Dime novels are the pulp-fiction of the American frontier. Often called “yellow-backs” (because of the early dime novels’ characteristic yellow covers), or “blood and thunder literature” (due to their sensationalized content) these novelettes were exceptionally popular from the 1860s until the first World War. Because the books were generally small (the earliest dime novels were about 6.5 inches by 4.25 inches), they could easily be stowed in a saddlebag…or in a lady’s handbag. They were printed on the cheapest paper, so the books themselves are quite rare nowadays. A dime novel’s cover usually depicted a stirring scene from the book—a scene like the one on the left.
Most of the topics of the earliest dime novels were highly romanticized adventure stories about some aspect of the settlement of the frontier, particularly the West, but later dime stories (which often came in the format of “story papers” or magazines) included mysteries and far-flung adventure series. Some even delved into science fiction.
While dime novels were popular in the expanding United States, they were also favored in England, though they were considered by some of the “upper crust” in both countries to be an inferior, vulgar example of literature. Some historians claim that the government of the United States encouraged the printing of dime novels because the books promoted the expanding of the West and painted Western settlement in a romantic, adventurous (and, as the modern reader might discover, a totally sensationalized) light. Most dime novels were written for the adult reader, though a cheaper, more kid-friendly version called a “nickel-back” arose in the latter end of the 19th century.
Now that you know all about dime novels, I would like to share a few reviews of some diverse dime novels with you. I generally review books because I love them, and because I hope that my review will persuade someone to pick up the book I read and love it as much as I did. These dime novels, however, are a bit different. I have been utterly fascinated by all of the dime novels I have read so far, but I can’t honestly say that I love them in the same way that I love other kinds of fiction. Reading dime novels feels somewhat like reading for college literature courses, where the purpose is to think critically about the text. My literary horizons are a bit broader thanks to these strange, often outrageous books. So, if you’re looking to read something entirely different from the norm, give dime novels a try!
Please take note that the purpose of this gab bag post is to introduce the dime novel genre, so there are plenty of SPOILERS in the reviews.
On to the reviews!
THE PRAIRIE BRIDE OR, THE SQUATTER’S TRIUMPH, by Mrs. Henry J. Thomas (first published by Beadle & Adams in 1869; the version I read was reprinted by The Globe Pequot Press, 2006)
(From the back cover) Tired of her controlling stepparents, headstrong heiress Annie Howard goes west and encounters a series of adventures–including a blazing prairie fire, a sinking riverboat, the kidnapping of her beloved servant, and, of course, romance.
The synopsis on the back cover of this book was written, I assume, just prior to the book’s reprinting. The tone of the synopsis shows that you can expect certain constants in dime novels, including adventure and (“of course”) romance.
THE PRAIRIE BRIDE was the first dime novel I read, and it was very adventurous and exciting and full of romantic promise…but then the author gave everything away with some ultra heavy-handed foreshadowing. In a nutshell, Annie (the “headstrong heiress”) runs away from home and goes West with her relatives because her stepfather wants to set her up with his son, Charlie Norris, whom she has not met. Later on (but not much later—dime novels are short), a handsome stranger saves Annie’s life and makes himself indispensible to Annie and to her relations. Annie resists his advances (of course—she is the independent heroine, after all) but soon enough, he ends up proposing marriage to Annie. Once she accepts, he tells her that the name he has been using is actually his nickname, and that his real name is Charles Norris. Gah! The author actually appears to expect the reader to either not realize the coincidence, just dismiss it, or worse, to giggle along with Annie, who has planned a silly way of revealing to her new beloved that she and he were meant for each other all along.
But in the spirit of the synopsis, I just shook my head at the heavy-handed foreshadowing and said, “of course.”
This book is also very racist, which is, I suppose, to be expected given the year it was written. It was jarring to read so much racism, especially the “well-meant” pet names and that kind of thing. Annie’s black servant, who is also her dear, life-long friend (or so the author would lead you to believe), is treated more as a favorite mule than a human being.
However, there was a lot to enjoy about this book, too. It was a very quick read, very fast-paced, and highly enlightening. I also enjoyed the written dialect, which, while sometimes ridiculous, was fun to read. I felt like I learned a lot about dime novels in reading this particular book, which was a bestseller in its time.
DASHING DIAMOND DICK OR THE TIGERS OF TOMBSTONE, possibly written by Theodore Dreiser (first published in 1889; the version I read was found in a Penguin Classic anthology, entitled DASHING DIAMOND DICK AND OTHER CLASSIC DIME NOVELS, 2007).
(From the introduction) The plot is filled with melodrama and elements that are typical of many dime novels: a hero with a mysterious background and nearly superhuman powers, the eternal battle of good versus evil, a tragic love story with the loss of a loved one, and an ending that promises more to come as the hero sets out on a trail of vengeance.
This was my favorite of the dime novels I’ve read so far. It was gripping, I tell you. Gripping! Diamond Dick was the ultimate hero: handsome, brave, and raising his son all on his own. Ya gotta root for a guy like that, right? And Tornado Tom, the villain, was the ultimate villain: handsome, lecherous, and powerful. The first scene of the novel (well, apart from some serious stage-setting) showed Tornado Tom brandishing a whip and ordering an unfortunate German man to dance for Tom’s entertainment. Ooo…villain. Herr Schwauenflegle, whose accent is written into the text (a commonality in the dime novels I read), was saved from dancing by the very timely appearance of the stagecoach, which had been set upon by bandits in ferocious feline costume—The Tigers of Tombstone. The single occupant of the stage was a young woman, and—oh, I just have to quote the description of her. It’s too fun:
And then a sudden, breathless hush fell upon that throng of rough humanity, for out from the semi-darkness in the coach came the bonniest face that mortal eyes had ever gazed upon.
