Friday, September 13, 2013
A Prisoner of Morro by Upton Sinclair
Pulp fiction of the Spanish-American War
Upton Sinclair is best known for political writings like The Jungle, but when he was just getting started on his career he worked his way through college by writing adventure fiction. A Prisoner of Morro, or, In the Hands of the Enemy was penned under the pseudonym of Ensign Clark Fitch, USN, and published in 1898 when Sinclair was just 20 years old. The story takes place in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Naval Cadet Clif Faraday ships out of Key West on the gun boat Uncas, bound for the northern coast of Cuba. While en route the Uncas encounters a Spanish merchant steamer. After a hot pursuit the Americans capture the vessel. Young Faraday is put in command of the Spanish boat and charged with bringing it back to Florida. Clif is unable to accomplish his mission, however, as he and his small crew meet with treachery at the hands of the Spaniards. Given the book’s title, it should come as no surprise that Clif becomes a prisoner of war. The Morro referred to in the title is Morro Castle, in Havana Bay, a fortress notorious for its dungeons of no return.
A Prisoner of Morro seems to have been written for an audience of adolescent boys. The book’s hero is such a boy scout, always exercising the most noble and brave behavior, he is obviously meant to serve as a role model for America’s youth. References to past events in the first chapter indicate that this is not the first episode in the adventures of Clif Faraday, though I’m not sure how many novels Sinclair wrote in this series. Somewhere along the way Clif has even managed to acquire his own personal nemesis, a particularly nefarious Spaniard named Ignacio, who exemplifies the over-the-top villains who flourished in the age of pulp fiction. Ignacio is endowed with “claw-like fingers,” wears a perpetual scowl, and enjoys torturing “Yankee pigs.” At first it’s quite disconcerting to find Sinclair, a socialist and frequently outspoken dissenter, indulging in the jingoism and xenophobia of his time. The Spaniards in the book are mostly caricatures, like the Japanese characters in a World War II era movie. Although he never descends too far into the realm of racial stereotypes, Sinclair definitely depicts the conflict between America and Spain as a battle between good and evil that’s as clear as black and white. Thankfully, about halfway through the book he introduces a sympathetic Spanish character that actually displays the qualities of a human being. In fact, as the book goes on, it becomes less and less sensationalistic and thus more palatable to today’s reader.
Sinclair demonstrates that he can be a skilled writer of adventure tales. The book is peppered with exciting chases and skirmishes. I suspect this story was originally serialized in some pulp magazine, because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Though each individual chapter is packed with action, there’s little attempt to combine them into a cohesive novel. I hesitate to call this book a novel at all, for it seems as if Sinclair just made it up as he went along, then stopped when he reached a page count sufficient to be called a book. There is a tediously repetitious cycle of capture and escape throughout the story, and as soon as Clif completes one mission he just starts on another in the following chapter, with little relation to what came before. By the time you get to the end, what took place at the beginning is long forgotten. Even fans of classic pulp fiction, who are often willing to suspend disbelief and can tolerate a clumsy plot, may find A Prisoner of Morro to be just too tame and antiquated to be worth their time.
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