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