Dime Novels Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”