Dime Novels Essay - Critical Essays

Dime Novels


Dime Novels

In its broadest sense, the term dime novel refers to all cheap, mass-produced pulp fiction published from approximately 1830 until the first decade of the twentieth century, and includes literary newspapers, weekly magazines, and pocket-size paperback books. However, scholars use the term most often to refer to the small paperback fictional novels popular in the second half of the nineteenth century that sold at newsstands for five to twenty-five cents. Specifically, the term emerged from the Dime Novel Library first published in 1860 by the New York firm Beadle and Adams, comprised of Irwin P. Beadle, Erastus F. Beadle, and Robert Adams. Until the firm's demise at the turn of the century, Beadle and Adams and their competitors published hundreds of thousands of these small books, with an estimated worldwide readership in the millions.

Dime novels consist of formulaic stories of adventure and action, usually ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five thousand words. Initially, they were aimed at the entire family and featured reproductions of classic works of fiction; novels about the old frontiers of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky; romances; war stories; and sea tales. However, by the 1870s publishers were facing stiff competition in a saturated market, sparked by the immense success enjoyed by Beadle and Adams. Writers began to target new audiences: young boys with pocket change and the working class. Dime novels became increasingly violent and gory, and featured sensational descriptions, urban settings, and gaudy cover art. Detectives, cowboys and courageous boys became the favored characters. Scholars and critics argue that the decline in the quality of the fiction, the lurid cover art, and the resulting debates about the moral influence of the novels on youth led to the demise of the literary form by about 1900. The novels, often printed in serialized newspapers and magazines, were also popular in England and France.

Dime novels revolutionized popular culture and the literary world in the nineteenth century. They emerged from a unique set of historical circumstances. Mandatory education laws in most states produced an increasingly literate population, particularly among the working class. The introduction of the steam printing press and other technological innovations created a cheap means of printing large volumes of material. The expansion of the railroad and the proliferation of the newsstand established a means of distributing literature across the country. The working class and former Civil War soldiers were a ready market. However, the first popular literary form of the nineteenth century was not the paperback book but the literary newspaper. In the United States, the post office gave preferential treatment to the transportation of newspapers; at times it was cheaper to send a newspaper than a letter. Initially, literary publications serialized existing stories which they directly plagiarized or altered slightly. Out of this success, publishers such as Maturin Murray Ballou began publishing small novels for twenty-five cents. However, it was not until 1860 that Beadle and Adams revolutionized the printing market by offering a new standardized literary form. That year the newly established printing house published Malaeska; The Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Ann S. Stephens, a well known and highly regarded author. Every month initially and then every two weeks, Beadle published a new volume in the series, soon earning an immense following. Many of these first novels did not constitute a new literary style. Malaeska, for example, had first appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in the 1830s. Revolutionary aspects of this novel included its packaging, price, and distribution at newsstands. The books were manufactured in a smaller size and uniform shape with pale orange covers and included cover art and illustrations. In addition, in 1860 Beadle launched an innovative advertising campaign to publicize the release of the novel Seth Jones; or the Captive of the Frontier by Edward S. Ellis. The publishing firm covered cities with posters and ads asking “Who is Seth Jones?” before the novel went on sale, thus piquing the curiosity of the public. The novel achieved record sales, and Ellis went on to become one of the most popular juvenile fiction writers of the century.

Initially, these novels were written by well-known authors of the period. Popular authors such as Ellis, Metta V. Victor, Prentiss Ingraham, and Ned Buntline published numerous volumes throughout their careers. Increasingly, newspaper reporters were lured into the industry, motivated by the opportunity to earn between seventy-five and one hundred dollars for seven to ten days' work. Publishers also sought authors with personal experience in the West and on the frontier who could bring factual detail and local color to their books; two-thirds of all Beadle's publications were set on the frontier. Such authors as Louisa May Alcott and Bret Harte wrote stories published in dime novels, and Mark Twain read them as research and inspiration for his writing.

The stories written by these middle-class writers reflected the strong moral values of the Victorian age, a moral standard which publishers promoted. In addition, the novels were nationalistic and patriotic, advocating a new social order in which people—or at least white males—were judged by their character and accomplishments rather than their social class. This ideology was particularly apparent in Westerns, in which the heroes always won and the villains were always brutally punished, in which women were presented as chaste and modest and whites were characterized as superior to members of all other races.

