The Dime Novel Digital Exhibit at Haverford Libraries: The Best of the Worst 19th-Century American Fiction
“The literary material is either intensely stupid, or spiced to the highest degree with sensation … The dialogue is short, sharp, and continuous. It is broken by the minimum of description and by no preaching … The vagabond life of adventure is represented as interesting and enticing.”
That’s William Graham Sumner in his scathing 1878 condemnation of periodical and dime fiction for boys, “What Our Boys Are Reading.” It’s hard to tell what offended Sumner more about cheap literature–the bad writing, or the irreverent boy heroes depicted therein, who often show a flagrant disregard for the law and for patriarchal authority.
This summer I’m researching and designing a digital exhibit focused on boy heroes in dime fiction. The goal is to showcase Haverford Libraries’ Dime Novel Collection, which includes a complete set of 100 frontier stories published by a major dime novel publishing house, Beadle, in the late 1800s; as well as over 70 issues of Old Broadbrim and Young Broadbrim Weekly, Street & Smith’s early-20th-century serial about a Quaker detective and his sidekick.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given free rein over the direction of my research–to be presented with this unique collection and essentially told to have fun. The material treats with a wide array of dime novel sub-genres and themes: from tales of the French and Indian War to diamond hunting in Arizona to adventures with pirates in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). Some of the cover illustrations are truly cringe-worthy, though probably not in the way Sumner meant it, depicting swooning females and violence against Native American caricatures. The prose inside, though often choppy and formulaic, contains such priceless lines as “Why was it his calm eyes, meeting the orbs of the swarthy traveler, caused them to fall?” and “Satan himself, astride a Tartarean steed, could not have looked more like the devil than did Maurice the Mustanger.”
As for their moral character, dime novels are more complicated than Sumner painted them. Both the outlaw hero and the urban detective emerged at a time when the frontier was closing and many Americans, instead of uniting for manifest destiny, were turning a critical eye on their own society. Their popular heroes were often subversive, crossing boundaries of class and gender presentation, flouting legal and democratic mandates, and revealing the poverty and corruption of urban life. On the other hand, the dime novel industry was carefully self-censored, and their rote marriage plot endings seem to limit the possibility for radical social change. I chose to focus on the “second-generation” boy heroes Deadwood Dick Jr. and Young Broadbrim because they show how subversion and social containment were negotiated in fiction written about, and for, American young men.
The digital component of my internship has been its own site of value negotiation, as I work with my supervisors to decide on a website platform for the exhibit. Clarity, aesthetics, and flexibility of the site template are all important concerns. So is finding tools that will present the digitized covers and text excerpts in different ways, with annotations and linked metadata. One question that’s come up for me is how digital humanities exhibits fit into academia, if at all. Methods for accessing online exhibits have yet to be defined. So while my approach is scholarly rigorous, my exhibit is ultimately an invitation for further inquiry into the topic.
It’s exciting to make these particular historical materials more accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Dime novels were devalued both in their own time, and by historians for a long while after, and their cheap binding makes them pretty fragile. By the 1910s, they had passed the height of their popularity and were replaced by the movies–another distinctly American form of cheap entertainment–but the dime novel’s legacy is apparent in later pulp fiction, sci fi paperbacks, comic books, mass-market romances, and even today’s online fanfiction. Bill Brown in his introduction to Reading the West observes that with dime novels “the materiality of the book, its status as an object, becomes inconsequential in deference to its status as as arresting image, a title and a cover illustration.” This strikes me as similar to what people say about e-books, where the smell and feel of the book is lost. So while I would not entirely agree that dime novels as objects are inconsequential–there’s something to be said for holding a century-old paperback in your hands–making these texts digital does feel like coming full circle.