The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Border Rifles (1861)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Border Rifles was written by “Gustav Aimard,” the pen name of Oliver Gloux (1818-1883), a French novelist. Gloux led an adventurous life in America, was a popular writer in his lifetime, and published several works of frontier fiction. Gloux was one of the first French writers to pen a Western novel.
The Border Rifles is set during the Texas War of Independence and is about the efforts of a gang of villainous Mexican murderers and desperados to prevent the Texans from winning independence and joining the United States. The Mexicans are aided by various natives, including Apache and Snake Pawnee. They are opposed by a group of heroic Texans who are led by Tranquil, a figure of some renown and fear among the natives. Tranquil’s arch-enemy is the White Scalper, a terrifying old man who is legendary on the frontier for his cruelty and ferocity and for his love of murder and torture. But the White Scalper is more complicated than a mere dime novel villain. He is a frontier version of the Gothic Hero-Villain. The White Scalper believes himself accursed and outcast from polite society, and he prowls the desert and plains, terrorizing both white and red men. He can be cruel, and is willing to kill and torture, and he abducts the fair Carmela, Tranquil’s love, because he is in love with her. However, the Scalper has some honor–he keeps his word, when it is given–some grandeur, and even a kind of nobility, and does not mistreat Carmela, who it is eventually revealed is the Canadian Tranquil’s father.
Oliver Gloux is comparable to Friedrich Gerstäcker (see: The Regulators of Arkansas). Both were European authors who had personal experience with the American frontier, although Gloux traveled much farther than Gerstäcker had and went to South America as well as North America. The work of both authors included a wealth of the type of detail which only personal experience can discover. Both Gloux and Gerstäcker were the major writers of Westerns in their respective countries during the middle of the nineteenth century—Gerstäcker in Germany, Gloux in France. Both were best-selling authors; Gloux wrote more than eighty Westerns between 1848 and 1875, often at the rate of one per month, and the sales of his books were enormous, both in France and across Europe and even in England.
However, the French Western reached its peak under Gloux. France had no comparable author to Karl May (see: Winnetou); no French author in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries took the elements of his predecessors and, through skill or self-confidence, created memorable pulp stories. There were eight dime novel Westerns published in France from 1910 to the mid-1930s, with the most popular, Guy Vander’s The Kings of the Far West (original: Les Rois du Far West), running for 180+ issues over the course of four years.1 But there were no mainstream or popular French novelists who were nearly as successful, after Gloux, as Karl May was with his Old Shatterhand novels.
Since the time of Rousseau French authors have shown an appeal for the primitive life, both in the Noble Savages of Rousseau and in the unspoiled American wilderness of François René de Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801).
Lyrical celebrations of the land as generous, fertile, prolific good mother abound in twentieth-century French accounts of the American landscape, echoing, without the moralistic tone, eighteenth-century primitivistic mythologies of the New World. In these tales, the redeeming virgin land is a place where degenerate and evil Europeans could be cleansed of their sins and reborn in wisdom and virtue, as new Adams, through frequent contacts and exchanges with noble savages.2
The French have not historically immigrated to the United States in any great numbers, and they were generally immune to the “America fever” of nineteenth century emigration, but French authors saw the appeal of a new land, even if the French people did not act on that appeal. Influenced by the work of James Fenimore Cooper (see: The Last of the Mohicans), French authors began writing frontier stories in the 1840s, with the most popular early work being Gabriel Ferry’s Les Coureurs du Bois (1850). There were popular French authors of frontier fiction in the 1850s, but Gloux dwarfed them all, earning the (in retrospect not particularly complimentary) title “the French Fenimore Cooper.”3
Gloux’s popularity is not particularly hard to understand. His recurring character, Valentine Guillois, is an early, French Old Shatterhand, a Parisian übermensch who wanders the Western frontier doing good, fighting evil, and having exciting adventures. Gloux’s novels have a great deal of authentic information about Indians and their cultures and customs, and there are any number of bloody battles and incidents with vicious animals. Like Karl May, Gloux appeals to the prejudices of his native audience. Americans come off badly; they are always Yankees and are always crude, pious, hypocritical, and greedy. Gloux is little kinder to the Mexicans. The only ones who make the American frontier bearable are the French, and in Gloux’s novel American frontier is full of French values and customs. Gloux and May were hardly the only ones to engage in this distortion, of course. The American frontier was a popular subject for fiction in Scandinavia, and Scandinavian writers of frontier fiction similarly warped the frontier so that it reflected the values of Scandinavia and was graced by the presence of enlightened Norwegians or Finns or Danish or Swedes.4
But Gloux was not a good writer and his work is not enjoyable for the modern reader. He is simply not very good technically, and the blame cannot be laid on his translators. Gloux’s language verges on the horrendous and his plots are illogical and filled with coincidence, clichés, and deus ex machina endings. His portrayal of Anglo-Americans and their attitudes toward native Americans is as inaccurate as his portrayal of native Americans and their cultures is accurate.
The Border Rifles is a standard dime novel, down to the typical paid-by-the-word dime novel dialogue. Though badly told, the story is colorful and satisfyingly filled with action. Gloux differentiates between native tribes, so that Tranquil and the White Scalper do not deal with Indians, but with Apaches and Snake Pawnee. (When Gloux mentions native religions, however, he makes a hash of them). One pleasant surprise in The Border Rifles is Quoniam, Tranquil’s companion. Perhaps uniquely among dime novel characters of color, Quoniam neither speaks or acts stereotypically. His dialogue is normal, his personality is admirable, his actions are heroic, and it is even given to Quoniam, rather than Tranquil, to defeat the White Scalper in hand-to-hand combat.
The Border Rifles is a fine example of the European Western, but that does not mean the modern reader will find it enjoyable.
Print: Gustav Aimard, The Border Rifles. Los Angeles: Hardpress Publishing, 2018.
1 Rimmer Sterk and Jim Conkright, The Continental Dime Novel (Los Angeles: JCRS, 2006), 159.
2 Jean-Philippe Mathy, Extrême-Occident: French Intellectuals and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 170.
3 Richard H. Cracroft, “World Westerns: The European Writer and the American West,” in Western Literature Association, A Literary History of the American West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1987), 169.
4 Cracoft, “World Westerns,” 167-168.