Born in 1818, a native of Ballyroney Co. Down and the son of a Presbyterian minister, Thomas Mayne Reid was an adventurer before he became a highly successful writer. His father intended him for the Church, but like a lot of sons Reid had ideas of his own. Despite spending four years training to be a minister he failed to graduate and follow his father’s footsteps.
He entered the USA via New Orleans in 1840 and quickly became involved in the activities of hunters and fur traders. He lasted six months in Louisiana and was, so the story goes, forced to leave the state for refusing to horsewhip a slave. He later set one of his books, the anti-slavery novel The Quadroon, in the South. While living in his next port of call, Philadephia, and working as a journalist, he became a drinking companion of Edgar Allen Poe. The great American mystery writer later remarked of the Irishman’s conversational talents that he was ‘a colossal but most picturesque liar. He fibs on a surprising scale but with the finish of an artist.’
He fought in the Mexican–American War, where he was double-jobbing as he was also covering the conflict for a New York newspaper as its war correspondent. Reid was badly wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, where the Mexican defenders of the town included members of the famous San Patricio battalion, Catholic Irishmen fed up with nativist anti-Catholicism who had switched sides to fight with Mexico. Reid was promoted while most of the surviving San Patricios were hanged.
After spending just over a decade in the USA, mostly in the West, he returned to Europe and began to harvest his American experience as a writer. There is, however, scant evidence that he ever actually spent much time in that part of the world where much of his work is located, the American west. Between 1848 and his death in 1883 he wrote more than seventy adventure novels and, ironically as an Irishman writing mostly in Britain, played a huge part in the mythologising of the West, even amongst Americans. Theodore Roosevelt was an avid fan of Reid’s novels as a young boy and later went in search of the West that Reid wrote about. If he didn’t actually find it he certainly pretended to.
Reid cultivated a rather foppish appearance. He liked to wear lemon yellow gloves and clothes that were guaranteed to attract attention. He also wore a monocle, giving rise to the myth that he had a glass eye. Almost inevitably the story is told that when Reid and some other authors once met for a drink the Irishman’s glass eye fell into his beverage and had to be fished out.
The thrust of his approach to the West can be gauged from the titles of some of his more famous novels, many of which did not actually appear in American editions until well after his death. The Scalp Hunters, written in 1851, was one of his earliest and most successful efforts. Other classic ‘dime novels’ included The Headless Horseman written in 1866, later read enthusiastically in a Russian translation by a young Vladimir Nabokov. It doesn’t, however, appear to have greatly influenced Lolita. In all Reid wrote 75 novels as well as numerous short stories.
Thomas Mayne Reid, novelist and teller of tall tales was born one hundred and ninety six years ago on this day.