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Past Valve Book Events

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies

Posted by John Holbo on 03/17/08 at 09:45 AM


I’ve been making books. I need your help. (Do you like my cover design?)

Allow me to quote editorial matter from my new edition (which you can download for free in a moment, keep your pants on.)

Edward Sylvester Ellis (1840-1916) was an educator and journalist, best known for his prolific authorship of over a hundred ‘dime novels’, under his own and more than a dozen noms de plume. Ellis’ The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) is considered perhaps the first ‘edisonade’ (the term is John Clute’s): tales of young American inventors whose ingenuity gets them into, and out of, adversity. Ellis’ Steam Man was prodigiously knocked-off, first by Harry Enton, author of Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains; which spawned a regular ‘story paper’ series. When Enton gave it up,  Luis Senarens (then aged just 14) took over. The steam man became electric; the youthful protagonist, Frank, acquired an extended family and many new inventions and adventures, populating the weekly Frank Reade Library. Known as ‘the American Jules Verne’, Senarens corresponded with the French Verne, who, inspired by American sources or not, put a ‘steam elephant’ in The Steam House (1880).

This ain’t your grandfather’s steampunk. It’s your great-grandfather’s steampunk. Isn’t that fascinating? Now my trouble starts. First, Senarens, although our focus will be Ellis. A 14-year old Cuban-American wunderkind who, apparently, wrote over 1500 ‘novels’ in his career and was admired by Verne. He’s like a cross between Daisy Ashford and Stephen King, with Latin flair. And what can I learn about him? Damned little. Wikipedia: his dates (1863-1939) and a ‘may not meet the general notability guideline’ note. That’s pitiful. And his stuff is completely unavailable. Oh, you can buy a few old issues of the Frank Reade Library on eBay. Go look. And there’s a bit around the web. But why hasn’t someone made a decent edition of the lot. (Apparently there was one in the recent past. But it’s totally unavailable.) My Frank M. Robinson Science Fiction of the 20th Century, an Illustrated History - nice book: out of print - has a few images, and not a lot of information to go with it.




‘Noname’ was Senarens.

Now, Ellis. Project Gutenberg, other places round the web, have free e-versions of his novel. But, on internal grounds, I suspect there are quality-control problems. Here is how the novel opens, according to Gutenberg. (But first, let me prepare you. This was an awkward period in publishing history. Penny-a-word for authors was no longer in effect. Publishers were paying fifty cents a ‘begorrah’ and two-bits a ‘jehosophat’, which - as sensible as such a scale might seem - introduced perverse incentives):

‘HOWLY vargin! what is that?’ exclaimed Mickey McSquizzle, with something like horrified amazement,

‘By the Jumping Jehosiphat, naow if that don’t, beat all natur’!’

‘It’s the divil, broke loose, wid full steam on!’

There was good cause for these exclamations upon the part of the Yankee and Irishman, as they stood on the margin of Wolf Ravine, and gazed off over the prairie. Several miles to the north, something like a gigantic man could be seen approaching, apparently at a rapid gait for a few seconds, when it slackened its speed, until it scarcely moved.

Occasionally it changed its course, so that it went nearly at right angles. At such times, its colossal proportions were brought out in full relief, looking like some Titan as it took its giant strides over the prairie.

The distance was too great to scrutinize the phenomenon closely; but they could see that a black volume of smoke issued either from its mouth or the top of its head, while it was drawing behind it a sort of carriage, in which a single man was seated, who appeared to control the movements of the extraordinary being in front of him.

No wonder that something like superstitious have filled the breasts of the two men who had ceased hunting for gold, for a few minutes, to view the singular apparition; for such a thing had scarcely been dreamed of at that day, by the most imaginative philosophers; much less had it ever entered the head of these two men on the western prairies.

‘Begorrah, but it’s the ould divil, hitched to his throttin ‘waging, wid his ould wife howlding the reins!’ exclaimed Mickey, who had scarcely removed his eyes from the singular object.