Soon after they emerged, however, the subject matter of many dime novels became more and more sensational, sparking heated controversy over their effect on the morality of readers. Social reformers such as Anthony Comstock led campaigns to ban the books and public librarians initiated programs to discourage youth from reading them. In numerous highly publicized trials, defense attorneys attributed murders and robberies to the influence of dime novels. As the century progressed, the public fervor over the destructive nature of the novels corresponded to the increase in violence and sensationalism in the novels as well as the publishers' attempts to capitalize on the youth market. On the other hand, influential leaders downplayed the potential harm. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was reputed to have praised Victor's novel about slave life entitled Maum Guinea and Her Plantation Children (1860). Into the twentieth century, reviewers called for a revision in this negative thinking, recalling their own happy youths spent reading dime novels, and arguing that they had suffered no personal adverse effects. Many of the essayists of the 1920s argued that although dime novels were lurid, they only led to the downfall of youth already predestined for a life of crime. Modern scholars are focusing increasingly on the pervasiveness of the media, the revolutionary nature of the format, and the massive influence the literary movement had on popular culture. Philip Durham writes that the genre “has had a tremendous influence on our social, cultural, political, and economic life.”

Representative Works

Albert W. Aiken
Richard Talbot of Cinnabar; or, The Brothers of the Red Hand (novel) 1880

Joseph E. Badger Jr.
The Prairie Ranch; or, The Young Cattle Herders (novel) 1899

Ned Buntline [pseudonym of E. Z. C. Judson]
The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main; or, The Fiend of Blood. A Thrilling Story of Buccaneer Times (novel) 1847
Stella Delorme; or, the Comanche's Dream (novel) 1860
Old Nick of the Swamp (novel) 1868
The Terror of the Coast (novel) 1872

Edward S. Ellis
Seth Jones; or the Captives of the Frontier (novel) 1860
The Huge Hunter; or the Steam Man of the Prairies (novel) 1882

Pauline Hopkins
Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (novel) 1902

Prentiss Ingraham
Buffalo Bill, from Boyhood to Manhood. Deeds of Daring, Scenes of Thrilling Peril, and Romantic Incidents in the Early Life of W. F. Cody, the Monarch of Bordermen (novel) 1878

Harry Oavendish
The Privateer's Cruise, and the Bride of Pomfret Hall (novel) 1860

Ann S. Stephens
Malaeska; The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (novel) 1860

Metta V. Victor
Maum Guinea and Her Plantation Children (novel) 1860

Edward L. Wheeler
Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, The Black Rider of the Black Hills (novel) 1877
Deadwood Dick on Deck; or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up. A Story of Dakota (novel) 1878
Solid Sam, the Boy Road-Agent; or, The Branded Brows. A Tale of Wild Wyoming. (novel) 1880

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Charles M. Harvey (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: “The Dime Novel in American Life,” in The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1907, pp. 37-45.

[In the following essay, Harvey recounts the development of the dime novel in America.]


Are not more crimes perpetrated these days in the name of the dime novels than Madame Roland ever imagined were committed in the name of liberty? It looks that way. Nearly every sort of misdemeanor into which the fantastic element enters, from train robbery to house-burning, is laid to them.

But these offending books must be only base counterfeits of the originals of their name. When the average American of fifty years of age or upward hears...

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Christine Bold (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Malaeska's Revenge; or, The Dime Novel Tradition in Popular Fiction,” in Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture, edited by Richard Aquila, University of Illinois Press, 1996, pp. 21-42.

[In the essay below, Bold examines the role of dime novels, pulp fiction, and the commodification of literature in transforming views about the West.]

Read collectively dime novels and their descendants tell the story of the frontier West's commodification in popular literature. This process was mediated by changing historical circumstances and individual authorial contributions, from the first intersection of mass literature and westward movement in the...

(The entire section is 8374 words.)

Paul J. Erickson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Judging Books by Their Covers: Format, the Implied Reader, and the ‘Degeneration’ of the Dime Novel,” in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, Vol. 12, No. 3, September, 1998, pp. 247-63.

