Thursday, November 09, 2017

Chicanonautica: Rip-Snortin' in the Wild West with Luis “NONAME” Senarens

by Ernest Hogan

A while back I reviewed a dime novel by Luis Senarens and mostly talked about racism. Still, the fact of the Cuban American Jules Verne is important, and I admire the dime novel writers, who like the pulp writers, were paid by the word, and produced phenomenal bodies of work to make a living. Some of Senarens' titles peaked my curiosity, and couple seemed to be westerns: Frank Reade Jr., and His New Steam Man; Or, The Young Inventor's Trip to the Far West (1892), and Jack Wright and His Electric Stage; Or, Leagued Against the James Boys.

But the steam man had his pre-Luis Senarens origins—yes, the sci-fi franchise goes back to the nineteenth century . . .

It started with The Huge Hunter; Or, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis in 1868. It introduced the revolutionary concept of a carriage drawn, not by horses, but a giant, steam-powered man in a stovepipe hat. The boy genius who invented it was a hunchback. The book was very popular and reprinted many times.

This popularity lead to the 1883 The Steam Man of the Plains; Or, The Terror of the West, featuring a young inventor named Frank Reade, who was not hunchbacked.

The author was Harry Enton, a pseudonym for Harold Cohen. Could this be another case of a writer having to disguise his ethnicity to get published? Like Luis, and much later, Robert Silverberg publishing as Calvin M. Knox ( the M is for Moses) in the pulps? Do we detect a tendency in American pop culture here?

Frank Reade was so popular that in 1892, Frank Reade Jr. took over as the designated Young Inventor who was soon impressing his dad in aforementioned New Steam Man. Our man Luis, as NONAME, was the writer.

There’s a strict formula: An invention or idea, inspires Frank to go on an adventure with his friend, who only exists so Frank doesn’t have to talk to himself and whose name I keep forgetting, and his two bumbling, bickering sidekicks the negro Pomp, and the Irishman Barney. In this case, Frank can’t wait to use the steam man to terrorize “the wild savages of the plains and the outlaws of Western Kansas and Colorado.”

There is much daring-do, and rip-snortin’ Wild West action, Pomp and Barney do most of the heavy lifting amid their slapstick antics, and use of three different pronunciations of the n-word.

Though characterization isn’t Luis/NONAME’s strong point, the villains provide some complexity of identity. Artemas Cliff, the sombrero-wearing bandit chief, who at first speaks with a Spanish accent reveals: “I am no Spaniard, as you thought. I am as good an American as you.” As for the Indian chief Black Buffalo: “His is a synonym to terror among the settlers from Dakota to the boundary line Texas. By many he was claimed to be a white man or a renegade. Others averred that he was a recreant Pawnee chief.”

There’s a difficulty in trusting those who can’t be easily stereotyped.

So what about the hero of 1894’s Jack Wright and His Electric Stage? I was expecting some variation, but Jack Wright is indistinguishable from Frank Reade, Sr. or Jr. He’s often referred to as the Young Inventor. He has two comic sidekicks, Tim, a one-legged sailor, and Fritz, a fat Dutchman, who have thick dialects like Pomp and Barney. Jack also has a dull friend that he can explain everything to.

The electric stage is called The Terror, and, in keeping with conventions of the times is referred to as “she.”

And she proves to be faster and better in a battle with bad guys than the steam man.

The villains are none other than Jesse and Frank James! Other famous outlaws are name-dropped, but not given any lines. This tradition of giving characters famous names went on into the twentieth-century development of the western genre in fiction and film.

There are lines like: The bullet from Jack’s pneumatic pistol struck Jesse James, and a hoarse yell of pain escaped the bandit king.

The action rips and snorts, but Luis’ strength is his sci-fi gadgets: pneumatic rifles and revolvers with explosive bullets, bulletproof aluminum chain mail suits, and The Terror herself.

All examples of a powerful imagination that filled more than 300 dime novels. Steampunks could learn a few things from him.

And we also need to remember the racism. And that times have changed. We hope.

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