‘That there critter in the wagon is a man,’ said Hopkins, looking as intently in the same direction. ‘It seems to me,’ he added, a moment later, ‘that there’s somebody else a-sit-ting alongside of him, either a dog or a boy. Wal, naow, ain’t that queer?’

‘Begorrah! begorrah! do ye hear that? What shall we do?’

The spacing is bizarre, the use of commas undermotivated. (’naow if that don’t, beat all natur’!’) Also, by ‘superstitious’ does he mean ‘superstitions’ - ‘superstitiousness’? A typo? Ellis’ eccentric usage? I made a lot of corrections to obvious failures of optical character recognition, but it’s hard to know. I bought a Kessinger reprint, hoping for guidance. I’ve bought Kessinger stuff before, and it’s worked out. They just scan old books. But this time they obviously just scooped and poured straight from Gutenberg. They didn’t even bother to format it. Bah. Anyway, to get even with that sort of shoddiness, I hauled off and made a Lulu version. Paperback. I’m claiming zero royalties. (I’m just messing about.) If you just want a free PDF, you are supposed to be able to download one for free. But I’m not seeing a download link at Lulu, even though I asked for that. So here you go. Go ahead, download a free e-book.

And now: what I want from you. Does anyone have access to an old edition of Ellis’ novel? In your school library? Maybe microfilm? Wikipedia says only one copy of the first edition ‘with an intact cover’ exists - in Philadelphia, apparently. But it was reprinted a lot. Probably sloppily. Ah, well. But what am I going to do? Anyone interested in taking a few hours to check stuff for me? I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you can help me release my edition - under a CC license - in a more authoritative version, I’ll send you a free copy of Seven Soldiers of Victory, vol. 1 [amazon] - the Golden Age Seven Soldiers, that is. Which I’ve written about here. For a reason that’s not really sufficient I have two copies, one still in plastic. Obviously you should email me first - jholbo-at-mac-dot-com. First come, first served. If two people help me out - um, second prize is a copy of Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason [amazon]. I’ve got two of those as well.

Now I realize getting paid a single book isn’t enough to compensate you for your toil. But think of it this way: someday you can suck contemplatively on your pipe/Werther’s Original and say, ‘You know, I once had a job in publishing, and I took my pay entirely in back issues of Seven Soldiers of Victory.’

Tomorrow night: Brickpunk!


John, if I were still in Smelladelphia, I’d help you out.

But alls I know is, Pynchon got his grubby paws on these books, or books very much like them, as is made clear by *Against the Day*.  I know for certain that Pynchon did *Mason & Dixon* research at the Rosenbach Collection and the Library Company in Philly.

Which reminds me: any chance the Rosenbach or Library Company have copies of these books?

By on 03/17/08 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s what Clute and Nicholls say about Senarens:

(1863-1939) US writer, editor and publishing aide. Under at least 27 pseudonyms he wrote perhaps 2000 stories, mostly boys’ fiction, beginning in his teens. In later life, when that market declined, he served as managing editor for the Tousey publications, edited the weekly Motion Picture Stories and wrote motion-picture scenarios. He remains best known for his early work. In 1882, under the HOUSE NAME pseudonym “NONAME”, he took over the Frank Reade, Jr. series of dime novels (> DIME-NOVEL SF; FRANK READE LIBRARY), later claiming to have written “most” of the 179 stories about Frank Reade, Jr. and “all” the comparable Jack Wright yarns; these claims may be overstated. LPS exemplified the worst in the dime-novel tradition: very bad writing, sadism, ethnic rancour, factual ignorance and an exploitational mentality. On the positive side, he led the dime novel away from eccentric inventions into a developmental stream that culminated in modern CHILDREN’S SF.

They also mention E F Bleiler (ed) The Frank Reade Library (omni, 10 vols 1979-1986), which reprinted the complete Frank Reade Library.  Is it to this that you refer with ‘Apparently there was [and edition of the Frank Reade Library] in the recent past. But it’s totally unavailable.’ If so I’m touched that you consider 1979 ‘the recent past’.  You’re an old man now, John.  1979 was a long time ago.  Those clothes aren’t fashionable any more, you know.

