On to the second part of the Western states! As promised, I am puncturing some cowboy myths.
- Cowboys didn’t always ride horses.
- They likely weren’t white. It was a career that attracted the outcasts of society, so many were black, Hispanic, mestizo, Native American, or of mixed race.
- It was not considered a fun or respectable job, being associated with dirt, drunkeness, and coarseness.
- Cowboys and steam-powered inventions crossed paths in American media way before there was any kind of punk-related aesthetics around.
I’m talking, here, about the inimitable Frank Reade Jr. dime novels.
Frank Reade, and then his son, Frank Reade Jr., were all-American dime novel adventurers who specialized in inventing steam, and later electricity, powered vehicles. Frank Reade set the template in the late 19th century with his exploits involving a robot, but for some reason, he was supplanted as a character by his son, Frank Reade Jr., who proved more popular. The boy genius inspired dozens, hundreds, of technologically marvelous tales, most of them based on Jules Vernes novels like Master of the World and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, along with a hefty dose of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard for the adventure part.
These novels were serialized and published in the years 1884 – 1904 . They were intended for teenage boy readership. Many, but not all, were set in the American West which back then was still as exotic as the depths of the Amazon or the Mongolian plateau. Promises of high adventure tempted readers for their cash (all of five cents) along with the engravings of exotic vehicles: robot horses, a trackless locomotive, the schooner-railcar hybrid above, armored tanks based on Conestoga stagecoaches, and many exotic breeds of dirigibles and airships, which were actually on the drawing boards at the time.
As with most of the dime novels, the writing was considered atrocious. They were also very non-PC, with Frank and his crew beset by “savage hordes” of rampaging Indians, desert Bedouins, or Mexican banditos, in which the Whites, with their superior technology, inevitably triumphed. Occasionally, those of color shared in the glory.
I suppose it’s a credit to the author that this Negro character handles his streetcar/tank vehicle skillfully, even though he’s called a slur.
If these novels were reviled — and they certainly were — it was for being bad literature and not for their awful stereotypes. In the context of their time, they were science fiction pioneers. The combination of futuristic vehicles with high adventure was visited again in the 1960s, with the TV shows of Gerry Anderson and Eiji Tsuburaya, and on into the 2000s with the Transformers series of movies produced by Michael Bay.
Setting them in the context of their time, the novels were science fiction pioneers, reviled for being bad literature and not for their awful stereotypes. If you want to read them, they’re available here, at the University of South Florida archival collections.
In some other timeline, Frank Reade Jr. might have patrolled the US states and territories with names like these.
Alternate Names for Wild West States