April 17, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 15

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    Dime Westerns

    Anthology pays homage to literary form that helped shape America's self-image

    We all know the elements of the western genre: a cool, unshakable, desperado hero; a fragile heroine in trouble; savage Indians; and a final violent confrontation with the death or incarceration of the "bad guy" as the inevitable outcome.

    And then there's Malaeska, The Indian Wife of the White Hunter, a novel about a Native American woman who loses her father and her white husband, but who carries on, looking for her missing child.

    You probably have never heard of it, yet Malaeska, printed in 1860, was the first dime western novel ever published.

    "Most of us have an idea about what the stereotypical western is," said Bill Brown, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature and editor of the new book Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns. "But individually, almost every dime western broke the stereotype. These stories violate the status quo, capitalist culture, law. They also often play with gender. The Deadwood Dick series mythologized Calamity Jane, making her every inch the desperado. And Deadwood Dick himself sometimes dressed in drag."

    However, Brown admits, if one were to read scores of them, as did adolescent boys and young men during the late 19th century, then "the overriding impression would be of a West where major and minor disputes were resolved violently, and the moral order was momentarily stabilized only by the superior strength and intelligence of a handsome, well-built hero."

    Dime westerns, which thrived between 1860 and 1900, are so called because they originally cost 10 cents at a time when the majority of books cost over a dollar -- a price unmanageable for workers earning $6 a week. Later, the term referred to westerns published in pocket-sized editions and costing anywhere from 5 to 25 cents.

    Reading the West contains four complete novels of the period -- including Malaeska -- and an introduction that traces the appearance of dime westerns and their eventual importance in American society.

    Dime westerns, devised for the masses, made a tremendous impact on American literary culture. They were so widely read that literary figures such as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Brett Harte, all authors of the period, made reference to the novels in their work, poking fun at this unrealistic picture of the West, yet relying on it.

    But until the publication of Reading the West, it was rare to read a copy of a complete dime western. "The Library of Congress has hundreds of dime westerns on microfilm, but microfilm can be difficult to read," Brown said. "Additionally, there are several good public collections of dime westerns, including ones at the New York Public Library and Yale University. And our own Department of Special Collections in Regenstein Library has the entire Deadwood Dick library," Brown said.

    "But as I sat in these libraries reading these books, I could watch them begin to crumble in my hands. They were printed very cheaply on acidic paper, and so they are all slowly disintegrating. Besides that, many of the novels were reprinted four or five times during the period. Editors would take out a chapter here, a few lines there, and if they reached the end of the pages they were trying to fill, they'd stop -- even if it was in the middle of a chapter. It is very hard to find a clean edition with all the words fully legible. Basically, it's been very difficult to find good copies people could get their hands on -- I started this project so that they would be accessible for classroom use."

    Dime novels transformed the publishing industry by introducing mass distribution, made possible by the cheap production of wood pulp paper, the use of the steam-powered cylinder press, improvements in transportation and imaginative marketing. One of the most prolific publishers, Beadle, published over 7,000 novels between 1860 and 1897. During the Civil War, Beadle sent its novels to the front in bushels, alongside food rations, introducing thousands of young men to the pleasure of reading them.

    Dime westerns also introduced the mixing of fact and fiction, sensationalizing, for instance, a few biographical episodes in the life of William Cody and transforming him into Buffalo Bill.

    "In these novels, legend becomes mass-mediated memory and fact becomes fiction," Brown said. "Novels about the escapades of Jesse and Frank James were eventually banned from distribution by the Postmaster General of the United States, because they turned outlaws -- still living at that time and still dangerous -- into heroes."

    Most important, dime westerns transformed the popular view of the American West. "When the majority of western land was settled, when frontier days of the West were basically over, the dime westerns gave an altogether different impression. They told the urban citizen on the East Coast that the West was still a dangerous, untried place, where violence was the norm. They developed in Americans the sense that the western story they portrayed was the American story, that Americans themselves were rugged individualists who made their own laws, who were more comfortable riding the range than riding the elevated train," Brown said.

    "And yet the paradox is that at the end of many of these stories, the characters wind up settling down on farms and getting married. The stories make heroes of outlaws, but then imply that part of the destiny of a hero is to become civilized."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco