The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography

Item - Captain Volcano; or, The Man of the Red Revolvers, A Story of Life Against Life for a Big Stake

Item-Level Details

Subjects / Tags: French
Gold mines and mining
Impersonation
Lesbians
Male impersonators
Mexicans
Mexico
Murder
Pirates
Pirates and privateering stories
Revenge
San Diego (Calif.)
Smugglers
Western stories
sprescott2's Thoughts:

“Captain Volcano” was written by Albert W. Aiken (1846-1894) and initially published in serialized format in the story paper The New York Saturday Journal in thirteen installments, then published in the Dime Library on April 20, 1881. It was republished late in the life of the series, as No. 1060. Aiken wrote other dime novels, as well as plays (Aiken came from a family of actors and entertainers, and even established a theatre called Aiken’s Museum). Of the seven other Aiken stories in the series, “Captain Volcano”’s rate of reprint is low, but not the lowest, indicating that there was at least financially something to be gained by reprinting the story. Albert Johannsen’s seminal bibliography of the publishing house, The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels says of the stories contained in the weekly series Beadle’s New York Dime Library, “Some are sea tales, but these are few and far between… and are rather unconvincing. The pirate had had his day.” Perhaps Johannsen was correct to say so, but in this case, it seemed the pirate had not yet had her day.

The story takes place in a post-Gold Rush mining community near San Diego, California. Captain Volcano, a smuggler, seeks the romantic attention of the daughter of the wicked alcade [sic] of the town, also engaging in a feud with the “Man of the Red Revolvers,” Jackson Blake. The story attempts to weave pirates, spies, romance, westerns, revenge, and history all together into an action-packed story. Plotlines rise and are dropped at a moment’s notice, and most characters introduced as either “good” or “bad” in the beginning are revealed to be on the opposite side of the Manichean spectrum. In the very end, it is revealed that Captain Volcano, who sought revenge on another character, was actually the daughter of a murdered miner. Taken on its face, this is a dime novel like a thousand others, and the plot is perhaps the least interesting aspect of the novel. What makes it special is the identity and treatment of Captain Volcano.

Cross-dressing in dime novels is relatively common, but this story is rare in that it includes explicit reference to LGBTQ+ gender and sexuality presentation. Although there are clues earlier in the text, the big reveal occurs near the end: “The smuggler chief was a woman…! And, too, being strangely unwomanly, not only in her appearance but in her feelings, she had conceived that strange liking for other girls which has been known, in rare cases, to exist in the female breast:--like a man she had wooed and won other women; but the victory was a barren one, and when the love she sought was given, straightway she deserted that object and transferred her attentions to another.” Furthermore, the text later still applies the masculine pronoun “he” when talking about Captain Volcano: “With the death of Captain Volcano the smugglers almost ceased operations, for, lacking his bold heart and active brain, they could not hope to succeed….” In terms of modern language describing LGBTQ+ people, this cannot be said, precisely to be either a lesbian or trans masculine character, for risk of historical revisionism. Though the tone of the text includes more sympathy for the character than one tends to associate with the mores of the time period, it at the same time still ensures that the “correct” way to live is preserved in the ending. Blake marries Margerite, gets the gold mine, and moves on; while Volcano dies of being terminally an “unsexed woman,” the narrator's voice ruminates later.

The end of the story contains the largest array of sudden reveals, deaths, plot resolutions, and “happy” endings. P. Bedore says in Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction, "Looking to endings can reveal the various ways gendered conflicts are or are not resolved and represented." (37) What does Captain Volcano’s style of death indicate for how the readers might perceive Captain Volcano's gender and behavior? Bedore divides female criminals into three broad categories in her work on dime detective fiction: "the hapless woman, the evil fiend, and the femme fatale." (44) Bedore says that the hapless woman functions as a kind of secondary victim who might frequently die of natural causes and accidents; while of the evil fiend and the femme fatale, "[n]either is likely to survive, with suicide as an empowered act their most frequent response to being captured." Meanwhile, male antagonists are far more likely to be killed in the act of attempting to carry out the scheme, or be imprisoned. From Bedore's descriptions, Volcano experiences trademarks of both masculine and feminine sympathetic criminal endings. Furthermore, Volcano’s mad father becomes aware enough of the events in the story to seek vengeance against Blake for his child’s death. Theoretically this means that the father might have been aware of Volcano’s gender presentation and romantic proclivities. However, none of that seemed to be a factor in determining whether to seek vengeance for Volcano’s death. Presumably, even a mad father wouldn’t necessarily avenge a child hated in homo/transphobia.

Each of these overwrought relationships, contrived plot advancements, and character stereotypes happen to offer an opportunity to view 19th century alternative gender and sexuality presentation in fiction, in addition to the more common race and gender dynamics. It exists as part of the primordial soup of American genre fiction, and the sympathetic attitude toward Captain Volcano is evidence that LGBTQ+ people were not necessarily only viewed as evil or sinful in this time period. The specific treatment of these characters offers insight into the attitudes of the average reader of the time, as well as what censors did or did not eliminate from public access.

Despite the sympathetic treatment of Volcano, the text makes it clear that Captain Volcano could not have the same sort of happy ending afforded to Blake: “And this strange, unwomanly caprice, as we have seen, was indirectly the cause of Blake's triumph and her death." Is this Aiken’s own sentiment, or an addition by the publishing house directly, or action taken to appease worries?

More reviews by sprescott2

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

Beadle's New York Dime Library edition, first appearance

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

The New York Saturday Journal edition

Beadle's New York Dime Library edition, second appearance

Please log in to manage your collection or post a review.