “that if the theories advanced are gigantic, the facts they seek to explain are not less so.” He contended that in Biblical times the earth passed through the tail of a great comet, picking up the deposits of clay, sand, and gravel which have otherwise been attributed to glacial action. His evidence came once more from Scandinavian, German, Saxon, and French folklore, all referring to a world catastrophe. Here also, he claimed, was the scientific explanation for the Book of Job, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the account of Joshua and the sun standing still. A broadside of geology and astronomy again supported the argument. Donnelly was the first in America to use this scatter-shot method of compiling evidence, a technique that in our own day still has the power to confound and irritate.

Donnelly’s lecture fees, added to the book royalties, assured him a modest but steady income. If he had been able to carry a tune, his voice would probably have been classed as baritone. It was well-modulated for speaking, however; it carried well and could survive as many as three two-hour speeches a day. It earned him, delivering one of five or six standard lectures, in the neighborhood of fifty dollars an appearance—plus train fare. Between 1870 and 1900, most of Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Iowa at one time or another turned out to hear him talk about “Wit and Humor,” “Atlantis,” “Ragnarok,” or “The Authorship of the Shakespeare Plays”—in the last of which, ever the heretic, he championed the cause of Francis Bacon.

Arm-waving, calisthenics, or bombast were not part of his speaking style; from a man five feet six inches tall and weighing 190 pounds, violent oratory would only have appeared ridiculous. He occasionally rested his hand inside his vest or bowed slightly to make a point. He wore a double-breasted frock coat, sometimes adorned in season by a sprig of lily of the valley in his boutonniere. Frequently he napped before his lectures; if he took coffee or tea he generally paid for it with a sleepless night. (Eventually he came to regard them both as “nerve poisons,” along with tobacco and alcohol.)

Donnelly regularly announced that he was through with politics, but he could not keep away from it. Disillusion with the railroads, lingering anger at the Republicans, and a growing and genuine awareness of the problems of the western farmer—all combined to involve him in public affairs, and enroll him among the voices of protest rising everywhere along the Middle Border.

Donnelly was one of the first to tell the farmer he should organize and vote as a single interest-group. By 1873—3 year of financial panic, plummeting farm prices, and abundant grasshoppers in southwestern Minnesota—Donnelly was chief lecturer (without fee) for the state Grange. The founders of the Grange had intended that their organization remain above partisan politics and concentrate instead on improving rural education and farm life generally. But Donnelly’s pleas for direct political action soon began to draw strong support from large parts of the growing membership. To rural audiences up and down the southern half of Minnesota he repeated his message again and again: There is an organized conspiracy in this country, with its ramifications in this very state, whose sole object is to ignore and depress the agricultural interests of the nation; and set up, as the gods of national idolatry, a few spindles and mines … If the nation is to live it must not be with one section fastened like a wolf on the vitals of the rest … we must fight with the ballot box.

The Minnesota farmer of the 1870*5, like his counterpart throughout the Midwest, was caught in a murderous cost-price squeeze. Donnelly was in favor of whatever practical if limited ways the farmers could find to avoid being at the mercy of the market. He complimented the Granges of Iowa for going into the grain storage business. He argued for a Great Lakes canal system to compete with the railroads and called for government regulation of rail rates. Trying to keep track of his position on the tariff and monetary questions, however, is like charting the course of a jumping bean on a hot griddle. As an early Republican he was for high tariffs; as a Granger he was against them. After a trip to Europe and a look at English wages and factory conditions in 1888 he came back frightened—and once more a high-tariff man. His only constant in these issues was the insistence that the status quo would surely drive the western farmer to bankruptcy, and that change was necessary.

Donnelly was at his best as an agitator. His skill at arousing and channeling protest, his parliamentary experience, and his ability to write platforms that would both inspire confidence and avoid factional disputes won him increasing recognition. When the first Anti-Monopoly party convention—largely made up of Grange members—met at Owatonna, Minnesota, in the summer of 1873, Donnelly was temporary chairman and keynote speaker. He filled the same roles at the Greenback National Convention at Indianapolis in 1876, and in 1890 he was president of the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance. When the Populist movement began to gather momentum in 1891, Donnelly was a member of the platform committee for its conventions at Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Omaha.