By Adam Roberts on 03/17/08 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And here’s some of their enty on Ellis:

(1840-1916) Ellis established the dime novel as a commercial field with Seth Jones (1860), and instigated DIME-NOVEL SF and the EDISONADE through his instant adaptation of the historical Newark Steam Man of 1868 into a Western: The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868 Irwin P Beadle’s American Novels as “The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies”; 1868; vt The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies 1876; vt Baldy’s Boy Partner, or Young Brainerd’s Steam Man 1888). In this pivotal tale, the young proto-Edison protagonist, already credited with several INVENTIONS, creates a Steam Man (not a ROBOT, simply a man-shaped 30 mph steam engine with legs which cannot go into reverse), and travels west, where he has adventures on the frontier, conquering Indians and other fauna. Ellis’s use of the Steam Man was uninspired, with little recognition of the potential of the device; a projected sequel, featuring an improved machine, seems not to have been published. The Steam Man has been conveniently reprinted in E F BLEILER’s Eight Dime Novels (anth 1974) with a full introduction to the field.

I see from you picture that you’ve elected to go with the 1876 variant title The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies.  Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer Baldy’s Boy Partner, or Young Brainerd’s Steam Man though?  That’s a pretty super title, I think.

By Adam Roberts on 03/17/08 at 05:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, thanks, I’ve now ordered a cheap copy of “Eight Dime Novels”. That should allow me to finish my task. Too bad about Senarens being crap, if he is.

Yeah, I do consider 1979 to be pretty recent. I mean, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” came out and everything. “How ... can I ... compleeeeete the Waaaaalll”. Awesome.

You are right about the alternate title. I was pretty torn over that one.

By John Holbo on 03/17/08 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Senarens is worse than crap. He’s a pernicious coprolite. Seriously: he’s quite bad. The more you read him--at least, the more I did--the more your gorge will rise.

He was also less than faithful to the facts. IIRC, the only source we have for Verne’s admiration of Senarens is Senarens himself, and the chance of Senarens’ work making its way to France is remote.

By Jess Nevins on 03/17/08 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How disappointing. I have (obviously) been hoping that Senanens would turn out to be this wonderful, unknown fount of addled naive achievement. Alas.

At least I didn’t waste my money buying a bunch of old “Story Papers” on eBay. I’d still like to read a few.

By John Holbo on 03/17/08 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is in my library:

Title The huge hunter : [microform] / or, The steam man of the prairies by Edward S. Ellis
Author Ellis, Edward Sylvester, 1840-1916.
Place/Publisher New York : Beadle and Adams,
Date 1882
Description 14 p. : ill. ; 31 cm
Series Beadle’s half dime library ; 271
Beadle’s half dime library ; 271
Notes Microfilm. Berkeley : University of California, Library Photographic Service, [197-?] 1 microfilm reel : negative ; 35 mm
Geographical Access United States - New York - New York

Bancroft Box 742:11
Non-circulating; may be used only in The Bancroft Library
Contact Bancroft Library for availability.
Bancroft Library closed Summer to mid-Fall 2008.
For construction information:
http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/info/move/; 510 642-3781.
Note: Bancroft also has positive microfilm: Film.F596.1.B36.no.271
Note: Original shelved as: F596.1.B36.no.271.x
Note: Printing master

By on 03/18/08 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s depressing to see all the (presumably) ex-Gutenberg POD copies being circulated on abebooks.

By David Moles on 03/26/08 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

THE ART & HISTORY OF AMERICAN POPULAR FICTION SERIES VOL. 1 has all the FRANK READE WEEKLY in color and many of the Library and story papers images.  Over 535 rare images in all.  Most early sci-fi.  Was $60 now $34.99 and can be found on ABE.

Joe Rainone
Almond Press

By Joe Rainone on 10/16/09 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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