Bring the Jubilee
by Ward Moore
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This novel fits into the sub-genre of fiction known as alternate history, most often associated with SF, but also at home in other branches of literature. While there are several current writers working almost exclusively in this area, it wasn't until the mid-20th Century that its tropes were frequently utilized in SF, even if, according to this Wikipedia page, the style dates from at least the 4th Century B.C. The pivotal event in Bring the Jubilee is the American Civil War, or in this case, since the South won and history is written by the winners, it is known as the War of Southron Independence. This is definitely SF since it utilizes a time travel device toward the end, but before that point it is an intriguing look at what the United States might be like if it had been the vanquished rather than the victor in that war.
It is hard for me to remember when I originally read it, my best guess being sometime in the late '70s or early '80s. The memory I had retained is of the protagonist, first-person narrator Hodgins McCormick Backmaker, traveling back in time to 1863 in order to observe the Battle of Gettysburg, yet that incident doesn't occur until the last twenty pages of the book. The details of Hodge's life up to that point takes up the rest of the story, and this time around that is what I enjoyed most about it. His accounts of how that United States differs from reality and what he thinks of it is more interesting than the time travel aspect. In his world, the Confederacy chose to ignore the U.S. for the most part, turning their attention to the south and west instead. By the time Hodge begins telling his story, about 1938, the Confederates have conquered Mexico and have made excursions into South America, moved westward to California and Hawaii, and purchased Alaska from Russia. The United States is impoverished and dependent on foreign investment for business and manufacturing. Unemployment is rampant; crime and corruption is everywhere. While the South has completed seven separate intercontinental railroad lines, the U.S. was forced to abandon completion of their one attempt in Iowa.
Hodge was born and raised on a farm in upstate New York. He was clumsy and uncoordinated, offering little help to his parents. He feels little affection for them and senses none from them, although he realizes their dreary lives leave little time for anything other than struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. He loves books, cherishing his favorites for multiple readings, and sees no purpose in life beyond his desire to learn. He wants to be an historian or teacher, with the War of Southron Independence his specialty, realizing it is the major factor that created the world as he knows it. He leaves home at 17, mainly to no longer be a burden on his parents, but also to seek work and education in New York. On his first night in the city he is beaten and robbed of his meager possessions, including his precious books. While this is tragic, it unexpectedly leads him to a man who offers him a job at a bookstore. No pay, only a place to sleep and food to eat, but unlimited access to any book he cares to read. He's still there six years later, with no money for school, but a vast array of knowledge on many subjects. He comes to realize that his boss is involved in some shady, most likely illegal, activities, and he seeks a way out. He sends letters to various colleges seeking scholarships, but his only invitation comes from a private intellectual cooperative in Pennsylvania, known as Haggershaven, willing to advance him train fare.
Most of the people of the community are scholars of disciplines that do not interest Hodge; science, mathematics, engineering, design, literature. While he has dreams of being a writer, it would be exclusively of an historical nature, he sees no value in fiction. He fears he doesn't have the qualifications or the ambition that would impress Haggershaven, but he is accepted anyway. Eight years later he has published some well-received history books, but continuously turns away from offers to teach since he has found his perfect home among friends, as well as a wife who has no desire to leave either. Following the publication of the first volume in a series exploring the last campaigns of the war, he receives a letter from a renowned Southern historian, which while praising the work, also calls into question Hodge's understanding of the reasons for the Union's defeat. Hodge's conjecture is that it is as much luck as anything else, while the Southerner insists it is due to Robert E. Lee's superior tactical planning at Gettysburg and after. Hodge is depressed about this for a time, even considers abandoning the second volume until he has time for more study. Fortuitously, a physicist (Hodge's former lover, Barbara Haggers) has designed, constructed and tested a time machine. She convinces him he has to go back to 1863 to make direct observations before completing his book.
What occurs when Hodge visits the past is not of interest here. Even if you hadn't been aware of this book before it might not be too hard to anticipate what that segment entails. I'd rather talk more about Hodge and his life's work, and what type of man it has made of him. His bookstore boss once described him as a "spectator type," only an observer of life and not a doer. Hodge sees nothing wrong with this though, since he perceives it is the doers who generally muck up things for everyone else. As well as being an avid reader, Hodge is also a student of human nature and a good judge of character. In his world, slavery had been abolished in the South even though blacks, along with women, other minorities, and all non-land owners, are still second-class citizens who are not allowed to vote. In the North, blacks are even more despised since it is felt they were a major reason for the U.S. losing the war. Yet Hodge is not prejudiced against those of color and hates this condition in his country. One of his closest friends in New York is a diplomat from Haiti, with whom he has many interesting discussions on books and history. Several times he is berated for this relationship, but he refuses to denounce his friendship. When he realizes that his boss is involved with an underground militia, and that their activities include crimes against the state (as well as numerous lynchings), he knows he must find a different environment in which to continue his studies. In short, Hodge is a man of conscience, which is why Haggershaven is such a godsend for him. There it is believed that the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward.
Moore's literary style might seem a bit dated and stiff, utilizing colloquialisms and unfamiliar figures of speech, but I think it fits in with when the book was written and the nature of the society Hodge is from. As well as being impoverished, the U.S. didn't seem too concerned about the education of its citizenry. Literacy itself was considered a waste of time and people thought Hodge weird for his love of books. He learned to read and write at an early age, but he doesn't make any reference to school. If he was self-taught, it was from a limited number of books by the time he leaves home, so the non-literary nature of his narrative makes sense at that point. It is best to look at this as a journal Hodge writes over a long period of time, and it does become more polished in style as the story progresses, reflecting his continued learning curve.
This story originally appeared as a novella of the same title, in the November 1952 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was expanded to novel length the following year. It would have been eligible for a Hugo in 1954, yet those awards were skipped by the WorldCon of that year. In 2004, Retro Hugos were presented at Noreascon4 for work produced in '53, yet Bring the Jubilee did not receive a nomination. Even though it is a good book, I am not saying it deserved a Hugo in either of those instances, for it did have excellent competition, from the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Clement and Sturgeon, with the award going to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It would be very high on the list of honorable mentions though. If nothing else, it is a good metaphor for considering one's actions carefully, for no matter how inconsequential any of us might think of ourselves, everything we do effects everything that comes after. Maybe being a doer is not so bad after all, as long as you do the right thing.
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