Ignatius Donnelly, Prince of Cranks

Abolitionism, The Bureau Of Education, William Lloyd Garrison, John F. Kennedy, Third-Party Politics, Atlantis, Plato, Comparative Mythology, Diffusionism, Ur, Elegant Psuedoscience, Gravel, Anti-Stratfordianism, Cipher Narratives, The Rosetta Stone, Walt Whitman, The Brotherhood of Destruction, Chemical Warfare, Americanist Philosophy
by J. M. Tyree
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Ignatius Donnelly, Prince of Cranks

J. M. Tyree
12 Snaps

The Sage of Nininger

The opposite of a Ren­aissance man, pre­sum­ably, would be someone who tried his hand at a number of different things and failed at all of them. Mostly forgotten today, Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) is worth a second look because he is quite possibly the greatest failure who ever lived. Donnelly, a best-selling writer and reform-minded congressman from Minnesota, might be dubbed the Great American Failure. Among the things that Donnelly failed to do were: build a city, reform American politics, reveal the facts about Atlantis, discover a secret code in Shakespeare, and prove that the world’s gravel deposits were the result of a collision with a comet. His dire political prophecies of class warfare and the imminent collapse of civilization also failed to come true.

Donnelly genuinely believed he was a genius, and that, by applying his mental powers to any problem, no matter how tangled or intractable, and regardless of the established body of relevant scholarship or scientific tradition, he could solve it with a fresh look. He was a kind of secular prophet, a combination of demagogue and revivalist tent-preacher, destined, he believed, to do great things. If Donnelly were alive today, he would probably be a “guru” on the lecture circuit, fervently putting forward his latest Theory of Everything. Congressman, master orator, pseudoscientist, student of comparative myth­ology, crackpot geologist, fu­turist, amateur literary sleuth, bogus cryptologist, Donnelly did it all with a charmingly boundless en­ergy and a voracious intellectual ap­petite that utterly out­stripped his real abilities. One of Donnelly’s nick­names, meant mock­­ingly, was “The Sage of Nininger,” after the town he at­tempted to establish failed due
to an economic crisis that wiped out the capital for the venture. (Other nicknames used to taunt Donnelly were “The Prince of Cranks” and, because of his po­litical rabble-rousing, “The Apostle of Discontent.”)

Yet Donnelly’s influence still shows up in a number of unexpected places. Along with that of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, Donnelly’s speculative futurism in his 1890 novel Caesar’s Column must be included in the origins of the science fiction genre as a whole and, more specifically, that sci-fi subset which includes the dystopian novel—nightmare vi­sions of societies gone irreparably wrong. Donnelly also wrote two other novels, one of which, Doctor Huguet (1891), featured the original Black Like Me plot, where a liberal white intellectual is magically transformed overnight into a poor black man and forced to endure the horror of racism first-hand.

Donnelly’s pseudoscientific re­search, on the other hand, spawn­ed theories that people believe to this day. His book about the lost continent, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) remains in print thanks to the New Age movement. His Atlantean research method drew from bad math, misreading the archeological record, and mistaking ancient myths for veiled historical chronicles. Finally, his work on a cipher system in Shakespeare, published as The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays in 1888, was the first of a series of theories about secret codes in Shakespeare and other great works of art. More recent ideas, like The Bible Code (1997) or, in fiction, The Da Vinci Code (2003) are really variants on the same theme, using the same du­bious methods.

Certain figures in American history have become archetypes of national character: Emerson’s Am­erican Scholar, Benjamin Frank­lin’s Self-Made Man, Jon­athan Ed­wards’s Hellfire Preacher, P. T. Barnum’s Huckster. Donnelly represents the paranoiac streak in the country, the Conspiracy Theorist, the Buff of Secret Theories that Explain Everything. Donnelly was probably the greatest crackpot that ever lived, a precursor to Philip K. Dick’s “Crap Artist” and Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid heroes. His enthusiasms, though seemingly end­less, all seemed to fo­cus on one theme: the idea that hid­den meanings exists beyond the ob­vious level of everyday phenomena, secret arrangements that lie waiting for the attuned mind to discover.


