Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America by Nathaniel Williams
Nathaniel Williams. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2018. 224 pp. $44.95, cloth.
Nathaniel Williams’s Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America is a well-researched study of proto–science fiction. Although the subtitle features Mark Twain’s name, the majority of the book focuses on pulp fictions from the turn of the twentieth century, and only one of the book’s six full-length chapters centers on Twain. Nonetheless, the book will interest readers of this journal and students of American literary history in general. Williams argues that scholars have tended to project contemporary assumptions about science and secularism onto literary history, and he demonstrates convincingly that “too often” science and technology “are presented as opponents” to conservative Christianity “when they have frequently been uneasy allies” (162). While technocratic fictions offer a surprisingly consistent and positive representation of Protestantism, these texts often differ dramatically in their representation of imperialism.
In his introduction, Williams explains that he “want[s] to accomplish two things: a reevaluation of the portrayal of empire that has pervaded earlier, genre-exclusive study of [technocratic exploration dime novels], and a consideration of their role in larger nineteenth-century conversations about science and technology’s impact on religious faith” (5)—two objectives that he decisively meets in the pages that follow. In order to triangulate the three themes of this monograph, (technocracy, religion, and imperialism), Williams presents his study in two parts, “Gears” and “God.” The first part comprises three chapters, the first of which, “Inventing the Technocratic Exploration Tale: God, Gears, and Empire,” explains the key terms of the study clearly and chronicles changing attitudes about science and technology in religious institutions. The invocations of science and technology studies in this and the following chapter appear a little out of date and thin to this reader. For example, the distinction between science and technology is crucial for Williams, though he does not cite Leo Marx, Eric Schatzberg, Ruth Oldenziel, or other authors who think critically about the evolving definitions of technology in this time period. This oversight stands out precisely because other elements of the book are keenly researched and well supported. [End Page 181]
The second chapter, “Building Imperialists: The Steam Man, ‘Used Up’ Man, and Man in the Moon,” was particularly well crafted. Williams draws Washington Irving, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe into conversation with the oft-reprinted Steam Man, first published by Edward S. Ellis as The Steam Man of the Prairies. This juxtaposition breathes new life into readings of both canonical and noncanonical authors, provocatively framing Irving as a writer of proto–science fiction. By drawing innovative parallels among these authors, Williams demonstrates how the theme of advanced technological exploration could underwrite divergent portrayals of empire. Where Ellis promotes a technocratic and imperialistic ideology by suggesting that white inventors could and should subjugate racial others who are presumably lacking in technical know-how, Irving and Wells “force unreflective imperial audiences to imagine themselves as the subjugated other” (31). Poe also writes counter to Ellis; both writers imagine how technology could be used as a prosthetic, particularly in military contexts, but Poe ironizes the idea of technologically justified imperialism through dark humor and body horror. This chapter, like the chapters that follow it, pulls together an expansive archive of different sources to create a fascinating and multidimensional argument. While reading Irving’s A History of New York alongside The Steam Man, for example, this chapter also considers the critical reception of both texts as well as Edward S. Ellis’s broader career. Williams is a master contextualizer whose deep knowledge of his subject matter renders his thematic close reading all the more convincing.
The third chapter, “Imagining Inventors: Frank Reade and Dime-Novel Technocratic Exploration,” was perhaps the most interesting in Gears and God because it blends methodologies: along with the historical contextualization and close reading of previous chapters, “Imagining Inventors” aptly uses distant reading, creating maps and tables to analyze and process the Frank Reade Library. This method helps demonstrate the pervasiveness of the technocratic, imperialistic themes that the author explores in this chapter. In addition to mapping the serialized dime novel, Williams also attends to one particular pseudonymous writer of Frank Reade stories: Luis Senarens. He pays special attention to how this Cuban American writer described Cuba’s fight against Spanish imperialism, and he enhances his reading of Senarens by examining editorial responses to letters that reveal how readers seem to have processed these fictionalizations of actual military figures.
The second section of the monograph, “God,” begins with Chapter 4, “Discovering Biblical Literalism: Frank Reade Redux.” As the subtitle indicates, this comparatively short chapter returns to the subject matter of the third chapter in order to layer in a reading of religion. This chapter argues that the [End Page 182] Frank Reade Library offers a remarkably consistent and affirmative representation of Christianity—a theme that has been overlooked by scholars who have projected present-day tensions between science and religion onto their studies of genre fiction. As Williams argues, “Religious narratives in Frank Reade Jr.’s adventures portray . . . Americans’ longing for narratives that commingle adoration of science and technology with appeals to biblical literalism” (89). This chapter also considers briefly but interestingly how Anthony Comstock’s Traps for the Young might have influenced the representation of religion in dime novels like those cataloged in the Frank Reade Library.
The fifth chapter, “Confronting ‘Fol-de-Rol’: Mark Twain, Technocracy, and Religion,” focuses on Samuel—and, surprisingly, Orion—Clemens. This particularly compelling chapter delves into Mark Twain’s reading habits, his forays into fiction that most closely resemble the technocratic exploration narratives explored in previous chapters, and his letters to and about Orion’s attempts to write in this genre as well. Although Orion’s complete manuscript has been lost, Williams reads the existing pages and Twain’s comments on them to better understand how both brothers understood religion and the adventure fiction genre. Williams argues, “The evidence shows that what Orion sent Sam was not merely a journey to the center of the earth, but a strident articulation of religious doubt. His exploration narrative is ultimately used to enable theological commentary” (109). He goes on to examine how Mark Twain coached Orion to take a gentler hand with his subject matter, encouraging his brother to revise his depiction of religious figures and to lampoon rather than emulate Jules Verne. The chapter also examines Twain’s own forays into this subject matter, including Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Tom Sawyer Abroad. The earlier discussion of technology, imperialism, and religion underwrites nuanced and evocative readings of these novels as subtle critiques of the technocratic adventure narrative subgenre.
Chapter 6, “Reconstructing Biblical History: Technocratic Explorations, 1899–1910,” puts Anna Adolph’s Arqtiq into conversation with Albert Bigelow Paine’s The Great White Way, and Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood with Garret P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars. These juxtapositions do elucidate the religious themes that concern Williams throughout this study, though after the sustained close readings of previous chapters, this chapter seems to be a comparatively rushed attempt to diversify the book’s subject matter by including women writers. Although readings of Adolph and Hopkins might have been elaborated on to great effect, this chapter is successful in demonstrating how turn-of-the-century novelists used technological or scientific elements to [End Page 183] reaffirm biblical understandings of the world. This chapter also briefly returns to Twain, examining how his Letters from the Earth flies in the face of the advice he had given Orion decades earlier.
Ultimately, Nathaniel Williams brings together different methodologies and intellectual traditions to create a thorough and engrossing read. By placing dime novels into conversation with canonical pieces of literature and by bringing together the themes of technology, religion, and imperialism, Gears and God deepens our understanding of fin de siècle American literature and culture.
jennifer l. lieberman is an associate professor of English at the University of North Florida, where she focuses on American literature, science and technology studies, and critical gender and race studies. She is the author of Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952 (MIT Press, 2017). Her recent work also appears in such venues as Studies in the Novel, Configurations, JLS, and MELUS.