The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies

by John Holbo on March 17, 2008


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!

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The Invisible Library » Blog Archive » Steam Powered Men Shoot The Moon
03.28.08 at 1:01 am



todd. 03.17.08 at 4:27 pm

Looks like there are two copies and a microfilm in the UC system, but neither is in Irvine, and it doesn’t look like they want to ILL them. Are there any regular commenters from Riverside?


Adam 03.17.08 at 4:34 pm

Ah, excellent. I’m going to read this on my Amazon Kindle. That’s at least five kinds of geeky.


Dan Blum 03.17.08 at 4:47 pm

If no original can be found, I note that D. N. Goodchild has reprinted the book (and others by Ellis), and claims that they typeset everything themselves from the original publications. So that might serve as an authoritative source. (Goodchild is not selling anything at the moment but there are copies of their version available from various sellers.)


garymar 03.17.08 at 5:13 pm

Long ago, at an estate sale in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, I picked up a copy of the Submarine Boys series, published about 1903, for 5 cents (USD). The Submarine Boys got into adventures around the world while serving on a newfangled vessel called a submarine, but this particular book also featured a plucky heroine (“Oh for the strength of a man!” she cried, as the wrench refused to budge and the waters rose) for whose affections they (manfully yet chastely) vied.

I wonder who wrote it? Unfortunately I lost the book long ago.


garymar 03.17.08 at 5:15 pm

Found it! Victor G. Durham wrote them. There’s even one on Amazon. Amazing.


DWMF 03.17.08 at 5:58 pm

[lightbulb moment] A later addition to the genre are the Skylark trilogy written by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith. (I know, space not steam, but the ancestry is obvious.) A guilty pleasure at the time, but now I don’t feel guilty at all. [/lightbulb]


Ross Smith 03.17.08 at 8:24 pm

No wonder that something like superstitious have filled the breasts of the two men…

I think that makes sense if you replace “have” with “awe”. Probably OCR turned “awe” into “ave”, and then a spellchecker turned that into “have”.

(And I just noticed that Firefox’s spellchecker doesn’t know the word “spellchecker”.)


John Holbo 03.17.08 at 11:43 pm

ross, you are obviously right. It must be ‘awe’. Thanks for that.


dan hartung 03.17.08 at 11:45 pm

I’ve expanded and formatted the Wikipedia article. In the history there is a quite long biography that the author later deleted, saying it was taken directly from his own dissertation.


John Holbo 03.17.08 at 11:53 pm


John Holbo 03.17.08 at 11:55 pm

Thanks for the Goodchild reference. I went and visited their homepage and, apparently, they are closed until April 15. I’ve actually found a reprint copy (thanks to a suggestion by Adam Roberts.) So I think I’m ok.


garymar 03.18.08 at 12:31 am

garymar, I’m way ahead of you.

My God, you really are! That is the exact illustration I had in mind!

And I bought the book in the mid-1960s. Funny how these things rumble around in the memory for decades. And I almost got the caption perfectly right.


Nabakov 03.18.08 at 3:08 am

Pynchon has a lot of ripping fun and merry japes with this genre (especially its Submarine Boys/Tom Swift offshoots) in ‘Against The Day’.


Jacob Rus 03.18.08 at 5:50 am

The book is in Harvard’s Hollis catalog. Apparently there is a copy at the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago, to whose reading room Harvard students (among others) have access, assuming they want to physically travel to Chicago.

Microfilm. Ann Arbor, Mich. : University Microfilms International, 1980. — 1 reel ; 35 mm. — (Dime novels : Unit 1 ; 591-DN : reel 15:32)


Jacob Rus 03.18.08 at 5:56 am

Oh actually, it looks like it is possible to get through interlibrary loan.

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