The Apostle of Discontent

Donnelly was a radical antislavery Republican U.S. con­gressman from 1863 to 1869. He championed rights of immigrants and former slaves, even when such stances were extremely unpopular. Donnelly, for example, stumped in his home state, Minnesota, for “Negro Suffrage” and the ratification of the Reconstruction bill that included the Freedman’s Bureau, even though hardly any former slaves lived in his constituency. During the outbreak of the Civil War, Donnelly was Lieu­tenant Governor of Min­nesota, and organized the first fighting unit for the Federal cause. He was an instrumental force in creating the first national Bureau of Education, which supported the education of former slaves so they could participate in elections. Donnelly also pioneered the concept of planting forests on public lands, in order to create wind-buffers and generate new sources of wood.

Donnelly was known for his mesmerizing speeches. According to Martin Ridge, Donnelly’s po­litical biographer (Ignatius Donnelly: Portrait of a Politician, Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 1962, my main source for biographical details on Donnelly), during one campaign Donnelly’s sup­porters stamped their feet until the building shook. Ridge notes that Donnelly’s first address to Congress argued for “a federal immigration bureau, to protect the unsuspecting aliens from abuse and to encourage immigration from Europe.” In his second speech, Donnelly advocated for a Reconstruction policy that would amend the Constitution to pro­hibit slavery. Democratic papers were hor­rified, paying Donnelly the compliment of claiming that he was worse than the abolitionist Wil­­liam Lloyd Garrison. After cam­paigning for the enfranchisement of freed slaves in 1866, Ridge notes, Donnelly made the following entry in his diary:

I challenge the history of the past to produce a single instance where a revolution has occurred under equal laws in the attempt of any class to rise above the level of common rights to oppress any other portion of the population. The selfishness of human nature is not capable of any such effort. But I likewise challenge the historian to point to a single community where unjust laws did not sooner or later result in wars and turbulence…. If it is true as ar­gued by some that the history of the world shows that the Negro be­longs to an inferior race, that he is unfitted to compete with the white man in the desperate strug­gle for life, the more reason is there why he should be protected by equal laws.

The gist of the statement is a fine precursor to John F. Kennedy’s no­tion that those who prevent non­violent revolutions ensure violent ones. It also reveals that, like most abolitionists of his time, Donnelly could not get his head around racial equality. In Doctor Hu­guet, which Donnelly wrote as an explicit tract against racism, the white liberal who is unceremoniously changed into a poor Southern African-American nevertheless shares with his author a visceral hor­ror of being trapped in his new body, which is described in the standard racialist terms of the day.

Si­milarly, the catastrophic consequences of class inequality implied in Donnelly’s diary entry would later become the main theme of Caesar’s Column, but the novel would be marred by convoluted Jewish stereotypes that Donnelly sometimes resisted and sometimes exploited as a politician. These pa­radoxes reveal much about the toxically prejudiced age in which Don­nelly lived, where the gravitational force of racism was often in­surmountable even among the mi­nority who tried to escape its pull.

Donnelly’s political career reach­­ed its apex in 1868, when he ran for U.S. Senate while simultaneously campaigning for reelection to the House. He lost both bids, and though he returned to political office at the state level, Donnelly be­came increasingly as­sociated with a series of third-party causes, running for office as an Independent, organizing for the Grangers, a pro-farming movement, the Green­backers, a party based on the po­litics of paper money, the ­Far­mers’ Alliance, and, finally, the Populist Party.



Like the Grail legend and the miracle of the Turin Shroud, the At­lantis concept has had a long shelf life, re­flecting facets of suc­cessive eras. Donnelly’s version of the Atlantis story, which became a best-seller, was characteristic of his times insofar as it sought to ground speculation about the lost continent in science. Donnelly’s primary point in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World is simple. The myth of Atlantis, presented in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, was not a fable concocted in the ancient world but an actual place that existed until a natural disaster destroyed it. At the opening of his book, Donnelly asserts the following remarkable points:

That there once existed in the At­lantic Ocean, opposite the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, a large island, which was the rem­nant of an Atlantic continent, and known to the ancient world as Atlantis.

