Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 8 October 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2010 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mark Twain's relation to technology, religion, and imperialism has been examined by a number of scholars, especially in recent years, but these topics have not been examined together, and they have certainly not been examined in light of proto-science fiction dime novels. In Gears and God, Nathaniel Williams has done just that. While only one of his study's six chapters focuses solely on Twain, his thoroughly researched book sheds light on Twain by placing him in a context that has been previously ignored. The result is a study that succeeds in opening up new vistas in Twain criticism.
Williams's introduction, "This is Religion and Totally Different," relates Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) to the "boy inventor" dime novels of the time, over 300 of them, which melded travel, technology, and Christian exceptionalism. Williams states that he wants to accomplish two things: "reevaluation of the portrayal of empire that has pervaded earlier, genre-exclusive studies of these texts, and a consideration of their role in larger nineteenth-century conversations about science and technology's impact on religious faith" (5). In six chapters, he achieves those two goals.
Ch.1, "Inventing the Technocratic Exploration Tale: God, Gears, and Empire," examines how "American dime-novel invention stories performed significant cultural work in the United States" (13). Science fiction scholars have called this dime novel sub-genre "Edisonades," after the inventor, but Williams adds the term "technocratic exploration tales" (14), emphasizing technocracy as a building block of empire. He shows how these texts both justified and undermined American imperialism.
In his second chapter, "Building Imperialists: The Steam Man, 'Used Up' Man, and the Man in the Moon," Williams covers the early development of the sub-genre, looking back to Washington Irving's 1809 tale of an invasion of the Earth by the Moon, and to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man That Was Used Up" (1839), about a soldier who has lost his limbs in the Indian Wars, and through the use of prosthetic devices becomes what science fiction scholars have called the first cyborg in fiction. His overview culminates with an 1868 dime novel by Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies, which has been accepted as the first American science fiction novel. This early text set the prototype for the genre: a boy inventor and his steam-driven automaton, embarking on travel and adventure to conquer the West.
Ch. 3, "Imagining Inventors: Frank Reade and Dime-Novel Technocratic Exploration," focuses on boy inventor Frank Reade Jr., the subject of many dime novels, written by Luis Philip Senarens, a prolific Cuban American writer. Frank Reade Jr. uses technology to travel to distant places, interfere in events, and right wrongs, which Williams aligns with Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. A few of the titles give a sense of the inventions and the locales: Frank Reade, Jr., and His Steam Wonder, Frank Reade, Jr., and His Electric Boat, Frank Reade, Jr., and His Air-Ship, Frank Reade, Jr.'s Great Electric Tricycle, Frank Reade, Jr., and His Electric Prairie Schooner; or Fighting the Mexican Horse Thieves, Adrift in Africa; or Frank Reade, Jr., among the Ivory Hunters with His New Electric Wagon, and Frank Reade, Jr.'s Electric Buckboard; or, Thrilling Adventures in North Australia. His analysis of the Frank Reade Jr. novels chronicles the shift from American settings to international ones, including coverage of the Cuban Revolution, with Senarens siding with Cuba. One reason for the uproar over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Williams argues, was the perceived deleterious effects of dime novels on American youth. Williams moves to religious matters in his fourth chapter, "Discovering Biblical Literalism: Frank Reade Redux," documenting a turn toward biblical issues: plots that found lost tribes and identified with conservative, literal interpretations of the Bible.
All of this background leads to the chapter that will be of most interest to Twainians, Ch. 5, "Confronting 'Fol-de-Rol': Mark Twain, Technocracy, and Religion." Williams begins with an interesting focus, the lost manuscript of Orion Clemens's technocratic exploration novel, The Kingdom of Sir John Franklin, about a trip to the Earth's core. Although we do not have the manuscript, we do have Twain's 1877-1878 letters to his brother, offering criticism and advice about the novel-in-progress. Twain noted that Jules Verne had already published such a novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864; English translation 1872), which Orion claimed he had not read. Orion's text was full of religious doubt, and Twain counseled his brother to tone that down in consideration of his audience.
Williams then moves to an examination of a number of Twain works that fit the sub-genre, beginning with his abandoned 1884 novel, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, Twain's first work that combines exploration, religion, and technology. The text has long been read as a debunking of romanticized notions of Native Americans, notions that came from James Fenimore Cooper, but Williams suggests the notions could also have come from dime novels. He also notes Twain's sympathetic portrayal of Native American spirituality.
A Connecticut Yankee clearly fits Williams's tri-partite thesis, as he argues that Hank Morgan's introduction of 19th century technology to 6th century England is an imperialist effort, thwarted by religion. He states, "Twain makes technophilia one of the defining elements of his protagonist," along with Hank Morgan's desire "to enact nationwide religious reform, to surreptitiously attack the Church and expound at length on the best methods to undermine it" (114). He continues: "Underlying A Connecticut Yankee is the notion that these two elements are tied together, that reform means simultaneously undercutting spiritual authority and introducing new technology, and more importantly that the Church will be threatened--perhaps quite justifiably--by science and technology and will attempt to quash it" (114).
Williams then turns to Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), which again unites technology, imperialism, and religion, as Tom, Huck, and Jim go on a crusade, by balloon. Williams makes an excellent reading of Twain's satire of imperialism in a work that has long been considered merely a weak sequel. He continues the recent trend of taking Tom Sawyer Abroad more seriously. Tom Sawyer and Hank Morgan are both "limited technocrats," he argues (130).
The final chapter, "Reconstructing Biblical History: Technocratic Explorations, 1899-1910," moves from dime novels to more conventional novels, including one of special interest to Twainians, Albert Bigelow Paine's The Great White Way (1901), about a polar expedition that discovers a harmonious population at the South Pole, a satire of capitalism, imperialism, and Christian liberalism. In his conclusion, "Technocratic Exploration's Legacy," Williams recounts the subsequent arguments over religion and science, especially Darwinism, arguments that continue today, including intelligent design.
Gears and God is important for the way it places Mark Twain's works within the context of dime novels that link technology, imperialism, and religion, all important topics in Twain studies. While Williams is careful not to claim that Twain was a reader of such popular sub-genre fiction, his study shows that Twain was part of a broader cultural movement that has not been fully explored. Others have looked at technology, imperialism, and religion in Twain's life and work, but not linked in this way, through the lens of dime novels of invention, exploration, and religious faith. Williams mentions the Paige typesetter, but he might have devoted more attention to Twain's personal relation with other new technologies of his time: his early embrace of the telephone, the typewriter, and the bicycle, among others, as well as his ambivalence toward that technology. Nevertheless, Gears and God is an important contribution to our understanding of Mark Twain in his historical and cultural moment, a book that at once deepens the commentary on technology, imperialism, and religion and opens up new and interesting ground.