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Dime Dreadfuls

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

Dime Novels. By Edmund Pearson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.00.

I came darn near being whipped for reading dime novels written by my own father, Edward S. Ellis. That is as near as father ever came to whipping me for any boyish offense. He spared the whip, although he never spared bullets or tomahawks in his Indian tales. But on the occasion when he discovered me reading “Seth Jones,” which I had unearthed in the late 70’s in the attic of our Trenton home, he sternly enjoined me to replace it and to forego reading his dime novels until I should have attained more mature years. Well—I didn’t get caught reading any of them after that.

I did not understand then but I do now. At that time the dime novel (and the half dimes) had become so trashy, bloody and thundery that father was willing to forget his early ventures in that field and let sleeping dogs lie. As Mr. Pearson points out, Mr. Ellis vainly remonstrated with Erastus F. Beadle, the “father” of the dime novel, for allowing the Beadle standard to deteriorate.

Mr. Pearson devotes one section of his book to replies from queries that he sent to various notables, asking them to relate their boyhood experiences with dime novels. None of those replying appears to be old enough (seventy-five years or more) to recollect the Beadles in their first healthy flush of youth (1860-1870, about). The replies corroborate my own conclusion—after considerable investigation—that the whipping of boys two generations ago for reading dime novels was only practiced by those brutal parents who whipped their children for all kinds of trifles and from mere cussedness. Mr. Pearson also punctures the legend that cheap fiction, especially of the Jesse James genre, incited boy readers to crime. On the other hand, the legend that alluring novels dealing with Indian warfare inspired many a youngster to run away from home to follow the footsteps of Buffalo Bill will not down. But it is decidedly unfair to charge all such escapades to paper-covered yarns.

As to the charge of immorality frequently flung at these last-century cheap novels, they were never immoral. Consider these extracts quoted by Mr. Pearson from Beadle’s circular instructions to authors:

“We prohibit all things offensive to good taste, in expression or incident. , . . We prohibit subjects or characters that carry immoral taint. . . . We prohibit what cannot be read with satisfaction by every right-minded person—old and young alike.”

The “big idea” of publishing low-priced paper-covered novels dealing with frontier life, after the Cooper tradition, but with action predominant rather than incidental, was hatched, shortly before the Civil War, in the brain of Eras-tus F. Beadle, born in 1821 in Otsego County, New York (Cooper’s country). He organized the firm of Beadle and Adams, whose first “orange-covered” novel (Beadle always resented the term “yellow”), “Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter,” was published in June, I860. It had previously appeared as a serial in The Ladies’ Companion. The author, Ann S. W. Stephens, was a notable high-brow, distinguished both in America and England.

The Beadle firm made their heavy and—at the time-unique plunge in advertising when they placarded the country in the late Summer of 1860 with signs bearing the inscription: “Who Is Seth Jones?” On October first of the same year, puzzled America learned the answer, when a book appeared entitled “Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier.” The author was Edward S. Ellis, a school teacher of Trenton, about twenty years of age. He was paid seventy-five dollars for this novel, his first venture into literature. “Seth Jones” attained a circulation of something like half a million and was translated into a number of foreign languages. I remember hearing my father say that he had once seen a copy in Welsh. Both “Malaeska” and “Seth Jones” were subsequently published in boards.

Some of Beadle’s other popular writers were Mayne Reid (who drew down the biggest pay of all), Captain Whittaker, Bracebridge Hemyng (the creator of Jack Harkaway), Oil Coomes (my own favorite), and Prentiss Ingraham, a world-wandering soldier of fortune and “shadow writer” for Buffalo Bill.

The earlier Beadle novels attracted intelligent literary criticism. The North American Review of July, 1864, printed a review by William Everett of “Beadle’s Dime Books.” Mr. Pearson quotes the substance of this review, which on the whole was favorable—the review concluding with wishing the Messrs. Beadle success.

Not only that, but Mr. Pearson’s researches establish the fact that intellectuals of the 60’s to 70’s were as keen on adventure fiction as they are today. He says: “Men who have been named as readers of the Beadle novels include Lincoln, Seward., Henry Wilson, afterwards vice-president, and Robert Toombs, the Confederate statesman. Henry Ward Beecher is said to have recommended some of them, while Senator Chandler gave Ellis’s ‘Oonomoo, the Huron’ an emphatic endorsement. The man who didn’t like it, he said, was not fit to live.”

Mr. Pearson traces, as intelligently as the complexities of the problem permit, the genealogy of cheap novels from “father” Beadle, through Beadle’s own vari-titled publications, through others such as “Old Cap Collier Library,” “Old Sleuth Library,” the Nick Carter novels, the Frank Merriwell stories, down to the adventure and detective magazines of today, selling for a quarter or so—about the equivalent of a dime in the 60’s,

Mr. Pearson’s book is a valuable contribution to the history of American literature, besides serving as a joyous hark-back for oldsters who are still youngsters. It is seductively illustrated with pictures of “yellow-back” covers and enlivened with generous extracts from old thrillers. As the ornate slip cover says: “The quoted matter alone is worth the price of admission.”


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