By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
December 29, 2014
A cornerstone of the Dalenberg Library is a collection of about six-hundred 19th Century dime novels. These are the wellspring from which pop-lit (as we know it from the 20th Century) evolved. The dime novels, which entertained several generations of pre-radio, pre-television Americans on their stagecoach or train rides was the precursor of comic books, pulp magazines, and ultimately paperback novels. However, most of the Dalenberg Library holdings are from the later “nickel libraries” and boys’ story papers, and we only have a handful of specimens from the company that originated this literary format: the House of Beadle & Adams. One of them is Beadle’s Dime Fiction No. 7, featuring the story “Gottlieb Gottsoock,” published May 16, 1865. It is a 40-page “octavo” sized pamphlet with the famous orange wrappers that distinguish Beadles of this period.
The first orange-wrapped dime novel from Beadle’s dated from 1860, so ours from 1865 is a rare early specimen. This particular series title, “Beadle’s Dime Fiction,” lasted only for nine issues. It is printed on better paper than most of the later dime novels in the Dalenberg Library. The pulp paper process that became the standard for cheap fiction publications (thus the later term “pulp magazines”) was not invented until the 1880’s. The rag content in the paper of early dime novels was higher than what became standard later. Also, this pamphlet is sewn rather than stapled. Plus, the prose is rather better written than what passed for dime novels by the 1890’s. This particular issue is credited to author George Henry Prentice, who is credited with a handful of dime novels form this period. One writer believes that he is a pseudonym for Edward S. Ellis, who is most famous as the author of the first science fiction dime novel, “The Steam Man of the Prairies.” The frontier story and characters of “Gottlieb Gottsoock” are in the frontier tales tradition of James Fenimore Cooper, as are Ellis’s stories.
“Gottlieb Gottsoock” is a humorous story of pioneer settlers circa 1815. Where was the frontier then?—probably somewhere around Indiana/Illinois. The tale is about a young lass who has three suitors: the handsome, brave lad who eventually wins her; the not-so-handsome cowardly lad whose true colors come out in the course of the story; and the chubby, 40-ish Dutchman, Gottlieb Gottsoock, who is never really in the running. The Miami Indians, repeatedly referred to as savages in these pages, but played roundly for comic effect, raid the frontier town during a party and captives are taken. After some comic episodes, the captives are rather easily rescued, and the Indians flee, never to raid again, because by then the frontier has moved further west.
This story is not a classic that would ever be reprinted in an anthology. Most popular fiction in the 19th Century features a portrayal of blacks and native Americans that is anything but politically correct by today’s standards. People who boycott Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn over the use of “the N word” haven’t read dime novels—Twain was very forward-looking in his beliefs toward women and “minorities” to the point of being ahead of his time—in contrast, the dime novels are shot through with stereotypes and racist lingo to the point where they might easily make most modern readers squirm. But, if you can get past that and immerse yourself in these stories of a bygone era, and try on the identity of a 19th Century reader consuming rousing tales for entertainment on the stagecoach or train, it can be rewarding to read these things. Such an exercise provides a completely different point of view than you get from reading the 19th Century literature that we still read in school. Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain are on a completely different plane than what people were usually reading in those days. James Fenimore Cooper was very popular in the 19th Century, and this particular dime novel is more in that vein. It is interesting to read a story that was written at a time when our country was still expanding and most people believed in Manifest Destiny. There were 36 States in the Union in 1865 when this book was published, and it is reminiscent of a time (1815) when there were only 18 States. Nowadays, Manifest Destiny is a concept that is much maligned by modern pundits of political correctness, since it justified the removal of the Native Americans, war with Mexico, and other “bad” things. Oddly, however, one does not see any great move these days to give anything back to Indians and Mexicans, and we are still very occupied as a nation with keeping the Mexicans out of the land we took from them. So, while Manifest Destiny is no longer the creed of Americans, we continue to reap its rewards.
There is poignancy to the final lines of “Gottfried Gottsoock” as the author writes: “The onward tide of emigration carried the Indians so far to the west, that our friends [the characters in the story] were never again exposed to the danger which we have attempted briefly to chronicle. The character of their settlement gradually changed; from being a frontier one it became inland. Other families beyond them became [the] borderers. . . .” This sums up, after all, much of the overarching story of our nation, how we came to be where we are today. Modern political correctness would dictate that we should be guilty about the displacement of the Indians. But there is a more rational and insightful way to look at that topic. Despite all the suffering and injustice that was wrought by Manifest Destiny, we must recognize that the fate of the Indians is the fate of all peoples, and perhaps all species, since time immemorial. The Romans were supplanted by the Barbarians (who mostly just became another version of Romans in their stead); the Angles and Saxons were supplanted by the Normans; the Neanderthals by Homo sapiens; the dinosaurs by the mammals; the prokaryotes by the eukaryotes; and so on and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.
That last bit might seem like an argument for Social Darwinism, but that is most emphatically NOT my point. Social Darwinism poses a value judgment that the victor is somehow superior to the conquered. I am implying no judgment about the value or the rectitude or the Divine Chosen-ness of the supplanters vs. the supplanted. In fact, the American Indians may well have had a better way of life than most modern Americans. It is not hard to convince a modern commuter of that fact while he or she is sitting in gridlocked traffic on the thoroughfares of any of the cities that were built on land bought from the Indians for the price of a few beads. All I am saying is that the natural order of things is for conquering peoples and conquering species to wash over, subdue, and replace the conquered. There is no guilt to be had by the conquerors. Someday we too shall be gone, our cities crumbled, something beyond (and not necessarily better) than us in our place.
Post-script for the Christmas season:
On page 25 of this month’s featured dime novel, when Gottfried realizes that he has been captured by the Indians, he exclaims “Doonder and Blixen!” This was a mild oath that one swore (if you were Dutch) in lieu of cursing, when you did something like accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer. The phrase, and various other variations in its spelling, means “Thunder and Lightning!” in Dutch. It was one of the subtle jokes that Clement Moore put in his famous night before Christmas poem, although today we know it in Anglicized form as “Donner and Blitzen.” I haven’t checked the provenance of the names of Santa’s other reindeer, but perhaps there are more jokes buried in the old poem.