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“Some Unsuspected Author”: Ignatius Donnelly and the Conspiracy Novel
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Regularity does not grow out of chaos. There can be no intellectual order without preexisting intellectual purpose. The fruits of the mind can only be found where mind is or has been.

Ignatius Donnelly, The Great Cryptogram, 1888

Whatever the intent may have been in writing this book, my mind is very clear that its effect, if published, would be nothing but bad, and very bad.

A. C. McClurg to Ignatius Donnelly, December 30, 1889

Ignatius Donnelly, the Populist Politician, bestselling novelist, and armchair historian, was never short on sensational revelations. Nicknamed “The Prince of Cranks” and the “Apostle of Discontent,” he often seems to embody the conspiratorial imagination of late nineteenth-century Populist culture. Donnelly’s novels, speeches, and essays abound with a startling array of offbeat theories and speculations. His works include a pseudo-scientific history of the lost continent of Atlantis, two massive volumes claiming that Shakespeare’s plays contained a secret code, three conspiracy-themed novels, and extensive writings claiming that international bankers had used the Civil War as a pretext for enslaving the American people. Donnelly’s conspiracy theories and sensational revelations were rooted in the essential belief that hidden human forces are at work all around us, shaping seemingly disparate events, and that these forces are discoverable through careful attention to our surroundings.1

Donnelly’s fiction, much like Donnelly himself, epitomizes a philosophical and aesthetic investment in conspiracy thinking for late nineteenth-century American literary culture. His works were meant to and frequently did offer readers an avenue for converting the language of conspiracy into the kind of literary detective work that alerted them to the possibilities for deception and conspiracy in modern life. Donnelly’s novel, Caesar’s Column (1890), was a major bestseller, with an estimated 700,000 copies sold in the United States, Britain, and Germany during the 1890s (Ruddick xiii). Caesar’s Column is a wild dystopian tale that speculates that in the year 1988 a Jewish plutocracy would be at war with an anarchist secret society known as “The Brotherhood of Destruction.” Extending the detective story’s characteristic investigation of a clue in pursuit of the solution to an individual crime, Caesar’s Column constructs a setting in which clues and hints of the dueling plutocratic and anarchist conspiracies recur in public life. Donnelly interspersed dime novel plots with actual documents, newspaper articles, sociological statistics and long speeches that strung together coincidences that seemed to confirm Donnelly’s underlying conclusion of a coming cataclysm. The resulting text is an eccentric fusion of literary fiction, pseudo-sociology and conspiracy theory in which Donnelly encourages his reader to imagine the tale’s conspiracy narratives as plausible possibilities that can be detected through attention to aberrations in public life. In this sense, Donnelly’s novel finds pleasure in conspiratorial detective work. If the mystery novel embeds clues to its solution in its plot, and the reader vicariously lives through the detective’s mind (seeing the painting out of place, the thumbprint in the unexpected location), the pleasure of Donnelly’s iteration of the conspiracy novel makes a similar fictional move, but with the clues embedded in the public sphere.

In its time, Donnelly’s formula was so shocking and alienating that, when he first submitted Caesar’s Column for review, the publisher A. C. McClurg feared that it would have workers rioting in the streets. In what must be one of the great rejection letters of all time, the publisher warned Donnelly, “it is very possible to make people believe that evils exist that do not exist, and that brutal and frightful remedies must be plotted instead . . . . Whatever the intent may have been in writing this book, my mind is very clear that its effect, if published, would be nothing but bad, and very bad.” He closed his letter by advising Donnelly that, if he insisted on releasing Caesar’s Column, he should, at the very least, make sure that the book would not be sold at a price less than $1.00, so as to keep it out of the hands of those “whom it would only harm” (Ignatius Donnelly Papers 90).2

Although the degree of Donnelly’s enthusiasm...

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