Rather more successfully than 'O,' an anonymous 19th-century novel gripped both Washington insiders and the American public.
Will the unnamed author of "O," the new novel about a quasi-realistic 2012 presidential campaign, take his or her identity to the grave? Considering the horrific critical reaction to the book – "trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny," grumbled Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times – it might not be a bad idea. And there just so happens to be some precedent.
The anonymous author of a sensational and female-friendly 19th-century bestseller about the dangers of a socialist revolution never fessed up. But the unknown writer of "O" might not want to follow this precedent too closely: Everybody eventually figured out who wrote 1883's "The Bread-winners," which would one day hold the dubious distinction being "the first important polemic in American fiction in defense of Property."
The anonymous author was John Hay, a private secretary-turned-diplomat who managed to serve not one but two assassinated presidents in a life that also included a stint in journalism, an ambassadorship and, it seems, a lot of time spent learning to understand the ladies.
Hay first made a name for himself as a young man by serving as Abraham Lincoln's secretary in the White House. Amid the violent tumult of the 1870s, he busied himself by tut-tutting about "how the very devil seems to have entered the lower classes of working men, and there are plenty of scoundrels to encourage them to all lengths."
Socialism, he thought, was a scourge. A threat to democracy too. And, of course, a worthy topic of a novel. And so "The Bread-winners" was born.
The novel isn't just a tale of the battle over the future of civilization. It has a love story too. But, as a Hays biographer writes, "you become almost too absorbed in the struggle between Labor and Capital to care whether Farnham and Alice marry or not."
That's quite some literary trick, even today.