That the description of this island given by Plato is not, as has been long supposed, fable, but veritable history.

That Atlantis was the region where man first rose from a state of barbarism to civilization.

That it became, in the course of ages, a populous and mighty nation, from whose overflowings the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, the Amazon, the Pacific coast of South America, the Mediterranean, the west coast of Europe and Africa, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian were populated by civilized nations.

That it was the true Antediluvian world; the Garden of Eden.

That the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks, the Phoen­icians, the Hindus, and the Scandinavians were simply the kings, queens, and heroes of At­lantis; and the acts attributed to them in mythology, a confused recollection of real historical events.

That the mythologies of Egypt and Peru represented the original religion of Atlantis, which was sun-worship.


That Atlantis perished in a terrible convulsion of nature, in which the whole island was submerged by the ocean, with ­nearly all its inhabitants.

That a few persons escaped in ships and on rafts, and carried to the nations east and west tiding of the appalling catastrophe, which has survived to our own time in the Flood and Deluge legends of the different nations of the Old and New worlds.

Donnelly’s Atlantis is a work of comparative mythology that seeks to prove the common origin of all legends and religions. And why not play along? It is interesting that so many different cultures have a story about a Great Flood. It’s also in­triguing that some Mayan statues, if Donnelly can be believed, depict men with beards even though beards are not part of Mesoamerican culture prior to the advent of the Europeans. Donnelly’s conclusion is not that the Mayans had earlier contact with Europe, but that the Atlant­eans, the shared ancestors of both the Mayans and the Europeans, also must have had beards.

Donnelly’s theory of the origin of civilization falls into a category of explanation called “diffusionism” by modern archeologists. Diffusionism theorizes that geographically separated cultures sharing a common trait had actual contact with each other, rather than evolving similar-seeming features independently, by coincidence, or be­cause of structural similarities in the human mind or in our social needs. Donnelly took diffusionism to its logical extreme, suggesting that all global cultures originally came from one Ur-civilization, Atlantis. If ancient Egypt and Peru both have pyramids and mummies, for example, it is because both cultures got the idea from the At­lanteans. This perspective on the past is still seductive. It appears, for example, in the recent blockbuster The Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), by Graham Hancock, which posits an ancient Ur-civilization to explain all the supposedly ir­refutable and otherwise inexplicable connections be­tween earth’s civ­ilizations. For example, Hancock measures the di­mensions of various temples in the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia in order to prove, through ma­nipulated math, that all are aligned to point to the same constellations.

The method is reminiscent of Donnelly’s “proof” that the earth’s calendar systems are derived from the same source:

The Egyptians… calculated by cycles of 1,460 years—zodiacal cycles… the zodiacal cycle ending in the year 139 of our era commenced in the year 1322 b.c. On the other hand, the Assyrian cycle was 1805 years, or 22,325 lunations. An Assyrian cycle began in 712 b.c. The Chaldeans state that between the Deluge and their first historic dynasty there was a period of 39,180 years. Now, what means this number? It stands for 12 Egyptian zodiacal cycles plus 12 Assyrian lunar cycles.

And what on earth, you might well ask, does that mean? Donnelly does some quick calculations, following both systems backwards in time until they cross over in the same year, 11,542 b.c. OK, so what the heck does that mean? His answer is coolly elegant:

At the year 11,542 b.c. the two cycles came together, and consequently they had on that year their common origin in one and the same astronomical observation.

That observation was probably made in Atlantis.

As in his celebrated speeches, Donnelly knows how to time his bombshells, and that’s what makes Atlantis a totally compelling read even for someone who knows the theory is bunk.

