ON THE TENTH DAY of May in the year 1920, a sale was cried at a famous book-auction place in New York City. Many sales have been cried in these rooms, but they have usually been of rare editions, handsome bindings, and suchlike. But on that particular day it was dime novels. An elaborate catalogue had been gotten up; there were full-page cuts; each title was given a number, and each of them was cried separately. A single item which sold for five cents at the time of issue brought as much as $62.00.
People who had forgotten that there had ever been such a thing as a dime novel suddenly began to have acute feelings concerning them; a collection was presented to the New York Public Library and put on exhibition with quite a flourish. The supplement sections of Sunday newspapers began to run "double trucks" covering the matter; booksellers, noted for the price and quality of the volumes named in their lists, took to adding a dime novel here and there. It was quite the thing to do. And the price asked, in most cases, was a noble one.
The long kicked-about, the derided, the held-up-to-scorn dime story book had, at a leap, arrived somewhere. And it now shows every evidence of remaining where it landed, for when important money is asked for a thing it's an indication it is going to show excellent stamina from then on.
The publications offered at the sale just mentioned were entirely from the press of the Beadles--Erastus Beadle, a stereotyper, and Irwin Beadle, a bookbinder. These brothers were from Cooperstown, New York, and afterwards located in Buffalo. Erastus made his first appearance as a publisher in Buffalo; he brought out a rather unusual juvenile magazine called The Youth's Casket, and afterwards an equally unusual magazine for adults called The Home.
The first dime novel was published in William Street, New York City, in 1860. Up to this time the publishing business had been carried on under the name of Beadle and Adams. The dime novel made its first appearance bearing the imprint of Irwin Beadle and Co.
The firm had not by any means introduced a new type of book; it was the fact that it was sold at a dime that made it remarkable.
The first novel in the series was "Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter." It was written by a popular woman writer of that day, and had been first published twenty years before in a magazine called The Ladies Companion.
The great majority of American stories of that day were of the border; this type of fiction was our very own. It had never belonged to another nation, and in no sense could it be called a reflection; it was the literary outcropping of a pioneer people.
Before the border stories, our popular literature was a sort of futile mirroring—a European inheritance that did not stand up very well under transmission. It was largely laid amidst the shadows cast by the great towers built by Scott. The romantic world upon which we fixed our eyes was thin, glittering, and remote; the people who inhabited it were a stiff, manikinlike race who spoke a language that creaked of artificiality. On its flat surface were stamped knights and their beautiful ladies; there were sturdy squires and faithful servitors, courts and camps, battles and forays, kings and statesmen. And all so specious that we wonder why the ink didn't curdle on the pen point as it set down their characteristics.
In this same period, a quarter of a century or more before the coming of the dime novel, we had many a re-doing of the old Gothic tales; we cringed on wind-swept moors; haunted castles with their secret doors and labyrinthine ways caused deep shudderings in our blood. But we safely traversed the gloomy ways of these horrific old counterfeits; we also reached the limits of the stately Scott-built world and the lesser, tinseled one of Harrison Ainsworth. Without realizing it, our instincts were carrying us toward a coarser, more real, and more native thing.
Our larger towns, from Charleston north to Boston, faced the sea; all our early dealings and adventuring were of a seagoing kind, and the sea tale had begun to show itself while we were entirely a maritime nation. We were, in the blood and bone of us, native to the vast waters. In those old days Smollett arose in England; Marryat followed him; Chamier and Michael Scott gave the world their stirring books of the bounding main. And there came a time when the salt, green Atlantic water washed into the study of Fenimore Cooper and he took up his pen and filled our shelves with narratives of ships and hardy men. In his wake came all sorts of craft: clippers, pirate schooners, and sloops-of-war began to throng the coasts of American fiction. Stirring deeds were done; brave words were spoken. Storms battered broken hulks, the ravening waters engulfed precious lives. Pikes, cutlasses, capstans, boarding nettings, flying jibs, swivel guns, jury masts, battened hatches! They all came into the common language with many others of their kind.
As the sea story became firmly established, America began casting its eyes westward; and another sort of tale threw its shadows across our pages. The story of the wilderness, of the mountains and plains, of the Indian brave, of the trapper, the backwoods settler, the guide. And the bee hunter, the captive among the lodges, the buffalo, the remote regions beyond the Ohio were being heard from. The rifle, long, beautifully balanced, accurate, was seen hanging above the horizon.
These two types of story came with very little time between; the surf in places rolled through the aisles of the forest. This is shown, if there were no other evidence, by Fenimore Cooper making space on his writing table for both. And, indeed, we think it quite possible if he had not given the border story a generous part of his attention, his work would now be forgotten.
Fascinating people came into the old romances of the frontier. The noble savage made his first appearance in these fictions, as did the hunter with his wondrous lore of the woods; footprints became important things for, perhaps, the first time in history. This type of story, as we have said, was the first absolutely American thing; it has rooted itself deeply and, as can be seen, persists in various forms today.
The dime novel, in the period between its beginning and the outbreak of the Civil War, attracted a good deal of favorable attention. There was pleased applause. Two things did more than anything else to catch the public eye. The first of these was the publishing by Beadle of the story "Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier." The manuscript of this was sent to the William Street office by a young man, unknown to the publishers, a New Jersey school teacher of the name of Edward S. Ellis. The booming of this number started all story-reading America talking. The second great urge in the direction of the Beadle enterprise had its origin in the Civil War. The newly levied troops which afterwards made up the Army of Northern Virginia had a craving for print, and hundreds of thousands of the novels were sent to occupy their idle hours in the camp.
But another day came—a less favorable day—one of derision and criticism. The books had no quality, said many objectors; they were ridiculously exaggerated; they had no basis in fact. They did not even pretend to be literature. They were harmful because they promoted belief in silly follies and fables. Parents refused to permit the novels in their houses; juvenile readers were harried from pillar to post; mothers reported to fathers who tried to look stern in the matter, but as often as not made a rather poor job of it. The pulpit frequently lifted a voice in condemnation; even the newspaper press didn't feel entirely comfortable in the matter and sometimes said so.
But none of these things was too serious, and the dime novel persisted. It was a coarse and vigorous growth and hard to kill. Where more delicate plants died, it thrived. Its bark was rough, but its pith had the color of a new thing, and its juices were exhilarating to unaccustomed minds. In the three or more decades of the house of Beadle, the novels took many shapes; other publishers, seeing their success, grasped at the controls, some of them to their own advantage and to that of the storyreading public; but none of them quite took the place of the Beadles.
Quite a number of articles have been written about this type of book, but usually it has been approached in the wrong frame of mind. Most of the later things are rewrites of those gone before. Several books have been done dealing with the dime novel, but they have been written in something like the spirit of burlesque. There is little knowledge of the subject shown; the minds behind the pen points are rilled with derisive curiosity; there is no sympathy, no feeling of nostalgia. But there are millions today who, in their youth, have seen the stirring of an undreamed-of thing in these pages, and have witnessed the gates of the imagination folding back, showing a brave new world.
JOHN T. MCINTYRE