[In the essay below, Erickson argues that the transformation of the distribution and packaging of dime novels—rather than fundamental changes in the content of the stories—led to their decline.]

[The Beadle publications] are without exception unobjectionable morally, whatever fault be found with their literary style and composition. They do not even obscurely pander to vice or excite the passions.


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Criticism: Popular Characters

Warren French (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: “The Cowboy in the Dime Novel,” in Studies in English, Vol. XXX, 1951, pp. 219-34.

[In the following essay, French traces the role of the cowboy character in the dime novel, revealing the character's emerging importance in the works of four novelists.]

Sentimentalists are poor prophets. In his nostalgic tribute to the old dime novel, Charles Harvey wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1907:

More than a quarter of a century ago … the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe ended the days of the old trail and its story tellers. Between the railroads which transported the cattle from the ranges to the stockyards, and the barbed...

(The entire section is 6955 words.)

Daryl E. Jones (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Clenched Teeth and Curses: Revenge and the Dime Novel Outlaw Hero,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. VII, No. 3, Winter, 1973, pp. 652-65.

[In the essay below, Jones explores the development of the outlaw hero in dime novels, arguing that the character emerged from the cultural context of the times.]

Among the select brotherhood of Western heroes who live eternally in the popular imagination, one figure is strangely prominent—a man clad wholly in black, seated astride a black horse. Characteristically, his fist is raised in defiance, his teeth are clenched, and from the shadow obscuring the top half of his face two black, magnetic eyes are smoldering....

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Criticism: Major Figures And Influences

Ralph Admari (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: “Ballou, the Father of the Dime Novel,” in The American Book Collector, September-October, 1933, pp. 121-29.

[In the essay below, Admari provides an overview of publisher, writer, and editor Maturin Murray Ballou's career and his contribution to American literature and periodicals in the nineteenth century.]

In the years to come when the popular literature of the United States shall have been thoroughly explored many disputes will arise as to whom should go the credit for having brought about the dime novel. As early as 1872, Frederic Hudson in his remarkable history of Journalism stated that Park Benjamin, who was responsible for the first sensational...

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Gregory M. Pfitzer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “‘Iron Dudes and White Savages in Camelot’: The Influence of Dime-Novel Sensationalism on Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” in American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. 27, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 42-58.

[In the essay below, Pfitzer argues that Twain transformed the formulaic components of dime novels into a masterpiece of literature.]

In the summer of 1884, Mark Twain was enjoying a rare moment of self-satisfaction. Having just finished writing the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after long delays, he was hard at work on a sequel which by contrast seemed to be writing itself—a western novel tentatively entitled...

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Criticism: Socio-Political Concerns

Daryl E. Jones (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Blood ’n Thunder: Virgins, Villains, and Violence in the Dime Novel Western,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall, 1970, pp. 507-17.

[In the following essay, Jones considers the relationship between sex and violence in dime novels, concluding that the genre promoted traditional American values even as it “provid[ed] mass purgation through vicarious participation in fictional violence.”]

The plethora of violence is probably the most notable characteristic of the dime novel western. Certainly this was the case in the nineteenth century, for numerous clergymen, teachers, and moralists, angrily pointing out the deleterious effects of...

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Michael Denning (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘The Unknown Public’: Dime Novels and Working Class Readers,” in Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America, Verso, 1987, pp. 27-46.

[In the following essay, Denning argues that dime novels constituted the primary reading material of the working class and that the books were specifically created by the middle class for workers.]

Who read these stories and what did they think of them? Though this question is now central to the study of popular culture, it remains a difficult and elusive one. In part, this is because of sketchy and uncertain evidence. Even when one can determine who the readers were, it is very difficult to...

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Further Reading


Anglo, Michael. “Gothic Foundations.” In Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors, pp. 11-29. London: Jupiter Books, 1977.

Surveys the subject matter of early dime novels and explores the genre's roots in Gothic fiction and in the social conditions of early nineteenth-century England.

Hoppenstand, Gary. “Introduction: The Missing Detective.” In The Dime Novel Detective, edited by Gary Hoppenstand, pp. 3-4. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982.

Argues that through analysis of dime novels a new type of detective character, the “Avenger Detective,” emerges....

(The entire section is 312 words.)