Prepare to embark on an idiosyncratic taste thrill, another foray into the paradoxically expanding universe of vanishing literature. This bestselling author-playwright, said to have been better known in his day than his contemporary, Mark Twain (1835-1910), is now reduced to fragments, trivial contributions to popular culture: Played middle-man in the rise of the great American baseball poem “Casey at the Bat“—sometimes referred to as the best known poem in the United States. Authored a novel on which A Florida Enchantment (1914) was based, ancestor of lesbian-transgender films.
Archibald Clavering Gunter (1847-1907) was born in Liverpool, England, taken by his parents to San Francisco when he was six, and grew up there, before moving to New York to become a playwright, after building careers in rail and mining engineering, chemistry and stockbroking. Something of the thrill and spectacle of that six-year-old Liverpudlian’s trans-Atlantic voyage surely took permanent root in his imagination, given the extensive output he managed to generate even after such patently anti-literary occupations. Actually, he wrote his first play, Found a True Vein (1872), about life in a mining camp, while still working as an engineer.
Baron Montez of Panama and Paris (1893) is a rags-to-riches story, like other of Gunter’s novels propelled by a dynamic of character and place. We can compare with titles of his such as Mr. Barnes of New York (1888), Mr. Potter of Texas (1891), Don Balasco of Key West (1897), and the intriguing Miss Nobody of Nowhere (1890). Intriguing indeed, as Harlequin Romance author Elizabeth Ashton must have thought in 1933 when writing her novel Miss Nobody from Nowhere.
But where are places as plentiful in such possibilities of drama and exotica as Panama and Paris—especially in that exciting era of massive change and aspiration, of explorers, prospectors, swindlers and tycoons? We wonder already about Gunter’s representation of the burgeoning Americas and Americana upon a global stage.
Shady Señor Fernando Montez starts out as a seedy muchacho in a bamboo shack on Toboga Island. These are portentous times, however, preceding the building of a great canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and hence the two hemispheres of the globe, a dream only intensified by the discovery of Californian gold. Montez’ ascent can be limited only by his own hubris, and Gunter’s imagination.
The French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had developed the Suez Canal in 1869, attempted a repeat performance in Panama during the years 1881-89 but went bankrupt. The Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama again tried unsuccessfully in 1894. Gunter’s novel is, therefore, quite contemporaneous with the world depicted in it. One anticipates a taste of the authentic flavour of the times—the authentic zeitgeist, good and ill.
In Gunter’s own estimation, his were “the most successful novels ever published” (Hart 189). Well, we’ve heard that sort of thing before, and it depends which way you’re looking at it. Nevertheless, if not for literary brilliance or a polished style, he is acknowledged for bringing American and European attitudes into a comparative focus and for the immense popularity of his
…long line of yellow-backed novels, soon to be seen in innumerable hammocks, summer resorts, excursion boats, Pullman Palace cars, or wherever else Americans moved for dreams and escape.Hart 188
Brian Armour will edit the chapters and provide reflective, contextual prefaces. Brian is the author of a stunningly good science fiction novel, Future Crime (2015), with a further brilliant novel and book of short stories coming out soon.
Hart, J.D.,The Popular Book: a History of America’s Literary Taste (NY: OUP, 1950).