Bring the Jubilee – Book Review
Bring the Jubilee, written by Ward Moore and published in 1953, is one of the classic alternative history novels. Set in the mid twentieth century, it describes a world where the Confederate States won the Battle of Gettysburg.
Bring the Jubilee: Logline
In a world where the Confederate States won the US Civil War, and the USA is an impoverished backwater, a historian uses a brilliant but unstable mathematician’s time-machine to go back to the Battle of Gettysburg and witness the turning point of the war.
Bring the Jubilee: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1938. Hodge Backmaker is a bookish, seventeen-year-old farm-boy in Poughkeepsie, USA. He decides to leave home and travels to New York with vague plans to gain a university education.
New York’s relative wealth amazes Hodge when compared to his poverty-stricken rural upbringing. New York buildings reach as high as ten storeys, there’s a railway, two streetcar lines and even a few steam-powered cars. Not knowing the city, Hodge wanders into trouble, is mugged and has his few possessions stolen.
The next day, a penniless Hodge’s only option is to join the ‘Grand Army’, an underground, anti-Confederate group. Hodge works for their printer, producing pamphlets and propaganda. He meets an indentured servant girl and falls in barely-requited love. He also makes friends with a Haitian diplomat. When Hodge’s girlfriend finds out that he’s friends with a non-white she’s appalled and drops him.
Hodge though is still determined to become a student and moves to a university called Haggershaven. On the way, he witnesses highwaymen holding up a stagecoach. Although the highwaymen murder most of the passengers, one, Caterina, survives, though struck dumb. Hodge carries her to Haggershaven where she ends up being treated. Years later, when she recovers, Hodge marries her.
One of the other researchers at Haggershaven is Barbara, the daughter of the provost. Though highly unstable, she’s also a mathematical genius, and is investigating the equivalence of space, time and matter. Hodge researches the ‘War of Southron Independence’ and how the Confederates came to win it. He gains a reputation as a historian and publishes a volume of his history of the war, called Chancellorsville and After.
Barbara succeeds in demonstrating her research is correct through building a time machine called HX1. When she returns safely from a trip to 1861, Hodge decides to travel back to 1863 to witness the Battle of Gettysburg…
Reaching the battlefield, Hodge takes his place near two hills called the Round Tops. This is the critical position of the battle, as Confederate control of the Round Tops enabled them to flank the Union forces and destroy them.
The Union troops fall back past Hodge as expected. However, the advancing Confederates spot Hodge and drag him out of hiding. Realising that he’s made a potentially world-altering mistake, Hodge tries not to reveal any information. The Confederates take his silence as confirmation that they’re walking into a trap and halt without occupying the Round Tops.
Hodge’s intervention means the Union retains control of the Round Tops, the Confederates lose the Battle of Gettysburg and the Union wins the war.
Horrified, Hodge attempts to return to 1952. He discovers that the timeline has altered so much that the time machine was never invented. He’s left stranded in 1863. In 1877 he writes his story up.
A final note in another hand describes how Hodge’s story was found in 1953 and that the finder remembers his father telling him of an old man with tales of an impossible world.
Bring the Jubilee: Analysis
Much of Bring the Jubilee is a travelogue of the alternate history. The section in New York spends a lot of time describing the poverty-stricken city and the desperate situation of the USA.
There’s much debate about the fixed or fluid nature of fate and whether free-will exists. The printer Hodge works for personifies the view that every action and every outcome is immutable and that free will is an illusion. Hodge’s Haitian diplomat friend takes the opposite view – that people’s fates are not predestined but the result of their moral decisions. Hodge himself is ambivalent on the subject his character does not to take sides. In his life, as in his career as a historian he passively observes without interfering. Of course, this makes his ultimate effect on the world even more ironic.
Bring the Jubilee was originally a novella. The novel does feel like a book split into two parts – the travelogue and the time travel / Battle of Gettysburg section.
