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The Breadwinners

John Hay’s The Breadwinners: A Social Study (1883) is hardly a great novel. But it is, I’m confident, the best novel ever written by a future U.S. Secretary of State. And it’s a nice send-up of the “professional reformer” of the late 19th century — precursor of the modern “community organizer.”

Indeed, the only fully realized character in The Breadwinners is its villain, a professional reformer. Claiming a commitment to improving the lot of the working man — but outside of the trade union movement — Hay’s villain vows “to get our rights peaceably, if we can’t get them any other way.”

The villain resides seamlessly at the intersection of radicalism, raw hatred, opportunism, and criminality. And to think, Hay never met Bernardine Dohrn or Bill Ayers.

The villain’s name is Andrew Jackson Offit. And in case the first part of that name is too subtle, the narrator explains that it represents

an unconscious brand. It generally shows that the person is the son of illiterate parents with no family pride or affections, but filled with bitter and savage partisanship which found its expression in a servile worship of the most injurious personality in American history.

How Hay must have enjoyed writing that!

Conservatives of a certain bent, particularly those with an interest in late 19th century history, will enjoy The Breadwinners. And because it was written so long ago, you can get it on your Kindle for free.

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