Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is a fairly obscure alternate-history story published in 1953 in which the South won the “War for Southron Independence.” In this world, Robert E. Lee succeeds Jefferson Davis as the second president of the Confederacy in 1865. The Confederacy steadily expands its empire through Mexico and South America. Its chief rival is the German Union, which splits control of Europe with the Spanish Empire. In response, the Confederacy has allied with Great Britain, creating two opposing empires that straddle the Atlantic.
Strangely enough, slavery was abolished but minorities continue to face persecution, and poverty is rampant in the United States, the former Union states of the North. Other than a rich landowner minority, most people are indentured to their owners, effectively a form of slavery. In addition, the combustible engine, light bulb, and aircraft were never invented; instead they have steam-powered minibiles (the equivalent of cars) and dirigibles, so horses or trains are still regularly used for transportation. The telephone was also not invented, so the telegraph is the main means of communication.
The main character is a directionless youth named Hodge Backmaker who leaves his impoverished life in the countryside of Wappingers Falls, New York to move to New York City, one of the few cities in the North to still thrive in a North America dominated by the Southron Confederate States. He comes to NYC eager to get into a university, only to immediately be robbed of his possessions. Though great luck he manages to find work at a bookshop, reading almost constantly to educate himself. He develops a close relationship with the proprietor, who turns out to be in league with the Grand Army, a subversive organization devoted to restoring the United States to its former greatness.
The story then takes a sudden turn, as Hodges decides to leave NYC and join a small progressive intellectual co-op in rural Pennsylvania. He pursues his dream of becoming a historian dedicated to studying the war between the North and South, gets involved in a love triangle, and then encounters a device that could help him very directly in his research, with totally unexpected consequences…
The story is extremely well-written, informed by the initially ignorant but intellectually-hungry mind of Hodge. His desire to pursue pure knowledge for its own sake in a poor, downtrodden North that has been left to decay after losing the war, and where blacks, Asians, Jews and other races are treated cruelly and with contempt, is not what you would expect of an alternate history tale centered around the Civil War.
I wouldn’t even have known about this book if it weren’t featured in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and I’m glad I read it. It presents so many brilliant little details of his alternate world, but the main story revolves around the life and thoughts of the main character, so that I often felt prevented from seeing the bigger picture of his alternate world, and despite the depth of characterization, this book could have been longer and more complex, taking more time to explore his concept, and most likely have made a greater impact in the SF field. If he was writing today, I think it would have been just the first book in a long and successful series. As it is, it’s a “minor” classic that few people have read, and I’d like to change that.