Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Edward S. Ellis' The Steam Man of the Prairies

The 1860's were a crucial period in American history. Perhaps the most crucial, in fact.

The American Civil War began in 1861, lasting to 1865. Over two million troops from the North and up to one million troops from the South clashed over very different interpretations of individual liberty and the meaning of a "United States." The catalyst for the American Civil War was the question of slavery, and the means to fight it was mass industrialized slaughter. In its terrible wake, 365,000 soldiers of the Union and 290,000 soldiers of the Confederacy lay dead, leaving behind a specter that still haunts the United States to this day. It also left Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, with the dubious distinction of being the first US President to be assassinated. Nevertheless the United States emerged from the violence wounded but whole. The question of slavery was emphatically answered with freedom's ring and the terrible machinery of warfare could be now turned to America's economic ascendancy on the world stage.

The Homestead Act of 1862 and completion of the Transcontinental Railway in 1869 brought a massive influx of newcomers to the prairies. The number of people living on farms doubled from 10 million to 22 million between 1860 and 1880, rising to 31 million by 1905. The rising number of settlers, mountain men, industrial magnates, and tourists also created a crisis on the frontier. In 1864, Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, a piece of federal legislation designating the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia as a California state park. This is turn laid the groundwork for the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the first national park in the United States and the world. Yellowstone was itself only half-believed rumours through the 1860's, and it was in 1869 that Major John Wesley Powell conducted his unbelievable expedition into the Grand Canyon. These ventures only nominally protected these irreplaceable parcels of  land from exploitation. 1862 also saw a gold rush in Montana... Not as iconic as the California Gold Rush of 1849 or Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, it was still this gold rush that, in part, inspired one of the first true American science fiction novels: The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis.


Published only a year before the completion of the Transcontinental Railway, The Steam Man of the Prairies was the first in a positive mania for stories of boy geniuses. Sci-Fi critic John Clute, after the fact, applied the term "Edisonade" to the type of story which Ellis ushered in: dime novel adventures of technological and territorial conquest on the far frontier, named for the iconic American entrepreneur Thomas Edison and reaching its apotheosis with Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) by Garrett P. Serviss. Both the Frank Reade and Jack Wright dime novel series trace back to The Steam Man of the Prairies, which had been consistently republished from 1868 through 1904. The first Frank Reade book, written by Harry Enton, was Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains; Or, The Terror of the West (1892), after which he went on to invent a Steam Horse (1892), a Steam Team (1893), and a Steam Tally-Ho (1893). 

This story and its genre is also a largely forgotten tradition of the Western. Few Western authors tried to combine the genre with supernatural or technological themes, inventing an informal sub-genre since dubbed "Weird Western." Besides the Edisonades of Ellis and Enton, the earliest known examples include the very strange dinosaur story The Monster of Lake LaMetrie (1899) and various short stories by Conan creator Robert E. Howard. The most notable of these is Howard's vampire tale The Horror from the Mound (1932). The television series The Wild Wild West (1965-69) was a Western take on the contemporaneous "Spy-Fi" genre that included the likes of James Bond and (the real) Avengers. The original Ghost Rider was a Western comic published from 1949. When the trademark lapsed, Marvel snatched it up, publishing the Western version in 1967. It was rebooted a few years later into the more familiar flaming biker. In film, the Weird Western goes back to at least 1935, with the downright feverish Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire. Ancestral to them all is The Steam Man of the Prairies

Star of The Steam Man of the Prairies is Johnny Brainerd, an inventive child prodigy whose intellect is so active that his mother would make offhand suggestions just to keep him busy for a while. One of those offhand remarks was to invent a steam-powered mechanical man. Though he tries to keep his invention under wraps (not easy when it accidentally walks through walls), it eventually comes to the attention of treasure-seeker and trapper Baldy Bicknell. Bickenll, unable to coerce Brainerd into selling the steam man, invites the boy and his invention to his gold diggings in the American Rocky Mountains. Though Brainerd is hunchbacked and physically handicapped, his spirit of adventure is not and the offer is snatched up. 

What follows is a high plains adventure with buffalo hunts, Native Americans consistently frustrating the efforts of the gold miners, and a chapter-long b-plot with the eponymous "huge hunter" that goes nowhere and seems to have been duly forgotten by the author, Edward S. Ellis. No stranger to boy's own adventures and tales of frontiersmen, Ellis' writing credits number in the hundreds. His 1860 novel Seth Jones, or the Captives of the Frontier was said to have been one of Abraham Lincoln's favourite stories. His best-known books during his lifetime were the "Deerfoot" series, about an Indigenous archer, starting in 1880 with Hunters of the Ozark and spanning to 1905. Towards the end of his life, Ellis turned his attentions more towards biography, including the popular Life of Colonel David Crockett. He is in prime form in The Steam Man of the Prairies, with all of the stereotypical stuff one expects from a ripping dime novel... Including some more questionable racial stereotypes.

At least, in Ellis' case, one can say that The Steam Man of the Prairies paints with a broad brush. The most egregious racial stereotypes are not against Indigenous peoples, but again Baldy Bicknell's own companions. The Yankee Ethan Hopkins and the Irishman Mickey McSquizzle have their moments, in thick transliterated accents, of stereotyping including, for example, the drunken Irish brawling that passes for romance.Indigenous peoples get off relatively lightly for a novel of this type. The Steam Man does rip around the country terrorizing the "savages" who are described as "superstitious," but through incident the true nature of the machine is made apparent to the Indigenous warriors rebuffing these crazy white people. They proceed to show sufficient ingenuity to deal with the problem, leading up to the novel's explosive climax.

Nevertheless, there is a sensibility to The Steam Man of the Prairies which perceives Native Americans as an organic part of the American landscape to be subdued, much like the buffalo or the goldmines. In the 19th century, room for immigrants was carved out by a policy of assimilation and displacement of Indigenous peoples. Initial relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers in the West had been largely peaceable before the Civil War, but with volume comes pressure. The Navajo Wars culminated in 1863-64 with Kit Carson's campaign and the "Long Walk" of displacement. The Sioux and Apache Wars were still to come in the 1870's and 80's, the former precipitated by the Dakota War of 1862 and Sioux War of 1865. Decades of violence and dispossession marred the plains, the intergenerational traumas of which are still felt to this day. The forces of "civilization" were truly savage in their dealings with Native Americans.

As disposable dime novels intended for the children of the Gilded Age, these "boy's own adventures" are unselfconscious. The American West is perceived as a landscape of adventure to be subdued for the accumulation of wealth and the manifestation of American destiny. The future implied by Ellis does not belong to the miners and mountain men of America's first century, but to youngsters like Johnny Brainerd… A physically atrophied child whose entire physiology is oriented toward the development of his brain. The Steam Man of the Prairies is both a paean to the West and a protend of its end, a prophet of the advance of civilization and industry in the form of an improbable but fascinating steam robot.

The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies can be found in Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age: An Anthology now available from Amazon. Click here to order your copy.

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