PRINCE OF CRANKS
HOW A NINETEENTH-CENTURY MINNESOTAN’S
CATASTROPHIC IMAGINATION PREDICTED
THE INTERNET, CHEMICAL WARFARE,
AND DEMON AIRSHIPS
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 bestselling 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 firsthand.
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.
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