Even according to the standards of its day, however, Donnelly’s amateur scholarship and fudged numbers were pseudoscience. Ridge puts it succinctly:

Since Atlantis was basically a law­yer’s brief on behalf of a speculative theory, Donnelly conformed to legal rather than scientific rules of evidence. He discarded all contradictory evidence and even distorted illustrations to prove his point. But his most serious shortcoming was in the nature of his method of analysis. Because he was not a scientist, Donnelly exercised no critical judgment of his sources whatsoever. He simply accepted at face value and quoted those authorities which presented evidence that would corroborate his hypothesis, even though they might long since have been discredited.

These methods plagued almost everything Donnelly ever wrote, and it is probably not surprising that he eventually turned to speculative fiction as the vehicle for his ideas. In fact, his next book, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), which argued that a comet had deposited all the world’s gravel from outer space, was so improbable and—by scientific standards—ridiculous that he could not convince Harper and Brothers to print it. It also may have been a factor that gravel is somehow less intrinsically thrilling than lost worlds.


“All This Cannot be Accident”

People who do not believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays are called Anti-Stratfordians, after the his­torical author’s hometown. The Anti-Stratfordians are themselves di­vided into various camps, like the Oxfordians, who see the Earl of Ox­ford as the real Bard, and the Baconians, who believe that Francis Bacon penned the plays in his spare time. Both theories, like most Anti-Stratfordian arguments, boil down to snobbery. Shakespeare, de­spite being a member of a theater company that played for royalty, knew too much about the inner workings of a court to be a commoner; therefore, the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. Shakespeare, despite having been ed­ucated in the English grammar school system, where bits of the an­cient classics were learned by rote, knew too much about the great Greek and Latin authors; ergo, Francis Bacon wrote the plays.

Bacon had, in Donnelly’s words, “injected a cipher narrative, an ‘interior epistle,’ into the Shakespeare Plays.” There was, in other words, a story within a story, contained in the First Folio, waiting to be discovered by the in­trepid student:

How subtle and cunning all this is!… Observe [Bacon’s cryptographic] rule, that the cipher “must not raise suspicion” as to its existence; it must be “in­folded” in something else; so that the reader, falling upon the exterior writing, will not suspect an­other writing within.

Only Bacon and those in the know would be in on the joke.

Donnelly reasoned that, if there were a secret cipher in Shakespeare, it would contain certain key­words or ideas, such as “I, Francis Bacon, of St. Albans, son of Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, wrote these Plays, which go by the name of William Shakespeare.” In fact, codes are a lot easier to break if the decipherer knows some of the words she is looking for; Egyptian hieroglyphics were solved because the Rosetta Stone, with its parallel Greek text, hinted that words like “Cleopatra” would appear in both languages. Professional cryptologists call this “probable word method.”

Donnelly, however, had tre­mendous difficulty finding his ci­pher:

For days and weeks and months I toiled over those pages. I tried in every possible way to establish some arithmetical relation be­tween these significant words. It was all in vain. I tried all the words, on page 53, on page 54, and on page 55. I took every fifth word, every tenth word, every twentieth word, every fiftieth word, every hundredth word. But still the result was incoherent non­­sense.

Even more surprising than this result, however, was Donnelly’s ev­entual solution, the discovery of The Great Cryptogram (1888). Donnelly was able to squeeze messages out of Shakespeare after all, messages about Bacon, Shakespeare, and the events of Renaissance England. His method was complicated and amazing. The cipher involved the pagination of the First Folio and mathematical proportions be­tween various significant words in the text.

The words “Francis,” “Bacon,” “Nicholas,” “Bacons,” and “Son” ac­tually do appear at various points in the First Folio. Since these were Donnelly’s “probable words,” he had to work backwards to string them together using a regular mathematical formula that would prove the relationship between the words was not random or coincidental, but rather intentional and part of the code. Math morons (like myself) should know from the beginning that Donnelly’s system doesn’t add up, and so a mathematical explanation of the cipher is bound to sound like gibberish. “Bacon” is the 371st word on page 53 of the Folio. Three hundred and seventy-one divided by 53 is 7, and there are seven italic words on page 53. (Donnelly’s theory, for unclear reasons, places special importance on italicized words.) The number of words on the page including the “probable word,” divided by the page number on which the word appears, corresponds to a significant typographical feature on that very same page.

