The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Van Wagener Stories (1895-1898)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The fourteen Van Wagener Stories were written by William L. Alden and first appeared in “Professor van Wagener’s Eye” (The Idler, Nov. 1895). Alden (1837-1908) was an American writer, critic, and diplomat.
The Van Wagener stories, about Professor van Wagener, are the first modern example of the humorous, eccentric scientist whose inventions are both silly and disastrous, a character type which would become popular in the fiction and films of the twentieth century. The Professor has a position at the University of New Berlinopolisville, Illinois, and uses his resources there for various inventions, all of which turn out badly. When van Wagener concocts an electrified fishing line for shocking fish, he ends up entangled in the line with his neighbor's wife. When he creates the “perfect balloon,” entirely made of aluminum, van Wagener discovers that he has forgotten a way to release the balloon’s gas, so that the balloon continues to soar higher and higher. When van Wagener equips his cat with a gas bag and tail operated propeller, the cat ends up chasing birds through the air. And when van Wagener discovers “wagnerium,” or radium, he ends up ingesting it as a cure against aging, and then blows up himself and his laboratory in one of fiction's first atomic explosions.
The Van Wagener stories represent a significant deviation from the standard late-Victorian depiction of brilliant scientists. Genius scientists in fiction published at the end of the nineteenth century were largely portrayed in negative ways: as religion-denying materialists; nihilist chemists; monomaniacs; and mentally ill.1 The procession of major science fiction writers to portray scientists were E.T.A. Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and H.G. Wells, and their depictions of scientists were far more flawed than not.2 Comedy, however, never entered the picture. Alden wrote a significant amount of comic fiction, and undoubtedly never thought too deeply into the Van Wagener stories beyond their sales, but in creating the comic mad scientist Alden created a new way for modern writers to criticize brilliant scientists: by mockery.
Print: W.L. Alden, Van Wagener’s Ways. London: C.A. Pearson, 1898.
1 Nevins, “Organ Theft and the Insanity of Geniuses.”
2 For more, see Martin Willis, Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines (Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 2006).