Book Review: Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel

Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel, by Julia KellerI hate to perpetuate stereotypes, but this is a case where there is more than a kernel of truth to one. The unfortunate subject is Julia Keller, author of Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel, and she is very much an outsider to the world of firearms. She is a journalist, and one with an impressive list of qualifications: a Master’s in English Literature. Teaching positions at Harvard, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago. A Pulitzer Prize, earned for a Chicago Tribune story on a deadly 2004 tornado in Utica, IL. A long-time position as Culture Critic for the Chicago Tribune. Does any of this sounds like a person ripe to research a new and groundbreaking study of Richard Gatling and his iconic gun? Yeah, I didn’t think so either (although she would be top of my list if I wanted to fill an academic position in an ivory tower university).

Ms. Keller’s book is not, in fact, a history of Gatling and the Gatling Gun at all, although you’ll be forgiven for thinking so, considering the subtitle “The gun that changed everything and the misunderstood genius who invented it.” Had I thought to look past the cool photo of Gatling on the cover before diving into the text, I would have gotten a whiff of the problems to come.

As many folks who read this site will realize, the Gatling really didn’t change very much at all. It was arguably the best of the manually-operated machine guns, but it had no impact on the Civil War and was out of service by WWI. It saw use only in the brush wars of the late 1800s, in the American west and Africa. One could say the Maxim changed everything, but not the Gatling. And this leads us to the second half of that hyperbolic subtitle – misunderstood genius? Not really. Not to belittle him, but Gatling was a pretty straight-forward figure. He was an inveterate inventor and tinkerer, and close to an archetypical figure of American culture at the time. He didn’t really have any dark secrets or shameful habits. He was lovingly devoted to his family, intellectually curious and active, and an able (if not outstanding) businessman.

Unfortunately, Keller decided to ignore facts that might point in the wrong direction, and attempt to mold Gatling into a central pillar about which to write a cultural critique of 19th century America. That is the true subject of the book – a social and cultural history of the late 1800s with a garnishing of flowery prose.

That doesn’t leave the work without merit, although Keller’s personal attitude towards gun as icky detestable things is annoying when it shines through. Many of the side issues she discusses – such as the history of the US Patent Office and the nature of steamship travel – were quite interesting, and introduced me to things I hadn’t known. After reading the cover, though, one is tempted to flip right past those pages, looking for non-existent information on, you know, the Gatling Gun. On the bright side, by not including any technical information she also manages to not get any of it wrong, which is something.

To be fair, the problems with the book are largely based in the expectations one gets from the cover. If you would be interested in a wide-ranging look at the heyday of American mechanical innovation, this will be a fairly satisfying book (and only set you back about ten bucks). But if you want to learn about technical aspects of the Gatling Gun, you would be infinitely better off spending a bit more and getting a copy of Wahl and Toppel’s The Gatling Gun.