Donnelly’s calculations, which recall the calendar math in Atlantis, only make sense when you understand that he is actually picking out the words he wants from the text first and then playing with the math in order to attempt to prove that they are connected. E.g.:

53 x 6 = 318 = Francis

53 x 7 = 371 = Bacon

54 x 12 = 648 = Nicholas

54 x 11 = 594 = Bacons

53 x 9 = 477 = Son*

Shakespeare was saying that Francis Bacon was Nicholas Ba­con’s Son! In Act One of Henry the IV, Part II, Donnelly found the flabbergasting statement, “More-low or Shak’st-Spur never writ a word of them.” That is, Christopher Mar­lowe and William Shakespeare were lightweights that had nothing to do with what you’re reading. Don­nelly’s Bacon cipher reads like a contemporary rapper dissing the competition to give himself props. The message continues with: “we know him as a butcher’s rude and vulgar ’prentice, and it was, in our opinions, not likely that he writ them; he is neither witty nor learned enough. The subjects are far beyond his ability.” And you thought you were reading about Prince Hal.

Donnelly lectured in England to an audience of Baconians that in­cluded Oscar Wilde, and he debated the book’s merits at the Uni­versity Unions of Oxford and Cambridge. The debate continued, according to Ridge, when the Literary World gave the book a full-page review—news­­papers have always loved the topic—and subsequently published Donnelly’s replies to his critics. It was at this point that Donnelly urged the Earl of Verulam, the heir to Bacon’s estate, to sink a “hole two feet square and six feet deep” in the grounds, on the theory that the cipher had disclosed the spot as the location of a cache of secret manuscripts. The Earl declined.

Others never believed any of it. A gleeful bubble-burster and fellow Minnesotan named Joseph Gilpin Pyle published a book called The Little Cryptogram that applied the methods of The Great Cryptogram in order to deride Donnelly. Pyle, for example, claimed that he had found the following message in Hamlet: “Don-nill-he [Donnelly], the author, politician, and mountebanke, will worke out the secret of this play. The Sage is a daysie.”

Walt Whitman wrote a poem entitled “Shakspere-Bacon’s Ci­pher” that appears in the “Good-bye My Fancy” Second Annex to Leaves of Grass (1891). It forms a more philosophical response to Don­nelly’s theory:

I doubt it not—then more, far more;

In each old song bequeath’d—in every noble page or text,

(Different—something unreck’d before—some unsuspected author,)

In every object, mountain, tree, and star—in every birth and life,

As part of each—evolv’d from each—meaning, behind the ostent,

A mystic cipher waits unfolded.

In 1957, a pair of professional cryptologists, William and Elizabeth Friedman, who had worked as code breakers during World War II, published The Shakespearean Ci­phers Examined. Donnelly, the Fried­mans note, never used a strict mathematical progression in his cipher system, but fudged it to squeeze this or that word out of the plays. The solution has no “true key” and is worthless as a code, which must be regular in order to ensure that the recipient and the sender have an identical secret mes­sage. Donnelly’s system, therefore, “carries its own refutation” because “the application of the same key to the same basic ma­terial by two different investigators produces different results.” Pyle’s satire was right: The Little Cryptogram disproved The Great Cryptogram.

Donnelly wasn’t just being provocative: his virtually insane mathematical scribblings on his fac­simile copy of the First Folio reveal that he really believed what he was writing. His last book, cal­led The Cipher in the Plays and on the Tombstone, posited that Bacon had not only written the works of Shakespeare, but also those of Marlowe and Cervantes. This robbed the theory of its charm and sent it into the realm of pure crackpotism. Donnelly paid to have it privately printed.