It was like a vision, framed as it was by the door of the coach–a thing of unearthly beauty–such a face as some of the old masters saw in their dreams, and dimly pictured in their waking moments.
Purity sat enthroned on that low, polished brow, where the hair clustered and coiled back and fell in a cascade of reddish gold; and truth looked fearlessly out from the clear depths of the hazel eyes.
A brave face it was too albeit that hardly seventeen summers had blossomed there and left their buds in gleeful dimples on cheeks and chin.
A smile played like a sunbeam about the pretty mouth as the girl surveyed the uncouth beings struck dumb by her rare loveliness.
“What is it?” she said, her voice sweet as the music of the psalms. ”Have we arrived at our destination?”
Isn’t that wonderful and over-the-top and ridiculous? I love it! And so did Tornado Tom, apparently, because he fell instantly in lust with her and vowed he’d have her for his bride. But before he could yank her from the carriage, Diamond Dick showed up with his sharpshooting ten-year-old son and engaged Tom in a duel–which was then thwarted by one of the tiger-costumed renegades who had attacked the stagecoach!
Anyhow, much excitement ensues…and then the girl gets shot and dies.
I read Louisa May Alcott’s thrilling novel, A LONG FATAL LOVE CHASE (written in 1868) several years ago, and don’t ask me why I was surprised when, at the end, one of the main characters died. You’d think the FATAL would’ve clued me in. But I digress.
Diamond Dick survived the battle in which his beloved (who shared the same first name as his first wife–go figure) died, not at the hand of Tornado Tom, but at the hand of Dick’s jilted lover, the leader of the feline bandits! Thankfully, Diamond Dick can ride again. And when he eventually dies, we don’t have to worry, because his son will be Dashing just like his pa.
Really, I loved it. I totally did. Gimme melodramatic stuff any day of the week, and I’ll laugh myself silly and take loads of notes.
(From the introduction) Though the historical setting of the novel is vague, its events clearly take place when the Six Nations of the Iroquois still controlled the Mohawk Valley, sparsely settled by Dutch and English pioneers....Mrs. Stephens...extracts her plot out of history to concentrate on the fate of her heroine in a sentimental tradition....[Mrs. Stephens] tells the...story of a “forlorn wanderer” (p. 94), an Indian woman denigrated by both the Dutch and the Indian populations, “the heart-broken victim of an unnatural marriage” (p. 163)....Intermarriage was a fact of frontier history....Effectively avoiding any treatment of intermarriage itself, Mrs. Stephens concentrates instead on the transcultural price of maternal devotion: “It was her woman’s destiny, not the more certain because of her savage origin. Civilization does not always reverse this mournful picture of womanly self-abnegation” (p. 103).
Known as the first dime novel, MALAESKA was actually a reprint of a three-part serialized story that originally appeared in The Ladies’ Companion in 1839—twenty-one years before it was printed as a dime novel. There were a few changes made for the dime novel debut. “Mrs. Stephens complicated the plot, amplified the descriptive passages, added epigraphs to the chapters, and streamlined the punctuation” (Brown 55). Mrs. Stephens was, at the time of its printing in dime novel form, a well-known and celebrated writer. In other words, MALAESKA was the perfect story to introduce the dime novel genre.
Having read several dime novels before I picked up this one, it came as no surprise to me that the story was exceptionally racist, both in the writing and in the behavior of the characters. Prejudice is a theme in this book, but it simply exists—it is not dealt with. Malaeska, the Indian wife, is portrayed by the author as a simpleton at best, and an animal at worst. At the beginning of the book, she speaks in halting English and never refers to herself in the first person. When angry or excited, both she and her son (who is also the son of a white man) are described as animal-like in appearance:
The boy started up—his eye brightened and his thin nostrils dilated, the savage instincts of his nature broke out in all his features.
By the end of the book, Malaeska is described as “white in education, feeling, every thing but color.” She no longer has an aversion to the word, “I,” and “habits of refinement had kept her complexion clear and her hair bright.”
The writing was also full of heavy-handed foreshadowing, melodramatic monologues (people talk to themselves an awful lot in dime novels), and depressing bits. Lots of people die. This book is not a happily-ever-after kind of story.
I was absolutely fascinated by the long passages of landscape description. Setting is very important in dime novels, and Mrs. Stephens sets up nearly every scene with copious amounts of description of her characters’ surroundings. To some extent, the natural world, while affording serenity for her characters (white and Indian), also represents a descent into “savage” or “wild” or even “un-Godly” realms (Malaeska leaves her home in the woods and travels to the city in order to accept the white man’s god, so she can be with her dead husband in his heaven.). That the natural world—particularly the forest—represents evil was not a new idea in literature when Mrs. Stephens wrote MALAESKA.
Also, while part of me detested Malaeska, who seemed to me to be a sniveling weakling (despite her “fierce” looks), I also totally rooted for her. It has been a long time since I’ve experienced a character who played to so many of my emotions.
MALAESKA was, by far, the most dramatic of the dime novels I read. I thought it was very similar in style and themes to James Fenimore Cooper’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Heavy stuff.
If you’ve read any dime novels, I’d love to hear what you thought of them. Also, can you think of any books that might be considered the dime novels of our day?
Note: If you would like to read more of Kim’s reviews of dime novels, click here.