Biosnips

Gunter Biosnip: Seeds of Brilliance

A brief reflection on the theme of eugenics that Brian Armour identifies in Baron Montez, in his preface to Chapter One. Gunter was himself probably of “mixed race” to a modest degree. Legacies of British Slave-ownership, a web site of University College London, reports that his father, Henry Gunter (1813–56), was born in Jamaica to a one-quarter African woman.

Archibald Clavering Gunter would have been, if their research is correct, at least one-sixteenth African. I venture to suggest that such a “quantum” of blood might tend towards a sense of identification with—indeed, a celebration of—the minority cultural, and racial, heritage.

With this in mind, Gunter’s reference to the polyracial “polyhaema drops” in the blood of Montez becomes a tantalizing issue; as does the nature of his identification with his anti-hero. Gunter is fond of Montez even while the narrator reviles him. Of course, as we know, Lucifer is far more appealing as a character than God in Milton’s Paradise Lost. How fitting Gunter’s phrase, “This little disciple of Satan” in the opening to Chapter Two, “A Toboga Breakfast in56!

The UCL web-page agrees with the short supply of biographical data in the literary overviews. Using New York and New Orleans passenger lists, it traces Henry Gunter three times across the Atlantic between 1838 and 1844, which evidences his alacrity as a merchant at the time.

Henry Gunter married Elizabeth Agnes Sharples in Liverpool in 1839, and they had two sons, William Henry and Archibald Clavering. The family moved from Liverpool, first to New York in c. 1853, and soon after to San Francisco, where Henry became proprietor-manager of the “first conventional theater” to be built there, called the National. Archibald Clavering Gunter moved back to New York in 1879, after his variegated career (See Gunter Biosnip: Curse of Popularity).

As with J.F. Smith in England, whose father also owned a theatre company, Gunter first wrote plays. When he was a child, his home in San Francisco boasted “an unusually large living room built expressly for the purpose of giving young Archie a theatre in which to produce his youthful dramas.” It was a stately residence, attesting to the entrepreneurial success his father enjoyed with the National Theater. The house had an entrance on Washington Street and at the back overlooked the lower, adjacent Taylor Street. From the porch of this house, the oldest on the hill, was “one of the finest vistas in San Francisco” (The Insider).

San Francisco harbor c.1851

Ella Sterling Mighels considers the first two of Gunter’s dramatic successes as too high up on the “literary plane” for popular success, though she and her milieu were impressed that a San Franciscan was able to produce writing of such a high tone. He soon realized that the “high plane goes a-begging” and retuned it to appeal for public tastes (p. 338).

The sensation caused by his first novel, Mr Barnes of New York, gave him an inkling he might be able to make a go of it on the printed page. Following the trail of other Californian writers before him, he moved East in 1879 and achieved just that, making enough to set up his own Gunter’s Magazine and The Home Publishing Company. He produced a string of thirty-nine novels and “one of the most remunerative careers ever lived by a man who lived by his typewriter” (The Insider). Gunter’s contemporary, the Californian author Gertrude Atherton (1857–1948) writes in Cosmopolitan that:

His books have been on every stand in three continents where our language is read, and by a large proportion of the reading public abroad he is regarded as the representative American author.

Cited in Mighels, p. 339

… his international popularity being facilitated by a busy industry of book pirating.

Baron Montez (1893) comes at the height of Gunter’s momentum. It is not one of his most cited works, but was decently reviewed when it appeared, with particular reference to Gunter’s skill, and to his  polyhaemic anti-hero.

Here are some excerpts:

The work exhibits the wonderful resources of the author’s mind and the richness of his imaginative powers. The characters are forcibly drawn, the details worked up with surprising exactness, and the plot unraveled with scrupulous care

Although entirely a piece of fiction—good fiction, still under the surface may be found many direct hits at some of the social and political fads of the present day…

His portrayal of the hero, Harry Larchmont, is excellent and will not only win the admiration of the fair sex, but also that of the men who admire a good athletic figure and a will power over which the Anglomaniac craze has no control.

In the heroine, Miss Louise Ripley Minturn, we have one of those strong, sensitive characters, of the typical American girl—the girl to whom we raise our hat in honor, to her pluck, refinement and modesty; the girl who in the face of poverty and temptation will educate herself to meet the battle of life with a smile, and even though [sic] a typewriter, will assert her independence and uphold the greatest of all characters—the American woman.

The central figure of the novel, however, is the all-nation prince of villains, Fernando Gomez Montez, mule boy of Cruces, self-ennobled to “Baron” Montez. As a villain he will challenge the admiration of all the readers. The conventional smooth, oily villain has been succeeded by an educated one, full of fascination, a good conversationalist, cunning and almost brave, a clear, quick-witted brain, working like fast revolving machinery, accurate in calculation, precise in detail, with a strong will and commanding power which fascinates all weaker natures first, and then causes them to obey…

The scenes are panoramic in their changes, and carry the reader rapidly from the rushing restless, bustling city of New York to the drudgery and turmoil of the miasmic, fever-laden tropic isthmus, and thence to pleasure-loving, scheming Paris, the center of intrigue, gay life, inflated stocks, bonds, and feverish existence. The situations are very sensational and dramatic showing the author’s dramatic vein in the background of the novelistic landscape…

Behymer, “Among the Authors” (1893)

Chapter Three coming next week, edited and introduced by Brian Armour.


Notes and References

Behymer, H. “Among the Authors,” Los Angeles Herald, Volume 40, Number 40, 21 May 1893.

Mighels, Ella Sterling, The Story of the Files: California Writers and Literature (Boston: Harvard U, 1893).

The Insider. San Francisco Call, Volume 101, Number 90, 28 February 1907.

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