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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Old West Mythmakers

The westerns novels of today, mine included, carry on a long tradition of mythologising America's Old West and transforming it into the fantasy we call The Wild West. The dime novels are where it all started and it was publisher, Beadle who coined the phrase, Dime Novels - originally the books cost a dime but eventually the phrase would come to encompass all kinds of mass market popular fiction. Today the definition of the dime novel is confused - some go for the price as the true decider while other argue for the format.

I favour the era as defining a dime novel and I don't think a book has to have been priced at a dime to qualify. There were, after all numerous magazines following Beadle's success and these were set at varied prices. Perhaps the most confusing of all the formats that are lumped together under the term dime novel are the so-called “thick-book” series, largely published by Street & Smith, J. S. Ogilvie and Arthur Westbrook. These books were published in series, ran roughly 150-200 pages, and were 4.75 x 7 inches, often with colour covers on a higher grade stock. They reprinted multiple stories, the forefather of the pulp magazines, from the five- and ten-cent weeklies, often slightly rewritten to tie the material together.

It is generally agreed that the term originated with the first book in Beadle & Adams Beadle’s Dime Novel series, Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens, dated June 9, 1860. The novel was a reprint of Stephens's earlier serial that appeared in the Ladies' Companion magazine in February, March, and April 1839. The dime novels varied in size, even within this first Beadle series, but were roughly 6.5 by 4.25 inches (17 by 10.8 cm), with 100 pages. The first 28 were published without a cover illustration, in a salmon colored paper wrapper, but a woodblock print was added with issue 29, and reprints of the first 28 had an illustration added to the cover.

Owen Wister's The Virginian is often regarded as the parent of modern western fiction and in many ways it has a strong hold on this claim, but the dime novels also have a valid right to the title. Many of the mass market paperback westerns of the modern age are closer in spirit to the dimes than anything else. For it was in these books that the faster than lightening gun slinger, the fearless Indian fighter and the good bad man was invented. And the dime novels in turn owe something to James Fenimore Cooper who was responsible for popularising wild tales of frontiersmen battling savage Indians in The Pilot (1923). Many other writers followed his lead and by the time publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle published their first dime novel, the genre was well established. Of course westerns were not the only genre covered by the dimes but they were for a great many years, the most popular.During the time the novels were being produced the great westward expansion was in full swing and readers back East were eager to read of the dangers facing the brave men and women who lived on the frontier. Invariably, though not always,  the settlers were depicted as upright and steadfast and the Indians as savages driven by mindless bloodlust.
No relation to Arkansas Smith

Beadle’s Dime Novels were immediately successful, owing to an increased literacy in the population around the time of the American Civil War, and by the war’s end there were numerous competitors like George Munro and Robert DeWitt crowding the field, distinguishing their product only by title and the color choice of the paper wrappers. Even Beadle & Adams had their own alternate "brands", such as the Frank Starr line. As a whole, the quality of the fiction was derided by higher brow critics and the term 'dime novel' quickly came to represent any form of cheap, sensational fiction, rather than the specific format.

Arkansas Sal (I wonder if she's related to Arkansas Smith?) was a popular dime series featuring the fearsome female trapper, Arkansas Sal who could scalp an Apache in seconds - imagine what today's politically correct brigade would make of that!  Often real life western legends were the basis for the dime novels - Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and many more, had their exploits exaggerated and downright lies told about them. Some of these lies persist today and have almost become fact of western lore.

The prose style was often extravagant and fast paced (for the time) - you can get a feel for the era with the extract below, Buffalo Bill's Early Days from Beadle's Boy's Library issue 1-

"THAT Truth is, by far, stranger than Fiction, the lessons of our daily lives teach us who dwell in the marts of civilization, and therefore we cannot wonder that those who live in scenes where the rifle, revolver and knife are in constant use, to protect and take life, can strange tales tell of thrilling perils met and subdued, and romantic incidents occurring that are far removed from the stern realities of existence.
The land of America is full of romance, and tales that stir the blood can be told over and over again of bold Privateers and reckless Buccaneers who have swept along the coasts; of fierce naval battles, sea chases, daring smugglers; and on shore of brave deeds in the saddle and afoot; of red trails followed to the bitter end and savage encounters in forest wilds.
And it is beyond the pale of civilization I find the hero of these pages which tell of thrilling adventures, fierce combats, deadly feuds and wild rides, that, one and all, are true to the letter, as hundreds now living can testify.
Who has not heard the name of Buffalo Bill -a magic name, seemingly, to every boy's heart?
And yet in the uttermost parts of the earth it is known among men.
A child of the prairie, as it were, Buffalo Bill will go down to history as one of America's strange heroes who has loved the trackless wilds, rolling plains and mountain solitudes of our land, far more than the bustle and turmoil, the busy life and joys of our cities, and who has stood as a barrier between civilization and savagery, risking his own life to save the lives of others."

Eventually new printing techniques gave birth to the Pulp Magazines and the dime novels went the way of the Dodo.

There's a great online resource for the dime novel HERE

1 comment:

old guy rambling said...

Nice little western novel history lesson--I have been a fan of dime novels for years and have blogged and wrote about some. Thanks for the link--good stuff.