Donnelly started writing Caesar’s Column in his hotel room the night after his defeat in the race for U.S. Senate. The novel contained his vision of the political consequences of failing to reform the American system. If an oligarchy grew to control all wealth and rig the political process, Donnelly thought, the masses would be reduced to a single choice: catastrophic revolution. Caesar’s Column, like other dystopian novels, was not written to make its vision come true, but rather to warn humanity in advance so that it could avert the disaster. As Donnelly put it in the book’s preface, “To the Public,”

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, indifference to the great bond of brotherhood which lies at the base of Christianity, and blind, brutal, and degrading worship of mere wealth must—given time and pressure enough—eventuate in the overthrow of society and the destruction of civilization.

The Oligarchy is run by money-lending Jews, Super-Shylocks who have evolved through thousands of years of oppression into the “aristocracy of the world.” Donnelly, the well-meaning fighter for racial equality, puts forth a theory perversely reminiscent of the one proposed by the Nazi camp commander in Lina Wertmuller’s 1976 film Seven Beauties—namely, that the concentration camps “prove” the superiority of the Jews who survived them:

… it was the oldest question of the survival of the fittest. Christianity fell upon the Jews… and forced them, for many centuries, through the most terrible ordeal of persecution the history of man­kind bears any record of. Only the strong of body, the cunning of brain, the long-headed, the persistent, the men with ca­pacity to live where a dog would starve, survived the awful trial. Like breeds like; and now the Christian world is paying, in tears and blood, for the sufferings inflicted by their bigoted and ignorant ancestors upon a noble race.

Donnelly’s version of the International Banking Conspiracy has this bizarre, inverted gloss.

The role of anti-Semitism in Don­nelly’s political life is equally complicated. The Populist Party that Donnelly inspired and helped found blamed English Jewish money­lenders for the plight of poor American farmers, forming the precursor of later Populist movements in scapegoating immigrants for economic ills. As Ridge notes, Donnelly would go through patterns of retreat and withdrawal after making speeches against the moneylenders, backtracking via the tired (and typical) explanation that it was the money­lending and not the Judaism that was the problem. But then he would fiercely attack anti-­Semitism, par­ticularly in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, which Donnelly found abhorrent. In 1899, he wrote that the sweatshops of the world were filled with Jews and that he found it “inexplicable that a Christian people, worshipping a Jew, the son of a Jewess, should entertain such terrible bigotry against the people of his race.”

The question isn’t one of finding an apology but an explanation for such strange reversals and seemingly contradictory stances. Things become clearer when one casts a wider net, as George Orwell later did when he noted that a long list of English authors, some of them otherwise liberal, had said and written things that, by contemporary standards, would be considered overtly or covertly anti-Semitic. Orwell rightly noted that, among British writers, only a few, like Charles Reade and Charles Dickens, had tried explicitly to fight anti-Jewish prejudice. But even Dickens had, in the character Riah from Our Mutual Friend (1865), created such a spotless and pure portrait that it feels almost inhuman, a whitewash job from the liberal with a guilty conscience who had created Fagin. Racism in the nineteenth century was a poison cloud so pervasive that it had become virtually invisible; as ever, it affected even those trying to shake it off.

The enduring aspect of Cae­sar’s­ Column is not its politics but its depiction of a futuristic New York, contained mostly in the novel’s first chapter, “The Great City.” Don­nelly’s New York contains ten million inhabitants by 1988. The city extends, “in almost unbroken succession, clear to Phil­adelphia, while east, west and north noble habitations spread out mile after mile, far beyond the municipal limits.” The Great City is lit up at night by millions of “magnetic lights, reflected on the sky, like the glare of a great conflagration.” Hu­manity has harnessed earth’s magnetic field and the power of the aurora borealis to create “a clear, soft, white light, like that of the full moon, but many times brighter.” The creation of night-lights means 24/7 commerce, the streets aswarm at midnight and high noon. The streets are covered with glass roofs to keep off rain and snow.

