By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
May 19, 2013
What did one read on the stagecoach or the train in the 1890s? Chances are it was a cheap, hastily written
“novel,” the latest in a series of so-called dime or half-dime libraries. These
lurid tales ranged from mysteries to historical fiction to proto-science
fiction. Many were boys’ stories
featuring Wild West themes or sports adventures. This “dime novel” format ruled
popular fiction between 1860 and 1900 and it was in many ways the direct
forebear of most of the popular literature formats that came later,
specifically comic books, pulp magazines, and ultimately the popular paperback
The dime novels peaked as nostalgia items in the 1940s and
1950s when collectors who remembered them from their youth in the late 19th
Century formed clubs, traded scarce issues and drove up prices. Nowadays, only
a few specialists even know what they are.
Other than the early Beadle & Adams editions (the original dime
novels of the 1860s), most of these were printed on cheap acidic paper and have
crumbled away decades ago.
The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature boasts
600 of these precious paper artifacts. Some are crumbling away, but many are
very well preserved thanks to somebody’s grandpa who stapled them into manila
folders for preservation. We have since liberated most of them from this
primitive archival method and placed them in acid-free mylar sleeves. The trick
is to keep them out of the sunlight so they don’t turn so black you can’t read
them, and to keep them in a humid enough environment that they don’t turn
brittle and crumble, but not so humid that they mold.
Our collection ranges from publication dates of 1860 to
1927, with most of our issues dating from the 1890s. The Frank Reade, Jr.,
series is highly prized by science fiction collectors as an example of
proto-science-fiction in the Jules Verne tradition. Many of the issues of another
story paper, Tip Top Weekly, feature
early sports covers, including baseball, football, and basketball depictions
from the 1890s and 1900s. However, while
the cover art is fun, the stories are uniformly awful, hastily written, and of
little literary value. This was a disposable literature, intended for the
stagecoach or train ride and then for the rubbish heap.
In later posts, we can delve into the role of the dime
novels in early American science fiction, and other interesting topics. But
today, as we just begin to scratch the surface of the dime novel collection, it
seems that there is one most important observation about this extinct literary
medium: that is, the perspective the
dime novels offer on 19th Century literature, and how different that
is than the classics we are used to reading. The fact is that most of the American
authors we still regularly read from the 19th Century — Walt
Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain — were all way ahead of
their time and are not representative of their era.
Some people nowadays argue over whether “Huckleberry Finn”
should be in the school library because Mark Twain used the N-word in that
book. Case in point, this sanitized,edition released in 2011 that edited out
the book’s incidences of crude racial language. But if they could read what the 19th
Century public was really consuming on a daily basis in the form of dime novels,
they would be horrified. They would soon forgive Mark Twain’s choice of words. To put it bluntly, there is nothing
politically correct about 19th Century dime novels. All the Mexicans
are “greasers,” all the African Americans are “darkies” or “coons.” Cover art depicts fearless pioneers thrusting
their knives to the hilt in the bleeding chests of Indians. Cruelty to animals
is commonplace. There is a reason beyond poor prose why this literature has been
forgotten. These stories would simply not be tolerated today.
So why read the dime novels, if they are so hastily written
and awful, and if they are so offensive to modern sensibilities? A few possible reasons:
The dime novels are historically important as the
grandfather of most of the cheaply produced mass entertainment that was
available since the dawn of the Industrial Age to the advent of
television. The dime novels morphed into
the pulp magazines (around the turn of the 20th Century), the comic
books (in the 1930s), and paperback novels (starting in the late 30’s and
achieving a Golden Age of their own in the 1940s and 1950s).
In kind of a sick way, the dime novels are refreshing for
their utter lack of political correctness.
At the same time, they give us a glimpse into the Anglo-centric,
insensitive thinking of their era. They
were written at a time when the imperialism of the British Empire was still in
full bloom and the hands of natives in the Belgian Congo were being chopped off
by the basketful for bounties. Africans, Native Americans, and Australian
aborigines were all fodder for the dime novel mill. If non-white ethnic characters appeared in
the stories in guises other than attacking natives or marauding Indians, they
were usually relegated to the roles of sidekicks and comic relief.
As literature, the dime novels provide a foil to the
required reading lists we all remember from school. The weekly issues of the
half-dime libraries are the television episodes of their era, not the art-house
movies. The disposable prose of hacks, written for fractions of a penny per
word, is a lot like the countless now-lost hours of live TV that existed
between about 1939 and the mid-1950s. An
ephemeral literature, but an important ancestor to what came later.