16 March 2017

Review: Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly

Hardcover, 275 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1890)
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2013
Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century
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.

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