The First American Dystopia

America's first dystopian novel

Unfortunately not a story to be proud of

Originally published July 14, 2023. Content note: This post contains quotations from an extremely racist book.

Jerome Bonaparte Holgate grew up in Utica, New York, in the early 19th century. A minor scion of a prominent mercantile family with interests in farming and banking, he graduated from law school and joined the bar, but he really wanted to be a writer. An active member of the Utica Literary Club, Holgate got his start as a writer by self-publishing and eventually achieved some minor and mostly local recognition for works related to genealogy and religion.[i]

Holgate’s place in literary history would be virtually nonexistent but for one fact: He wrote the earliest American dystopian novel I have been able to identify.

Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation in the Year 19-- is one of the earliest entries in the genre overall, regardless of national origin, and only the third book-length dystopia ever written, as far as I have been able to determine.

Self-published in 1835 under the pseudonym “Oliver Bolokitten,” Sojourn is an abhorrent little book that imagines a 20th century society in which interracial sex and procreation— “amalgamation” in the vernacular of the day—is considered not only acceptable but obligatory, as a progressive solution to racial prejudice, with the ultimate goal of blending all the races into one indistinguishable race.

The imagined threat of amalgamation was one of the biggest topics in New York headlines at the time. The state had abolished slavery in 1817, and it was an important hub for the nationwide abolitionist movement. But racism and racial hostility could still be found in abundance. Holgate was one of many White people in the state who argued for what was called “colonization”— the premise that freed Black people should be deported to Africa, rather than integrated into American society.

James Watson Webb, the powerful publisher of the New York Courier and Enquirer, was a supporter of colonization, and he used his newspaper to libel and harass the city’s abolitionists. One of his favorite lines of attack was to accuse the abolitionists of being “amalgamists,” a practice he found “disgustful.” He used his newspaper to promote sensational headlines—the “fake news” of the day—claiming that prominent abolitionists were secretly pursuing an agenda of amalgamation.

Webb’s smear campaign was so successful that it led to massive race riots in New York City, for four consecutive nights in July 1834.[ii] Miraculously, no one was reported killed despite widespread violence and property destruction. To cool tensions, the city’s major abolitionist society issued a statement averring that they were not amalgamationists.[iii]

Holgate was in the thick of this debate, arguing for colonization over integration during public debates in Utica. His fellow Literary Club members were in full agreement, engaging in such perfectly normal literary pursuits as burning abolitionists in effigy. Soon after the New York City riots, inspiration struck, and Holgate began writing his dystopian tale.[iv]

Written in the first person, Sojourn follows its narrator on a trip to a seemingly beautiful 20th century city where he discovers that the residents are adherents of “the amalgamating creed.” Holgate’s narrator is horrified by what he sees.

[A]ll was commingled into one hodge podge of Black flesh and White flesh, and yellow flesh—an astonishing fact, that Black flesh and White flesh mixed, produces yellow flesh, of all kinds of flesh the most disgusting, because it is a compound and has no purity in it; but is sort of an anomaly or patent right, or new invented specie, of which our Creator knows nothing. …

The book continues in this vein for 190 pages, describing the horrors endured in the name of racial equality, and arguing in favor of African-American colonization. The amalgamationists force the city’s residents into interracial marriages in defiance of their native instincts, using elaborate science fiction technology to suppress the “natural” revulsion Holgate imagined that future White men would have to suppress in order to breed with grotesquely caricatured women of color.[v]

These futuristic methods prove inadequate to the task, resulting in a horrific over-the-top narrative sequence that stands out for its repugnance even to those who study racist literature. A book-within-a-book offers a memoir of the agonies endured by the hybrid children of interracial unions, in whose body “differently coloured particles of flesh” engage in an internal war. Initial readers of Sojourn included members of the Utica Literary Club, who subsequently rioted in protest of an abolitionist convention proposed to be held in a local government building.

Dystopia in America was off to an inglorious start, but not an atypical one. Dystopian authors have turned to race more than any other topic, with over 100 novels and short stories focused on racial conflict, most often in terms of open war, but sometimes combined with “threats” of miscegenation—schemes along the lines of the story in Sojourn, in which interracial reproduction is encouraged or coerced as a liberal “solution” to racial prejudice by mixing all the races until they are thoroughly indistinguishable from each other.

More than two-thirds of those works I examined were written in support of White supremacy, but some also promoted Black separatism, nationalism or supremacy, with the remainder containing mixed or (at times) incomprehensible messages.

By their nature, dystopian works revolve around social dynamics—how and why humans organize themselves into groups. It is not surprising, therefore, that race should hold an important place in the genre. Race is one of the most powerful and toxic social boundaries, and racial supremacy is the ultimate unearned advantage, a birthright that fundamentally shapes one’s experience of society in real ways, particularly in the United States. Some of humanity’s darkest fears and impulses are stirred by the prospect of losing, or gaining, that supreme status, or corrupting the purity of identity that lies beneath. The prevalence of these issues in dystopian fiction and the ways that the genre manifests in the real world are why I study this topic.