Virgins, Villains, and Violence; or, That Dastardly Dime Novel
“Touch but a hair of her head, and by the Lord that made me, I will bespatter that tree with your brains!”
This is from page ten of the first dime novel, Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter. It was not long before such chilling propositions would become the first words on page one.
“We will have the money, or she shall die!”
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots rang out on the midnight air!”
Or my favorite, uttered by the evil Duke of Tula in The Gunmaker of Moscow by Sylvanus Cobb: “‘Rosalind Valdar,’ he hissed, ‘my bed shall be your bed! My will shall be your master! My lust shall feed upon your charms, and your body shall be minister to my passions! I’ll use thee — use thee as I list — and when I tire of thee I’ll cast thee out into the streets for dogs to bark at; for men to sneer at; and for all honest women to shun! So will I do if you become not my wife! God in heaven witness!’”
The aforementioned tale containing the proposal to deck the tree with bits of brain opens peacefully enough: “The traveller who has stopped at Catskill, on his way up the Hudson, will remember that a creek of no insignificant breadth washes one side of the village.” The authoress of these bucolic words was Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, already well known for novels serialized in such high-society magazines as The Ladies’ Companion, Graham’s Magazine, Peterson’s Magazine, and Godey’s Lady’s Book. So how, from this prim and proper start, did the dime novel come to symbolize all that was overwrought if not downright sleazy?
“The writers of the early dime novel,” according to Edmund Pearson in his 1929 study, “were reverently following the lead of Cooper and Scott, and had not the slightest intention of composing ‘sensational’ fiction.” Yet Mrs. Stephens’s 128-page, four-by-six, yellow-back melodrama (the books came to be named for the color of their covers, although their publisher felt compelled to repeat, like Christo, that the color was saffron, dammit) was about an Indian woman whose white husband is killed by her dying father’s hand. She carries their son to his grandfather in New York, who forbids her to live openly as the boy’s mother. She attempts to reclaim her boy to a savage life and fails, leaving her son on the island of Manhattan, then returns to her tribe, yet somehow (don’t ask) is not murdered. Ultimately she reconnects with her son on his wedding day and reveals his parentage, resulting in his suicide and her death.
The appearance of this cheery saga in June 1860 was a sensation. Malaeska sold gratifyingly well, with some estimates at 300,000 the first year. The publishers of the dime series, Erastus Flavel Beadle and Irwin Pedro Beadle, were soon proclaimed wizards of commerce and even, as radio and television would be in their earliest days, possible forces for uplifting social and educational values. The Beadles also published a series of similar little pamphlets, including dime books of jokes, songs, verse, cooking, etiquette, speeches, dance instruction, and even tax guides. The titles ran into the thousands and their sales into the millions.
But it is the novels that interest us at this moment: not only the 321 yellow-backs and 310 “illuminated” (i.e., colored) covers published between 1860 and 1885 by the house that came to be known as Beadle & Adams, but also the thousands more that issued forth from its competitors. What gave the dime novel birth were the industrial revolution, technological innovation — especially the creation of groundwood or “pulp” paper — and the premium placed on portable amusement with the advent of the Civil War. The broadsheet “story papers” that had been popular before the craze for dime novels could not be tossed into a knapsack as easily as a Beadle “dollar book for a dime.”
Reformers railed against the dime novels for their prurience, their racism, their encouragement to wasteful daydreaming, and the generally corrupting tendencies of their bare-legged lasses, mustachioed villains, and rampant gunplay. Literary types hated the genre for its formulaic plots, stilted dialogue, and illogical story development. As Edward Wagenknecht wrote, “In the usual sense of the term, no boy was ever corrupted by reading dime novels, for their heroes were not allowed to drink, smoke, swear, or make love. But killing Indians was another matter, and the reader’s nerves were battered by an unending succession of sensational incidents, dished up according to carefully prescribed formulas, with endless repetition of incident and utterly without grace of style.”
