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Part IV:

Dime Novels
and Early Westerns

Rosalie More

 

Western Novels featuring legendary heroes have been popular for a long time. The precursor to the western paperback was the Dime Novel developed in America during the 1800s. When they first came out, they cost a nickel, but I suppose the price went up eventually, resulting in the slang expression Dime Novel. In these stories, the hero was the man of action who rescued innocent maidens in distress and righted wrongs like the knights in the Age of Chivalry. Honor was the most important attribute a man could have. In England, such books were called "Penny Dreadfuls." As you can see, even in those days, popular fiction was denigrated by the educated elite.

Stanford's Dime Novel and Story Paper Collection flourished in America and England with national circulations greater than any other newspaper or magazine, some reaching 400,000 copies sold per issue. Many were Wild West adventures, but other genres were represented too: tales of urban outlaws, detective stories, working-girl narratives of virtue defended, and costume romances. One example was called "Milo, The Animal King; or The Round the World Wanderer." (It was fashionable then to give books two titles.) The cover showed two men in a canoe paddling away from the shore of a wilderness lake. The caption read:

"Paddle for your life, Austin!" cried Louis Bonnelle. There were bears and wolves of all sizes swimming open-mouthed after the canoe, uttering furious cries.

In America, many of the heroes in Dime Novels were based on real men of the West. James Butler Hickok aka Wild Bill Hickock was featured in a series of Dime Novels. In real life, he started out as a scout for the Union Army. He later gained a reputation as a marksman from his encounters with outlaws while serving as a frontier marshal at Fort Riley, Hays City, and Abilene, Kansas. He became a legend, especially after he was murdered, shot from behind by Jack McCall in Deadwood’s Saloon. He was sitting at a poker table at the time. In his hand he held two pairs: aces and eights, which became known as the "Dead Man’s Hand."

Kit Carson is another living legend made more famous by being featured in a Dime Novel. Like Bill Hickock, he served in real life as a scout for the Army and as a guide for Fremont when he explored and mapped California and Oregon. I think Carson’s true life adventures made the Dime Novels sound a little tame in comparison. For example, Kit Carson was hired as a guide in 1849 to track down some Apaches who had attacked a wagon train, killed the men and took a woman and child hostage. He devoted 5 pages in his autobiography to relate how he and two other guides led the search party made up of a detachment of army soldiers. He tracked the Apaches for 12 days over the most difficult trail he had ever followed. The Apaches kept splitting up in groups of two or three, then coming together again at some prearranged spot to camp at night. Kit Carson was in the lead when they finally caught up to the them. His instinct was to use the element of surprise and rush in quickly, but he was overruled by the others in his party who thought the Apaches should be given the chance to parley. But that turned out to be a big mistake. With the extra time they were given, the Indians fled in all directions. When Kit Carson finally located the white woman, he was heart-broken to find that she had been shot while trying to make a run for it. The irony of the story is that among her belongings was a Dime Novel entitled, "Kit Carson, the Happy Warrior." In his autobiography, Carson wrote, "We found a book in the camp, the first of the kind I had ever seen, in which I was represented as a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred. I have often thought that Mrs. White must have read it, and knowing that I lived nearby, must have prayed for my appearance in order that she might be saved. I did come, but I lacked the power to persuade those that were in command over me to follow my plan for her rescue. They would not listen to me and they failed. I will say no more regarding this matter, nor attach any blame to any particular person, for I presume the consciences of those who were the cause of the tragedy have severely punished them ere this."     

[Dime novels can still be found as free ebook downloads from Black Mask and Palm-Press.]

Although the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Karl May [1842-1912 Germany] as "one of the world's all-time fiction best-sellers", he is virtually unknown by most English speaking readers. He visited America in his old age, but never got further west than Niagra Falls. However, that didn't prevent him from writing almost 30 volumes of stories and adventure novels, many set in Canada and the American West. During the Civil War era and after, when he was writing, no one called it the "Old West". It was current. Karl May was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (in the April 4th 2001 issue), because his popularity has made a resurgence in Germany where hot selling western fiction is set in the turn of the century American Southwest, notably Arizona. Karl May's fiction about cowboys and Indians is apparently flying off the shelf. Anybody know a good German translator? Maybe western authors can tap into the bottomless German market. People in many foreign countries love America's legendary western heroes.

In the early to mid-1900s, best-selling westerns were written by such authors as Zane Grey, Max Brand, William McLeod Raine, Louis L'Amour and others. Their heroes were men of action, following a strong code of honor. Books by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour never go out of print, and they have what amounts to a cult following. These writers helped set the standards for what a legendary western hero is. 
 Next part ....

Part I: The Legendary Western Hero
Part II: Why Americans Love Westerns
Part III: Western Heroes in American Literature
Part IV: Dime Novels and Early Westerns
Part V: Authors of Popular Western Fiction
About the Author, Rosalie More

 

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