Hardcover, 275 pagesBorrowed from the library
Published 2003 (originally 1890)
Read May 2013
by Ignatius Donnelly
Nicholas Ruddick's introduction to my Wesleyan edition of Caesar's Column argues for its place in the lineage of science fiction: Donnelly was the first to use Jules Verne's motifs in American literature, and George Griffith borrowed from Caesar's Column when he wrote his own proto-sf. And indeed, there are a lot of things I recognize from later sf: a secret revolutionary Brotherhood, fleets of air-ships, a corrupt world that needs to be obliterated so it can be rebuilt, flagrant racism that is distasteful to the modern reader. Donnelly is a little more sophisticated than Griffith is, I think; his analysis of the fact that public schools made the "trampled" working classes intelligent enough to want to rebel made me think of a similar point H. G. Wells makes about colonialism in The War in the Air.
The end of the novel is more realistic that Griffith's, too, or maybe I just mean it's bleaker. Unlike all those apocalyptic novels where destruction leads to utopia, Donnelly sounds a pessimistic note near the end: "The rude and begrimed insurgents are raised by their terrible purposes to a certain dignity. They are the avengers of time--the God-sent--the righters of the world's wrongs--the punishers of the ineffably wicked. They do not mean to destroy the world; they will reform it--redeem it. They will make it a world where there shall be neither toil nor oppression. But, poor fellows! their arms are more potent for evil than their brains for good. They are omnipotent to destroy; they are powerless to create" (200). But the book is just as condemnatory of those who permitted/caused the conditions that the mob rose up against. The end of the novel is bleak all around.