Writers like Gilbert Patten, author of more than a thousand titles behind the nom de plume of Burt L. Standish, dreamed of being the American Dickens when he started writing for Beadle in 1886. By the time he moved on to Munro and then, in 1895, Street & Smith, he was just another disillusioned hired pen, so tired of poverty that he was only too willing to write stories to order. Ormond Smith, senior partner in the firm, proposed very specifically how Patten ought develop a juvenile series built around a young man at a boarding school:
. . . something in the line of the Jack Harkaway stories, Gay Dashleigh series which we are running in Good News and the Island School series . . . the idea being to issue a library containing a series of stories covering this class of incident, in all of which will appear one prominent character surrounded by suitable satellites. It would be an advantage to the series to have introduced the Dutchman, the Negro, the Irishman, and any other dialect that you are familiar with . . .
It is important that the main character in the series should have a catchy name, such as Dick Lightheart, Jack Harkaway, Gay Dashleigh, Don Kirk, as upon this name will depend the title for the library.
The essential idea of this series is to interest young readers in the career of a young man at a boarding school, preferably a military or a naval academy. The stories should differ from the Jack Harkaways in being American and thoroughly up to date. Our idea is to issue, say, twelve stories, each complete in itself, but like the links in a chain, all dealing with life at the academy. By this time the readers will have become sufficiently well acquainted with the hero, and the author will also no doubt have exhausted most of the pranks and escapades that might naturally occur.
After the first twelve numbers, the hero is obliged to leave the academy, or takes it upon himself to leave. It is essential that he should come into a considerable amount of money at this period. When he leaves the academy he takes with him one of the professor’s servants, a chum. In fact any of the characters you have introduced and made prominent in the story. A little love element would also not be amiss, though this is not particularly important.
When the hero is once projected on his travels there is an infinite variety of incident to choose from. In the Island School Series, published by one of our London connections, you will find scenes of foreign travel with color. This material you are at liberty to use freely . . .
After we run through twenty or thirty numbers of this, we would bring the hero back and have him go to college - say, Yale University; thence we could take him on his travels again to the South Seas or anywhere. . . .
Two weeks later Patten sent in a story called “Frank Merriwell; or, First Days at Fardale” (dime-novel titles were always two-parters, including a semicolon and a comma). “The first of the Frank Merriwell stories appeared on April 18, 1896” wrote Ronald Weber in Hired Pens, “and thereafter they were a regular feature of Street & Smith’s Tip Top Weekly. Patten’s first contract covered a three-year period and paid him $50 for a 20,000-word story. Although the money was modest, the contract meant a regular income and Patten reasoned that at the rate of five thousand words a day he could finish a story in four days and have two left over for other work.” (Emphasis mine; as a fellow pen for hire, I can only gasp in shock, awe, and dismay.)
After writing 20 million words over 17 years as Burt L. Standish, plus millions more as Lefty Locke and who knows what else, Gilbert Patten went to his grave as the most famous American author no one knew. Yet in Frank Merriwell he gave us a hero for his age and, in a not instantly visible way, our own. No one today knows of Malaeska and few of Deadwood Dick, but everyone knows Frank Merriwell, the pride of Yale, supreme athlete, courageous hunter, and master ventriloquist who, in the words of his creator, stood for truth, faith, justice, the triumph of right, mother, home, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, the love of alma mater, duty, sacrifice, retribution, and strength of soul as well as body. Frank was manly; he had “sand” … and he was modest to a fault.
The formulaic quality of the series, the crudity of the cover illustrations, the implausibility of the settings and impossibility of the outcomes, all combined to deliver a bindingly archaic experience of Young America when it was strong and, like its dime-novel heroes, noble. There is a reason that our enduring heroic figures — strong, silent, resolute types like John Wayne, Ted Williams, Gary Cooper, and Ronald Reagan — echo an archetypal past, one that is, in the words of historian J.H. Plumb, “a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death.” In other words, the virtues embodied in Frank Merriwell, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, and their dime-novel chums.