Biosnips

Gunter Biosnip: Trade in Desires

Archibald Clavering Gunter’s life exhibits the marks of a new breed of author—one that in turn exemplifies an emerging species of individual. Homo Economicus, or ‘economic man’: a term coined initially in reaction to John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianist theory and the eminently sensible-sounding principle that “actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (qtd. Cohen, p. 330).

Gunter too was a child of his time, and subject to global forces: notably the technologies that powered American growth and integration as a nation. The nineteenth century saw migration from all over Europe to the United States, in a massive wave accelerated by developments in shipping, in terms of steam propulsion and steel manufacture. Gunter’s family set off from England and joined the human tide sailing to the States in quest of the American Dream, which itself assumed imponderable dimensions as the Frontier was overcome.

‘SS Amerika’ (1894), Artist Antonio Jacobsen

The year was 1853, five years after the discovery of gold in California, four years after the completion of the Panama railroad in 1849, seventeen years before the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. When the Gunters moved to San Francisco after a short while in New York City, they probably travelled via the Panama Railroad—the trip took some forty days. Otherwise, apart from an arduous four to six months on the Oregon Trail (but they were certainly cut from a finer fabric), the only route was by sea right around the Cape of Good Hope, taking up to four times as long as going via the Isthmus.

They went to California not in quest for gold, but for a new life in a city starting to boom. Archie Gunter was afforded an idyllic childhood in the magnificent house on the hill, overlooking “Taylor Street, all of the bay and Marin and Alameda counties for that matter” (The Insider), and attending public school (Kunitz). As a teenager, he worked “in a variety of technical theater positions” (Fisher, p. 201) and studied at university, graduating with a degree in mining engineering, before “eking out a fair subsistence in California doing odd jobs at assaying minerals” (San Jose Daily Mercury, Dec. 11, 1892).

Despite being so emphatically kick-started—prosperous aims clearly the focus (he even worked as a minerals stockbroker)—his career foundered:

At one time the prime worry of the family of Archibald Clavering Gunter was concerning what would become of the boy. He had attended the University of California, where he had studied in the engineering college, but he didn’t make a go of his profession. He was too restless. What to make of Archie was the Gunter family problem… (The Insider).

We know already what happened: “…Then he wrote a novel and the question was answered. Before long he was driving four-in-hands at Newport” (The Insider). His books made it, bigtime, and he was carousing in grand style with the wealthy.

For he was as gifted an entrepreneur as a writer, these two capacities profoundly infusing each other. His first novel having been roundly rejected, he organizes his own company to publish it, and then establishes Gunter’s Magazine, to meet a rapidly rising popular demand. We might say in business terminology, he engages a strategy of “downstream vertical integration,” expanding through the links down the literary supply chain. Those transatlantic liners had established well-stocked passenger libraries. And far more than that: a flourishing readers’ market founded on the hopes of sixty million European emigres, there for the taking (Frost, p. 3).

Library of the ‘Olympic’, Winter, p. 372

The public, it turns out, especially the seagoing public, overwhelmingly preferred light reading. A group of passengers, members of the literary fraternity, once addressed this very issue, conducting some impromptu research in order to decide it:

…they spent a few hours in wandering up and down the ship and taking sly glimpses of the books actually being read by their fellow-travellers. A rather careful canvass of the entire ship resulted in the discovery that the book which easily carried off the prize was one of those familiar yellow covered novels by Archibald Clavering Gunter, at that time at the height of his popularity.

Winter, p. 373
Library of the ‘George Washington’, Winter, p. 373

And onward, to the sources of migration, where Gunter had his books translated to be sold in numerous European countries. Those teeming masses in quest of dreams, dreams commodified in systems of movement and exchange, actual and symbolic, a veritable “trade in desires” (Frost).

Library of the ‘Kronprinzessin Cecilie’ (Winter, p. 369)

Thus the pieces of the jigsaw ultimately fell into place for Gunter: the fragments of careers, the transatlantic, transcontinental trajectories of his childhood so imaginatively combined.  We can see even at this early stage in Baron Montez of Panama and Paris, expressions of overarching themes that, in fact, encompassed Gunter’s being. Montez is like a reverse Yankee, tracing his desire in a reverse direction, from the Isthmus to Europe. Hence, a striking image of commodified desire:

Upon this yellow dross [gold dust], Fernando’s eyes linger lovingly, and from it roam gloatingly to the heavy ironbound trunk of the Californian, and turning from this to the beautiful Americana, who had thrown her pearls in a string of white radiance around her fair white neck, his glance becomes more longing than ever.

Chapter 3, “The Railroad Station at Panama”

Notes and References

  • SS Amerika: “This steamship was built in 1872 by Harland & Wolff as the Celtic. It served in the White Star Line 1872-1893, and was then sold to the Danish Thingvalla Steamship Company. That employment lasted until the fall of 1897. Broken up in 1898.” Wikimedia Commons.
  • “organizes his own company to publish it”: Frost has a slightly different account; however, the version cited here is that given in a number of contemporary newspapers.

Cohen, Marshal. The philosophy of John Stuart Mill: ethical, political, and religious (NY: Modern Library, 1961). Available at Internet Archive.

Fisher, J. Historical Dictionary of American Theater (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

Frost, S. “A trade in desires: Emigration, A. C. Gunter and the Home Publishing Company.” Chapter 3 in The Book World, Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900-1940, edited by Nicola Louise Wilson (Johns Hopkins UP, 2017). I have used the pre-peer-reviewed version of Frost’s paper.

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

Kunitz, S. American authors, 1600 – 1900 a biographical dictionary of American literature (NY: Wilson, 1938).

Winter, C. “The Libraries on the Transatlantic Liners”, The Bookman, 33.4, June 1911, 368-76


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