It’s no secret that what we currently call “steampunk” has its roots in the speculative, imaginative fiction of the 19th century. People often cite Jules Verne as the founding author of the steampunk genre, but he was one of a number of authors who wrote fiction dealing with elaborate, futuristic technologies. During the 19th century, there was one man referred to as “the American Jules Verne,” whose works are full of quintessentially steampunk elements. There’s a steam-powered mechanical man, racing across the American plains, a bullet-proof, electrically powered 19th century stage-coach, hot in pursuit of the Jesse James Gang, not to mention an electrical flying machine. The stories revolve around a boy-genius inventor, and all of them are set, and were written, before 1896. The author’s identity was appropriately exciting to the imagination; he wrote under the intriguing pseudonym “Noname,” a mysterious, unknown presence, producing fantastic works at an astonishing rate, including twenty-six stories in 1893 alone.
Before there was television, before there were movie theaters, before there were comic books, there were dime novels. Called “penny dreadfuls” in England, these were cheaply printed, floridly written adventure stories, lurid, exciting, and intended for a popular audience. They were read by children and adults, men and women. They were working class entertainment, easily purchased, easily hidden from a schoolteacher or other disapproving authority figure, and easily devoured in a single day. They ranged from romances to detective stories, from horror to western, covering every genre that might appeal to readers eager for excitement. The works of Noname were wildly successful dime novels, telling stories of adventurers and inventors.
What is interesting about Noname, apart from the stories he created, is that he was two people. Much like the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Noname” was a pseudonym that was handed down from one man to another. The second, and by far the most prolific of these two men was in reality Luis Senarens, a Cuban American man from Brooklyn, who was just sixteen years old when, in 1879, he took over writing a series of dime novels about a boy inventor and adventurer named Frank Reade.
Oddly, the star of the books was similar to Senarens in at least three ways; he too was sixteen years old, from New York, and, most importantly, brilliant. With the series, Senarens took over the Noname pseudonym, from his predecessor, Harry Cohen. That both men who wrote as “Noname” had non-Anglo-Saxon names was probably not a coincidence; Cohen’s other penname was “Harry Enton,” an almost comically pseudo-English surname (not a real surname at all, but the name of a tiny village in Surrey), and Senarens is said to have written under twenty six names besides his primary pseudonym, but almost never his own.
Frank Reade, the fictional character who stars in Noname’s first novels, is a young man who creates fantastical inventions, and then use those inventions to aid him on equally fantastic adventures. His stories are classics of what is called the “Edisonade,” proto-steampunk tales that focus on a young genius and his inventions. Senarens (writing, for the first time, as Noname) began his first Frank Reade story by declaring that the hero of the previous books had reached middle age, retired, and that his son, Frank Reade Junior, had now surpassed him as an inventor. All subsequent Frank Reade stories were about the son, not the father. The fact that Senarens tenure as Noname began with a young man taking over for an older, but still respected genius perhaps parallels Senarens’ feelings about his own work on the series, and may have served as a way for him to declare the series truly his. The books continued to be full of adventure, and amazingly inventive technologies, including a mechanical man, an electric horse, a flying machine, a submarine, specially modified guns, flying suits, diving suits, countless robot-type contraptions, and even a space ship.
Senarens’ other great work was Jack Wright, a boy inventor similar to Franke Reade, who starred in his own series. He had a small gang of trusty, comic-relief companions, including a monkey, a parrot (who would occasionally just happen to repeat some phrase he had heard in a plot-moving sort of way), a former sailor, given to telling tall tales of his past exploits in the Navy, and a German-speaking “Dutchman,” with a fondness for playing the accordion. A typical exchange between the three main characters would involve the sailor launching into a clearly untrue story, the veracity of which Jack would easily pick holes in, and then the Dutchman playing his accordion to shut the sailor up, while the parrot squawked in the background. Formulaic and silly, to be sure, but all of that character interaction happened in the background of what might best be termed rip-roaring adventures. Jack Wright fought pirates, the Jesse James Gang, smugglers, and more, appearing in one hundred and twenty one stories over a five year period from 1891 to 1896. Like Frank Reade, young Jack Wright created a staggering number of inventions, usually with the word “electric” somewhere in the title.
The prose style in these books is not what most modern readers are used to. Describing a chase scene, Senarens might simply write something along the lines of “the chase was exciting and went on for quite some time,” rather than giving the blow-by-blow account we might expect. The writing, much like the humor, was not the point. The point was the inventions; imaginative, fascinating, and intriguing works of speculative fiction that clearly showed the authors enthusiastic love of science, and the potential he saw in it. Objects and inventions are described in loving detail, with readers left to fill in much of the action in their minds. It’s a storytelling style common in children’s literature, and lends itself to inspiring games of make believe.
