Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee
reviewed by Don Webb
Spoiler alert: Since the novel is more than fifty years old in 2006, this review article recapitulates the plot in general terms. It is a combination of alternate history and time travel. The article emphasizes the novel’s style and meaning.
Publishers: various (1952)
Paperback: about 194 pages
Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee has become an honored classic of alternate history. Like Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is one of the great books not only of science fiction but of historical fiction in general. In some quarters, both novels have become required reading for students of history.
The premise of Bring the Jubilee seems absurd: in the 1920’s of an alternate universe, the United States is a backwater on a continent dominated by the Confederacy, which has become a superpower. But the premise is actually a metaphor: the Confederacy’s victory in the "War of Southron Independence" has blighted history and trapped the characters of the novel in a world gone very wrong.
Ward Moore compellingly creates that most difficult of characters, the “passive hero.” Hodgins Backmaker is an icon of a defeated USA: born on a poor farm in downstate New York, Hodgins is an amiable, dreamy bumpkin whose every effort is ineffectual and whose every wish and dream are frustrated by events or by his own bumbling. Learning from his own experience, he takes the philosophical position that inaction is the best policy — and becomes a scholar of American history.
A fierce femme fatale — who is uncharacteristically enterprising for the times and is the genius behind the construction of a time machine — sends Hodgins back to witness in person the battle of Gettysburg. Confronted by Confederate soldiers at a crucial moment, Hodgins — true to form — says and does nothing in reply to their questions. The soldiers are suspicious of Hodgins’ silence; they halt their advance and thus forfeit the strategic Round Tops to the Union forces. Hodgins’ “non-intervention” costs them the battle and, ultimately, the war.
Hodgins Backmaker discovers, too late, that inaction is also action. His presence alone changes the course of history, and he finds himself stranded in our timeline. And he fulfills his own name: he goes “back” in time and “makes” a new world. The result is a supremely ironic twist on the “great man” theory of history: an ordinary, even mediocre person can affect history simply by being in the right place at the wrong time — or, in hindsight, the right time.
Bring the Jubilee would be merely a curiosity were it not for two successes. First, Ward Moore brings his characters to life with many adroit, small strokes, and he communicates their emotions with delicate craftsmanship. Second, Moore depicts not only an alternate history but something more important: what such a history would have meant. Like Hodgins Backmaker himself, it would have been pathetic.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb