Today in Literary History – June 20, 1883 – Gustave Aimard, French adventurer and author of American “westerns,” dies

Gustave Aimard, the prolific and wildly popular 19th century French writer of “western” novels set in the US and South America, died on June 20, 1883.

Aimard led a fantastically adventurous life, which he used as fodder for 78 books, mostly about Indian fighters and frontiersman – in the vein of James Fenimore Cooper.

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He often told tall tales about his travels and exploits, but the stories that turn out to be true are amazing enough.

Aimard used to bristle when people referred to his birth, in 1818, as being illegitimate. His parents were married, he would reply, “just not to each other.”

His mother was Marie-Charlotte-Félicité de Faudoas-Barbazan de Segnanville, an aristocrat from an old French family. She was married to René Savary, the Duke of Rovigo, who had been the Inspector-General of the Gendarmerie under Napoleon Bonaparte, but was living in exile when Aimard was born.

His father was also a former Napoleonic general, Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de la Porta, a young widower who later became France’s Foreign Minister. Sébastiani was born in Corsica and was probably a distant relative of Napoleon, an idea which Aimard later exaggerated.

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Aimard’s father, General Sébastiani

As a baby Aimard was given to another family, the Gloux, whom his mother paid to raise him. At the age of 12, according to Aimard, he ran away to sea. He claimed to have sailed to South America, Turkey and the Black Sea.

At 17 he joined the French Navy and sailed again to South America. He seems to have jumped ship and spent almost 10 years in North and South America. He worked as a hunter and trapper and prospected for gold in California. He also claimed to have been adopted by a Comanche tribe.

He had another American adventure in the early 1850s when he joined a failed mission to secure Sonoma’s independence from Mexico.

On his return to France Aimard began his career as a writer, churning out stories about frontier life in the Americas. His books were translated into German, Spanish, Portuguese, English and other languages.

Europe had a great curiosity at the time about the American West and his books were extremely popular. He also had a huge fan base in South America, particularly Brazil.

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Part of Aimard’s literary success was that he had first hand knowledge of the people and places that he wrote about. Like successful “genre” writers today, Aimard leaned heavily on atmosphere and verisimilitude, taking great care to explain and describe local flora and fauna and native customs.

Also like genre writers of today he was criticized for being repetitive in his work and writing too quickly to ever develop compelling plots or three-dimensional characters.

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By the time of his death Aimard suffered from serious physical and mental health problems. He became obsessed with his poor treatment by his birth families and developed elaborate fantasies based on his supposed kinship to Napoleon.

In the end the self-mythologizing that helped his book sales became sad delusions of grandeur.

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