Nineteenth Century Sensational Fiction: Dime Novels
In the late nineteenth century, a new form of sensational fiction emerged. Called dime novels because of the five to twenty-five cent sale price, these pocket-sized books told short stories of American frontier adventure. Often formulaic, these stories centered on macho heroes and damsels in distress, never venturing far beyond plotlines of capture and rescue, pursuit and escape. Violence and lewdness became the impetus for the popularity of this form which, because of its cheapness, was often passed along to friends and neighbors upon completion. The serial nature of these stories, which featured a set number of identifiable characters such as Deadwood Dick and Calamity Jane, kept readers coming back for more.
Not surprisingly, many young readers, boys especially, were drawn to the sense of adventure and rebellion in dime novels. Gratuitous gore and debauchery were also points of attraction. These unsavory qualities became a major concern of parents who felt that their sons were being negatively influenced, perhaps into a life of crime and banditry. Still, the mass production of dime novels made it easy for boys to obtain them even without parental permission. Almost every newsstand or corner bookstore had copies of the latest bloody Western and they were more than willing to sell regardless of the buyer’s age.
The quality of dime novels began to decline as it became custom for publishers such as Beadle to allow several authors to write on the same serial or character interchangeably. Eventually the plots became so predictable that the only selling points were increasingly fantastical settings, unbelievable situations and more vulgarity. What little adult audience had been acquired in the beginning started to dwindle and only the mini-swashbucklers remained, oblivious to the inferior quality of writing which was no longer even bound to the American frontier, venturing as far away as African jungles and into the depths of the sea.
In a September 1879 article to Atlantic entitled “Story-Paper Literature,” W.H. Bishop writes a criticism of dime novels or “cheap fiction.” With an adult audience assured, he goes on to not only bash the...