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DIME NOVELS LEAD THE WAY WEST
If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard about dime novels all your reading life. Originally I believed there was only one form of dime novel, but I’ve learned that is far from the case.
|Various forms of so-called|
Generally, historians agree that the term "dime novel" originated with the first book in Beadle & Adam's Beadle’s Dime Novel series, MALEASKA, THE INDIAN WIFE OF THE WHITE HUNTER, by Ann S. Stephens, dated June 9, 1860. Aha! A female author breaking in a new tradition! I’m pleased to know that. The novel was essentially 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, 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. The books actually were priced at ten cents.
This series ran for 321 issues, and established almost all the conventions of the genre, from the lurid and outlandish story to the melodramatic double titling that was used right up to the very end in the 1920s. Most of the stories were frontier tales reprinted from the vast backlog of serials in the story papers and other sources, as well as many originals.
Beadle’s Dime Novels were immediately popular among young, working-class audiences, owing to an increased literacy rate around the time of the American Civil War. 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. 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.
Although the larger part of the stories stood alone, in the late 1880s series characters began to appear and quickly grew in popularity. The original Frank Reade stories first appeared in Boys of New York. Old Sleuth, appearing in The Fireside Companion story paper beginning in 1872, was the first dime novel detective and began the trend away from the western and frontier stories that dominated the story papers and dime novels up to that time. He was the first character to use the word “sleuth” to denote a detective, the word’s original definition being that of a bloodhound trained to track. Hooray for Frank Reade! I love reading mysteries with an amateur sleuth - a human sleuth, not a bloodhound.
By 1873, frontier stories, evolving into westerns (Hooray!), were still popular, but the new vogue tended to urban crime stories. One of the most successful titles, Frank Tousey’s New York Detective Library eventually came to alternate stories of the James Gang with stories of Old King Brady, detective.
Dime novels endeared western lore to the nation, even spreading throughout the world, as you’ll learn when you read Julie Garwood’s PRINCE CHARMING. (By now you know that book is one of my all-time favorites.) City people followed the exploits of legendary heroes in the West. Talk about literary license? The fact that most of the tales were pure drivel didn’t matter a whit to their eager audience. The lure was cast, and many took the bait and headed to America’s West.
Has a novel ever influenced you to try something new?
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