Below the normal streets are “subterranean streets” with noiseless trains carrying passengers and freight, with elevators going up and down on every corner. Above the housetops run more trains whose rails are built on steel pillars, “crossing diagonally over the city, at a great height, so as to best economize time and distance.” The area between Houston and Broome Streets has become the depot of the “great inter-continental air-lines,” which shuttle between America, En­gland, Europe, South America, the Pacific Coast, Australia, China, India, and Japan. The “anchored air-lines” are delightfully complicated, hung by revolving wheels, upon great wires suspended in the air; the wires held in place by metallic balloons, fish-shaped, made of aluminium, and constructed to turn with the wind so as to present always the least surface to the air-currents. These balloons, where the lines cross the oceans, are secured to huge floating islands of timber, which are in turn anchored to the bottom of the sea by four immense metallic cables, extending north, south, east, and west, and powerful enough to resist any storms. These artificial islands contain dwellings, in which men reside, who keep up the supply of gas necessary for the balloons.

People also travel in “independent air-lines,” gigantic cigar-shaped balloons propelled by electricity that move as fast as a cannonball, and can transport passengers from New York to London in normal weather.

On September 10, 1988, Donnelly’s protagonist, Gabriel Weltstein, arrives in New York City from a Swiss colony in Uganda to sell his African wool. Weltstein checks in to the massive Darwin Hotel, which takes up an entire city block from Fifth to Madison at 46th Street. During dinner, patrons browse the world news on touch screen mirrors:

the mirror now contained the name of every state in the Re­public, from Hudson’s Bay to the Isthmus of Darien; and the names of the all nations of the world; each name being numbered… if I would select any state or country and touch the corresponding button the news of the day, from that state or country, would appear in the mirror… its crimes, its accidents, its business, the output of its mines, the markets, the sayings and doings of its prominent men.

Weltstein surfs through a dissertation on Chaucer written by a Zulu professor, and finds out that the Chinese Republican Congress has just declared English the national language.

After Weltstein saves a beggar from a public whipping at the hands of Prince Cabano, he is introduced to the “Under-World.” Here the horror of techno-progress is visited upon millions of underclass people who work in darkness beneath the city streets. These persecuted masses are composed of all nations and religions, including the French, Russians, Jews, Christians, and Chinese. Weltstein is horrified by what has become of humanity:

What struck me most was their incalculable multitude and their silence. It seemed to me that I was witnessing the resurrection of the dead; and that these vast, streaming, endless swarms were the condemned, marching noiselessly as shades to unavoidable and everlasting misery. They seemed to me merely automata, in the hands of some ruthless and unrelenting destiny. They lived and moved, but they were without heart or hope. The illusions of the imagination, which beckon all of us forward, even over the roughest paths and through the darkest valleys and shadows of life, had departed from the scope of their vision. They knew that to-morrow could bring them nothing better than to­day—the same shameful, pitiable, contemptible, sordid struggle for a mere existence.

This permanent underclass is herded into slave work-camps un­derground and then, according to the “demands of science,” shipped in trains to gigantic furnaces im­mediately after death.

A vast underground movement called the Brotherhood of Destruction, a 100-million-strong organization divided into Qaeda-like sleeper cells of ten men each, operates in the Under-World. It is planning the violent overthrow of the Oligarchy. When the day of reckoning comes, the Brotherhood blows apart the financial infrastructure of Wall Street and sets up barricades in the streets. The Oligarchy sends “the grand army of the Pluto­cracy” to crush the insurgents. But: “There is danger in the air.” The Oligarchy is betrayed by its own air force, who align themselves with the Brotherhood, and unleash a murderous surprise attack from their balloon “airships,” the so-called “Demons,” on the government troops. The bombardment includes a chemical attack:

The sight will haunt me to my dying day. I can see, like a great black rain of gigantic drops, the lines of the falling bombs against the clear blue sky… The crash—the bang—the explosions; the uproar, the confusion; and most horrible of all, the inevitable, invisible death by the poi­son… And still the bombs drop and crash, and drop and crash; and the bar­ricades are furnaces of living fire. The dead lie in heaps and layers in the invisible, pernicious poison.

