Dime Novels and Historical Romances
Dime Novels and Historical Romances
A Book for a Dime. During the 1880s and 1890s the American literati assumed the mantle of social reform and scientific inquiry. William Dean Howells defended the anarchists arrested in Chicago’s Haymarket bombing. The normally aloof Henry James wrote two expressly “political” novels, The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886). And the young writers known as naturalists began to spin progressively darker and grimmer tales of urban malaise, social inequity, and
individual pathology. The reading public clamored for a little escapism and found it in the dime novel. Before the Civil War American readers’ morbid curiosity and sensual cravings had been satisfied by sensational “story papers” and pamphlet novels (the latter selling in twenty-five-cent installments). In 1860 the publishing firm of Beadle and Adams offered readers a new option—“A DOLLAR BOOK FOR A DIME!!”—and made money by providing the soldiers of the Union army with cheap reading matter. Within a few years competitors such as Frank Tousey, Norman Munro, and Street and Smith were also publishing dime novels, the literary phenomenon of the late nineteenth century.
Cheap Thrills. “It was her woman’s destiny, not the more certain because of her savage origin,” observes the narrator of Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1860), a melodramatic thriller in which “woman’s destiny” and “savage origin” guarantee a tragic death for the protagonist. Ann Sophia Stephens (1810-1886), the author of Malaeska, holds a place in history as the author of the first American dime novel. Published by Beadle and Adams as its first title, the book sold half a million copies. Cheaply produced tales of romance, skulduggery, adventure, and mayhem, dime novels proliferated in the decades following the Civil War. Enterprising authors plumbed American history for romantic settings, eccentric characters, and melodramatic potential. Revolutionary and Civil War stories enjoyed a great vogue, as did tales of the Wild West. Quasi-historical novels regularly blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction, biography and hagiography. Thus E. Z. C. Judson (1823-1886), who wrote more than four hundred dime novels under the pen name Ned Buntline, elevated his friend William Cody from man to myth in a series of books about “Buffalo Bill.” (Judson himself was a larger-than-life character who juggled careers as a trapper, soldier, journalist, and reactionary politician.) The most successful dime novelists worked endless variations on tried-and-true formulas: Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-1899) with his rags-to-riches stories, Laura Jean Libbey with her working-girl romances, and Edward Wheeler with his Deadwood Dick westerns.
BEST-SELLERS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1878-1899
In his groundbreaking study Golden Multitudes (1947) Frank Luther Mott deHned a best-seller as a book whose yearly sales equaled at least 1 percent of the population of the continental United States during the decade in which it was published. In the following list of best-sellers the minimum sales figures were 375,000 for the 1870s, 500,000 for the 1880s, and 625,000 for the 1890s. Like the best-seller lists of today, Mott’s nineteenth-century roster features its share of thrillers, romances, and animal stories. Yet the popularity of serious works by such eminent authors as Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Leo Tolstoy testifies to the broad sympathies of the nineteenth-century American reading public.
Anna Katharine Green, The Leavenworth Case
Henry George, Progress and Poverty
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Ludovic Hafévy, L’AbbéConstantin
Johanna Spyri, Heidi
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntlroy
H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Marie Corelli, Thelma
H. Rider Haggard, She
Guy de Maupassant, Stories
J. M. Barrie, The Little Minister
Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed Rudyard Kipling, Mine Own People
J. M. Barrie, A Window in Thrums
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sarah Grand, The Heavenly Twins
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
George du Maurier, Trilby
William H. Harvey, Coin’s Financial School
Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda
Ian Maclaren, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush
Margaret Marshall Saunders, Beautiful Joe
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Opie Read, The jucklins
Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis
Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps
Ralph Connor, Black Rock
Edward Noyes Westcott, David Harum
The Detective. The advent of detective fiction overlapped with the rise of the dime novel. Early detective stories by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) were succeeded in the 1870s and 1880s by full-length detective novels such as The Leavenworth Case (1878) and That Affair Next Door (1897) by Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935). Nick Carter, surely the most ubiquitous detective of ali time, appeared in more than one thousand dime novels (written over the years by dozens of authors). Over time pulp fiction usurped the place of the dime novel in the literary marketplace. Pulp magazines—named for the low-grade paper on which they were printed—entered mass circulation in the mid 1890s.
Romance, Royalty, and Revolution. A more respectable cousin of the dime novel—the historical romance—also enjoyed a vogue during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Whether set in faraway lands or the mist-shrouded ground of early America, these works shared a predilection for simple plots, high romance, and moralistic conclusions. Where the utopian novel offered programmatic suggestions for change, historical fiction offered escapism, pure and simple. And whereas naturalists such as Frank Norris (1870-1902) and Stephen Crane (1871-1900) portrayed individuals as pawns of forces beyond their control, authors of historical fiction resurrected the notion of the invincible hero. Readers of late-nineteenth-century historical fiction enjoyed stories of kings and queens, knights and damsels, prophets and pilgrims, admirals and generals. The preeminent work in this mold, Ben-Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace (1827-1905), pitted its early Christian hero against the Romans in a chariot race. An Indiana author, Charles Major (1856-1913), who wrote under the pen name Sir Edwin Caskoden, selected sixteenth-century England as the setting for When Knighthood Was in Flower (1898), an immensely popular novel that chronicled the romance between a queen and a commoner. When American historical novelists turned their attention to war—as did F. Marion Crawford (1854-1909) with Via Crucis (1898), or Winston Churchill (1871-1947) with Richard Carvel (1899)—they invariably stressed romance over realism. The average reader preferred such fare to more-troubling books about the vicissitudes of life in war or in peace.
Michael Denning, Mechanical Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture (London & New York: Verso, 1987);
Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947).