Senarens’ identity as a Cuban American seems to have been explored in one work only; a story called Frank Reade Junior in Cuba; or Helping the Patriots With His Latest Air-Ship. Published relatively late in Senarens’ writing career, in 1895, prior to the start of the Spanish American War, this book portrays the hero and his friends fighting for Cuban independence. Tellingly, Senarens not only portrays Cuban independence as a worthy goal, he ties the idea with that of American identity. At one point, Frank tells an insurgent “as we are Americans, we are Cuban sympathisers,” and later shouts “viva Cuba libre!” while using his science fiction weapons to rescue an American journalist from his Spanish captors. Moreover, fictionalized versions of real life Cuban leaders appear, even stealing the spotlight from Frank, and becoming the true heroes of the story. They are described in romantic, heroic terms. Senarens portrays the Cuban people as worthy of the sympathy and aid of the United States, but fully capable of ridding their country of the Spanish without help. While it is difficult to know how Senarens felt about his own background, this book is clear evidence, if not proof, that he considered his Cuban American identity something to be celebrated.
There is a rumor, promoted by Senarens himself, that he received a letter of praise from Jules Verne after the publication of his short story. The idea of a teenage boy getting such a letter from a literary giant like Jules Verne is fun enough that one is tempted to believe it, but there seems to be no real evidence to back up the claim. The fact that Verne was not particularly skilled at reading in English suggests that the story is one more piece of Senarens’ imaginative fiction. It’s hard to fault him for that; after all, it was what he did for a living. It wasn’t the only outlandish lie he would tell; as Noname, Senarens not only published fiction, he wrote books on topics like how to become a West Point cadet, a topic there is not a single reason to believe he had direct experience with. He lied as boldly as he wrote, and that makes the lie somewhat charming.
The works of Luis Senarens are not without flaws, however, when viewed from a modern perspective. The genre in which he wrote, the Edisonade, was firmly grounded in a colonialist mindset. The heroes were white men, and they were intent on proving white male superiority and dominance. Frank Reade and Jack Wright are no exception, battling indigenous people wherever they go, frequently killing them by the hundreds, without remorse or thought. Minority groups (including those currently considered white, but considered non-white in the 19th century) are depicted in stereotypical, and, to modern readers, staggeringly offensive terms. (A notable exception occurs in Frank Reade Jr. in Cuba, in which real-life Cuban military leader Antonio Maceo Grajales appears, and is portrayed as a hero. His status as a “mulatto” is recognized, but never derided). The only real “progress” made over the course of the Frank Reade stories is more of a progression than an improvement; the narrator, and Frank, go from violently attacking and vocally deriding black and Native American characters to doing the same to Jews and Mexicans. The Frank Reade books contain two characters, Reade’s servants, an Irish man and a black man who are constant sources of uncomfortable ethnic “humor,” though they are at least consistently portrayed sympathetically, even heroically. The fact that Jack Wright has no such non-WASP friends makes for less unpleasant racial humor, but at the expense of any regularly occurring minority characters at all.
It is hard to know what to do with this side of Senarens’ work. With so little information available about him personally, his motivations are somewhat obscure. Did he write this way because he considered himself white, and as a white man, wished to push a white-supremacist worldview? Did he, as a Cuban American, fear that others might view him with prejudice, and so use racism to encourage them to think of him as white, as “American?” Was he simply writing within the conventions of the genre, and not giving the matter much thought? It’s very difficult to know. What is clear is that reading these books can be an uncomfortable experience. The gadgets and inventions are marvelous and inspiring; the worldview and racial attitudes are appalling. It’s an attribute he shares with Verne, whose portrayals of people of color can be cringe inducing. If we can continue to view Verne as steampunk’s intellectual father, I say it’s time to recognize Luis Senarens as another such founding influence.
Flying machines, helicopters, and robotic horses. If this man wasn’t a proto-steampunk, I don’t know who was. Luis Senarens, ladies and gentlemen: Brooklyn’s very own Jules Verne.
Links to Senarens’ Work Available Online:
Biography – Senarens, Luis Philip (1865-1939), Contemporary Authors online, Gale Reference Team. Thompson Gale 2007
Frank Reade, Jr., in Cuba: Dime-Novel Technology, U.S. Imperialism, and the “American Jules Verne” American Literature June 2011 83(2): 279-303; doi:10.1215/00029831-1266063
Frank Reade, Jr.’s New Electric Van; or, Hunting Wild Animals in the Jungles of India, Noname, New York; Frank Tousey, 1893
Jack Wright and his Electric Stage; or, Leagued against the James Boys, Noname, New York; Boys Star Library, 1893
Fantastic, Adventurous, and Mysterious Victoriana. Nevins, Jess. http://www.reocities.com/jessnevins/vicintro.html 2004
Miriam Rosenberg Roček has been a steampunk since 2006ish. She has recently created an alter-ego, Steampunk Emma Goldman who travels through time and brings progressive politics into the steampunk sphere. She has a blog at http://anachro-anarcho.blogspot.com, where she writes about great political activists and actions of the 19th century.