The mob takes control of the city, unloosing total anarchy under the direction of the despotic and brutal Caesar Lomellini, who be­gins building a tower of human corpses and cement in Union Square as a monument to “The Death and Burial of Modern Civilization.” As society collapses around him, Welstein escapes to Uganda with the lovely Estella Washington to return to the “primitive simple shepherd-life” that prevails amidst the idyllic snowcapped mountain valleys.


Donnelly and the Catastrophic Imagination

The historian Richard Hofstadter defined what he called “the paranoid style in American politics” as the belief in the existence of “a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.” History comes to pass through the intervention of “demonic forces,” leaving no room for mistakes, foolishness, failure, or ambiguity.

If Hofstadter is right to suggest that the Paranoid Style is a perennial aspect of American politics, then Donnelly can be seen as a precursor of the conspiracy mentality that so quickly engulfs our country during times of stress. The Yellow Peril, The Red Scare, and The Black Helicopters spring to mind, also our deeper cultural impulse to craft conspiracies behind the JFK assassination, government UFO cover-ups, the Moon landing “fraud,” the pyramid on the back of the one-dollar bill, George Bush Sr.’s “New World Order,” the Waco raid, and even the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11 (whether the “real” culprit is identified as Israeli intelligence or Saddam Hussein). Al­though generally associated with the Right, the Paranoid Style also infects the extreme Left’s belief that all media is controlled by the government or that the CIA secretly manipulates events.

Donnelly did not simply influence the growth of conspiracy thinking in America. He was the archetype of a certain kind of anxiety with millennial or apocalyptic dimensions that might also be cal­led the Catastrophic Imagination, a secular version of doomsday pro­phecies. The central tenets of this philosophy would be that:

✯ ➽things are bad and getting worse;

✯ ➽we have reached an intoler­able state of affairs;

✯ ➽everything is going to collapse;

✯ ➽this is going to happen very soon;

✯ ➽only decisive action can save us;

✯ ➽we are probably doomed anyway.

The Catastrophic Imagination often arises from an inflated sense of self-importance. In Caesar’s Column, for example, the world comes to be ruined because America fails to embrace the vital reforms of politicians such as, well, Ignatius Donnelly. But the idea that the world will end spectacularly if one man’s ideas are not heeded begins to sound like megalomania and self-aggrandizement rather than a sober understanding of history. Of course, catastrophes do happen, but they are usually not the ones we are expecting.

The best antidote to this way of thinking lies in Whitman’s Americanist philosophy, just as the best reply to The Great Cryptogram theory was Whitman’s short poem “Shakspere-Bacon’s Cipher.” Certainly, the poem says, the world seems to be full of secrets. By all means, seek out the “unsuspected author” in all things. Start with an “old song” or a “noble page.” Then connect its hidden meaning with “every object, mountain, tree, and star,” and “every birth and life.” Sure, there is a “mystic cipher” enfolded in everything. But don’t take the Quest—or yourself—so seriously. Don’t fall prey to the illusion that you, the chosen interpreter, have really found the hidden secret that explains everything. It doesn’t exist. That is why Whitman’s poem begins with a line—“I doubt it not—then more, far more”—which suggests that one begins as a convert, then moves progressively into doubt. Somehow, though, the doubt is not cynical.

Whitman, in a way, is the ultimate anticatastrophist. Often dismissed as a Pollyanna, he was actually more like an infinite sponge capable of soaking up the best and worst without losing his sense of wonder. He not only saw Civil War field-hospital amputations, and co­vered the deadhouse beat as a journalist, but also wrote about the war and the unclaimed bodies of dead prostitutes with neither sentimentality nor bitterness. Instead, he tried to encompass everything without losing his basic belief in people. This was a human accomplishment as well as a poetic one, and it exceeded the capacities of a writer like Donnelly. The Paranoid Style is a trap. Like prejudice, it makes you see things that just aren’t there.

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