Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America by Nathaniel Williams

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Professor Williams discussed his upcoming book as part of the Fall 2017 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series.

  • Nathaniel Williams, “Mark Twain and the Inventor Fiction Boom: Technology Meets American Conceit, 1876-1910” (October 11, 2017 – Quarry Farm Barn)

Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America. By Nathaniel Williams. University of Alabama Press, 2018. Pp. 206. Hardcover $44.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1984-7.

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 WonderFrank Reade, Jr., and His Electric BoatFrank Reade, Jr., and His Air-ShipFrank Reade, Jr.’s Great Electric TricycleFrank Reade, Jr., and His Electric Prairie Schooner; or Fighting the Mexican Horse ThievesAdrift 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.

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