The Alternate History of Bring the Jubilee
The point of departure of Bring the Jubilee is the confederate states winning the Battle of Gettysburg.
That leads to them winning the American Civil War, or ‘The War of Southron Independence’ as it’s called. The Confederacy then becomes a world power, whilst the USA declines into a backwater.
The USA is deeply racist having adopted the stab-in-the-back-myth as the reason it lost the war. The population is declining due to emigration, only white people have full citizenship and there’s still indentured servitude, if not slavery. The two main political parties are the Whigs and the Populists, neither of which offer any plan for recovery. It’s almost a failed state – unable even to defend its own borders or maintain the rule of law.
Meanwhile, the Confederate States have freed their slaves and become a world power, after expanding across South America. The Confederate capital, Washington-Baltimore, and Leesburg (our Mexico City) are world-leading cities.
Internationally, the world seems more authoritarian. Napoleon VI rules France. An expanded Germany, known as the German Union dominates Europe having won the ‘Emperors’ War’ in early twentieth century. The world’s two power-blocs are the German Union, allied with the Spanish Empire, and the Confederacy, allied with the British Empire.
In the world of Bring the Jubilee technology has also developed differently – it’s a steampunk world before steampunk was popular. There are airships instead of planes, mechanical telegraphs, gaslight, and steam-driven ‘minibles’ instead of cars.
Bring the Jubilee seems to be an absolute worst case scenario for the defeated USA. That’s because Ward Moore is obviously trying to make a parallel with the relative poverty of the Southern States in the real world. He has simply turned the real-world situation upside down.
The USA in Bring the Jubilee is a desperately poor country. It can’t afford to build railways or even proper roads – in the nineteen forties people are travelling by stagecoach over unmade roads. Hodge can’t publish his book in the USA because there are no academic publishers and indeed barely a university other than Haggershaven.
This does stretch my credulity. Were the people of, say, Alabama travelling by stagecoach in 1940? Was Atlanta a city where cars were rare? Was there not a single university or publisher in the ex-Confederacy? I’m not convinced that losing the Civil War could have thrown the USA off its path to wealth and industrialisation so drastically.
So, really, this is a dystopian moral fable about fate and freewill, not a realistic alternate history.
Alternative History and Time Travel
Bring the Jubilee initially seems like plausible alternate history, but as it’s later revealed that the point of departure is caused by time travel, it’s actually implausible alternative history as defined in What is Alternative History?
Implausible alternative history uses a point of departure that could only occur through supernatural phenomena or extremely advanced technology. Although the scenarios are effectively impossible they can lead to unusual and fascinating stories.
It’s interesting that so many alternative history novels involve elements of time travel. For example, The Guns of the South is another US Civil War alternative history caused by time travel.
My hypothesis is that alternative history novelists look for plausible reason for history changing and want to show that point of departure. There’s also a strong preference to ‘show don’t tell’ drummed into novelists. Without time travellers to act as protagonists, the author simply has no explanation for why history changed.
Of course many alternative history novels, like SS-GB and Fatherland, do take a ‘no explanation’ approach. Time travel though solves those problems, enabling the author to show why the world changed. The only other explanation is a ‘multiverse’ of the sort implied in The Man in the High Castle. There, the world of the story is not our own but a parallel world within a myriad of other possible universes.
Reality: The Battle of Gettysburg
Many people regard The Battle of Gettysburg as the turning point of the American Civil War, particularly because of the simultaneous capture of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg. With the Confederate offensive stopped, and the Confederacy cut in half, Union victory was all but assured. The reverse though is not true. A Confederate victory at Gettysburg would not have led to the Confederates marching into Washington to dictate terms. The outnumbered and out-gunned Confederate’s main hope was to survive long enough that war-weariness and anti-war sentiment in the USA led to a ceasefire. A Confederate victory at Gettysburg would certainly have helped that strategy though.
Bring the Jubilee: My Verdict
A vitally important piece of alternate history, and the key novel of an alternate American Civil War.
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