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“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”
Author of a nightmare fantasy about what the twentieth century might be like, Ignatius Donnelly never saw his other radical ideas—even the good ones—come to pass
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
During the twenty years from 1872 to 1892 he lost four congressional campaigns but won four terms in the state legislature. Dakota County seems to have regarded him as something of a mascot and failed him only once at election time—even though his legislative accomplishments rarely lived up to advance billing. In 1873 and 1875 he led the Anti-Monopoly forces in the legislature, but despite brave words—and initially hopeful prospects—most of the bills he was favoring failed to pass. When it came to harnessing protest to actual reforms, Donnelly’s efforts were unavailing. He founded a protest newspaper, The Anti-Monopolist , but it collapsed with the return of relative prosperity in 1878.
During all this time he was also managing, with indifferent success, both the Nininger farm and a larger one near the South Dakota border. His family life, at least, was a source of consolation and encouragement. Donnelly respected his wife Kate’s advice in politics, as in everything else. She was the closest thing to a balance wheel he ever had. From Philadelphia, where she had taken young Iggy to an eye specialist, Kate wrote him just before the election in 1873: … I hope you will be elected—work hard I know you willbut if anything should happen contrary to your expectations don’t be cast down because you are an indefatigable old fellow that can’t be wiped out & you will rise in a new place … You and I can defy the world together. We have a love for one another and a happiness that can never be defeated, by time, trouble, poverty or any ills of this world … and you are the dearest old love in the world & there isn’t just another one—& the children endorse this and say you can command a character at their hands at a moments notice fee &c—
By this time Donnelly had virtually ceased agitating the scholarly world and turned his energy toward political reform. In 1888 he had published The Great Cryptogram , a monster volume which attempted to prove with numbers—an enciphered code—that Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Six years of effort had gone into it, along with the faith that it would be a lasting contribution to world literature, but the book was such a failure that the publisher sued for recovery of his original advance. Donnelly did, however, continue to write. His new books were novels—novels filled with explosive political ideas. The first of these, probably the best, was his Orwellian Caesar’s Column , which appeared in 1890.
He had begun it the night in early 1889 after his old enemy, William D. Washburn of Minneapolis, was elected to the United States Senate. Six weeks later the manuscript was finished. Undoubtedly the idea of writing it owed much to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward , a Utopian novel which had been published in 1887 and had sold more copies than any American book that year. But where Bellamy had looked ahead a century and seen an ideal world, Donnelly gloomily predicted an inhuman society where corrupt plutocracy and callous populace were drawn apart in hate and suspicion. He wrote at the beginning:
“I seek to preach into the ears of the able and rich and powerful the great truth that neglect of the sufferings of their fellows … must—given time and pressure enough—eventuate in the overthrow of society and the destruction of civilization.”
The plot of Caesar’s Column mixed two heavyhanded love stories with the main narrative of a visit to New York by the hero, Gabriel Weltstein, his befriending the leaders of a proletarian underground, witnessing a revolution, and escaping by dirigible to his home in the hills of Uganda. Here civilization is begun again. In the “ideal” Ugandan state there is a tri-cameral legislature (producers, employers of labor, and intellectuals), an eight-hour workday with two holidays each week, and a program of socialized medicine. Interest rates are abolished, bribery of a government official is punishable by death, and brotherly love is established as life’s governing principle.
Donnelly accurately foresaw the present-day problems of air pollution, population pressure, and man’s terrible war machinery (in this case poison gas), yet at the same time he was unable to predict anything beyond the horse and carriage for outdoor transportation. He wrote as many as twenty pages a day and had neither time nor patience to revise extensively, with the result that his style varied from somber power to absurd melodrama. Here, for example, is the hero describing his dirigible escape from New York during the revolution:
Up, up, went bundle and package and box; faster, and faster, and faster. The roof of the house next us was now blazing, and we could hear the fire, like a furnace, roaring within it. The work is finished; every parcel is safe. Up, up, straight and swift as an arrow we rose. The mighty city lay unrolled below us, like a great map, starred here and there with burning houses.
By contrast, when Weltstein is preparing to escape from the villain’s castle where the heroine—a Miss Washington—is held captive, this is the preposterous dialogue: “Then be it so,” said Rudolph [the trusty servant]. “Let Miss Washington withdraw by the farther door; and after a reasonable delay we will pass into a communicating series of rooms, and I will then show your friend where he is to be concealed.”