Creekwalk, 1988

Fourth Chautauqua: The Making of a Catastrophist

I was born on November 3, 1831. A chubby boy, I was possessed from the beginning with an imagination on fire. My father, an Irishman from County Tyrone (related, he claimed, to the O'Neils) was a peripatetic scholar and a dabbler, a wit and a freethinker, who read Bacon and studied medicine but perished of typhoid caught from his first patient. My mother was an irishwoman as well, tough and hard as the breed can be, but a lover of wit and irony and oratory; she insisted on the highest achievement in Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser. Language was the road to success in my day. Perhaps you no longer believe this to be true.

Once I wrote to Oliver Wendell Holmes, seeking his advice. I received this reply from the great man, and I pass it on to you for its wisdom.

I will give you then a little of the advice which you have courted, with a free tongue but kind spirit. You have the inward adjustments which naturally produce melody of expression and incline you to rhythmical forms, of which you will easily become a master. You are a bright scholar, who has read a good many books and perhaps have a little too much fondness of ornamenting your own composition with phrases borrowed from what you have read ---very fairly credited to your sources to be true, but perhaps a little too freely interspersed. You have a quick eye and a smart wit of our own dangerous gifts, which like young colts must be bitted and broken before they can become trusted servants. Whether you have the higher requisites which make up the true poetical character or not, I dare not undertake to decide on the strength of a school exercise. .

Seventeen years old! What a blessed reach of future lies before you, with talents and ambition to urge them on to excellence But you must remember that you are in your pupilage now, and that what you write as a boy will be judged of by the public without those allowances which friends and a limited circle of acquaintances know bow to make. No judicious friend would advise you to print this gay production of your boyhood, or youth, if you choose to call it so. . . . No sir, I hope you are man enough to know that if at your age youhave done well, in a few years you can do much better; that study, reflection, the natural ripening of the crude juices will do for you what they have done for all the great minds that have born fruit worth gathering, Be patient-do not listen to partial friends, choose subjects worthy of sincere effort, whether grave or gay,--- subdue the rank luxuriance of your infancy and language by studying the pure models and by and by we shall hear of Ignatius L. Donnelly.

Who today writes such letters? Do you find it amusing? Do you believe that the elements of successful endeavor suggested by the great man should today be replaced with "computer skills" and "marketing"?

So typical of Victorian Yankee advice? The belief in regularity, probity, impartiality, to replace the evils of rank luxuriance!

I studied law and was admitted to the bar at age twenty two. It was customary in my time for young men to go out into the world on a kind of quest, and to this end I chose Minnesota as my destination. Arriving there I decided to to found a great city on the Mississippi. Such a dream! It was my scheme that Nininger City, 17 miles south of St. Paul, would rival Chicago. I built a fine home there with a library that had a great iron stove and shelves of books.

Unfortunately, following the real estate crash of 1857 I found myself the sole resident of this metropolis. But of course one must rise again at these disappointments. You must consider, of course, that I was still a young man, age thirty two; I am told that this is an age when many young people today are only applying for their first job. I believe that you call them "careers." Under the circumstances of my setback I decided that it would be necessary to learn to farm wheat, subject myself to the contingencies of weather. The vagaries of markets, blown this way and that by winds from Europe, by events in the most remote regions of the world, would teach me a good deal of life!

It seemed to me that politics would be a necessary ingredient in fulfilling my ideas for a better world. In 1863. I ran successfully for lieutenant governor. I accompanied my troops in an expedition against the warring Sioux Indians. I understand that your contmeporary treatment of this matter is rather sympathetic to the natives and I shall not dwell on that adventure out of sensitivity to your beliefs. Let me only say that I made lasting friendships with the natives. I much enjoyed politics, was known favorabley for my speechmaking, and was elected to congress.

Soon thereafter my political life was beset by difficulties. Trouble began in 1868 where my sometimes querelous nature earned me powerful enemies among those whom I had vigorously denounced as the "the few who seek to grasp all power and wealth". These same men, mainline Republicans, soon saw to the termination of my political career. In 1879, at 49 years of age, I lost a key election to William Washburn, brother of the Secretary of the Treasury who had been my sworn enemy in Washington. I now found my political career at an end, and little to do either supporting my family or keeping my active imagination at work. On November 3, 1880, age 49, I wrote in my diary the future looked bleak indeed:

"This is my forty ninth birthday and a sad day it is...All my hopes are gone, and the future settles down upon me dark and gloomy indeed. My life has been a failure and a mistake. My hopes have so often come to naught that I cease to hope. All I can do is face the music and take my damnable future as it comes."

Returning to my solitary house at Nininger, I involved himself in more settlement schemes, gave lectures and speeches on Shakespeare, and became an active member of the Grange, a new organization that aimed to promote the interests of poor farmers such as myself, whipped and sawed as we were by powerful capitalist instituions, eastern banks and railroads.

My enemies disapproved of my rhetorical style or skill, and even today if you review the description of my life in your biographical dictionary you will find it said that I "possessed in exaggerated degree the talent of his race for public speaking". Do you doubt that we Irish know nothing of racism? In politics as well as conversation, according to this particularly snide entry by one J.D. Hicks, I am said to have made it my concern "to espouse unusual and unproved theories". Perhaps there is truth to this, but is such a view, that truth is a matter of rhetoric, that the facts are rarely simply the facts as presented, but that those presentations of facts are always interlarded with interpretation, to be condemned? Once in a moment of despair I wrote in my diary "Metaphorically speaking there was nothing left to me but backbone and fists." "We shall fight on," I wrote in my diary on the lastday of the year 1880.

Meanwhile I learned that a Philadelphia upbringing, amply fertilized with training in classical rhetoric, made me ill suited for mending harness and planting. My dear wife -- these were anxious and unhappy years for her, living in the rural west under difficult circumstances -- went so far as to accuse me of being an incompetent at the business of farming It is true that the winters were dreadful. My principal comfort was the reading matter I obtained on occasional visits to the St. Paul bookseller, D. D. Merril.

But life was of course not all disappointment. I had two children whom I loved dearly. Nonetheless, recognizing the dangers - especially to those of Celtic temperament - of withdrawn absorption unbalanced by bursts of public action and creativity, I searched for a project. It was in such a frame of mind, in the dead of winter of 1881, that I sat down to consider how the world might end.

Copyright 1996 Kirribili Press. Return to Ignatius Donnelly and the End of the World | Love | Chronicle of the Late Holocene