Dime novels offered stories of adventure and love at low prices. They were not for persons of consequence to read in their libraries, but for boys, for travelers, for soldiers, for sailors, for brakemen on the railroads, and hunters in camp. They were light and easily carried in the pocket. It has often been pointed out — and this will be mentioned again — that they could be read in school, concealed from the teacher by an arithmetic; or in church, hidden in the hymn books; or in the presence of one’s parents, camouflaged behind some permitted magazine. – Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels; or, Following an old trail in popular literature, Boston, Little, Brown, and company (1929).
In nineteenth century America, there was no denying that a democratization of reading was underway. Printing technology improved dramatically, literacy steadily increased, newspapers proliferated the landscape, and influential books were published and widely read. Out of this culture, a distinct form of literature emerged: the exciting, enticing tales printed on cheap paper and usually sold for five or ten cents to largely working class audiences. First with dime novels, and later ‘the pulps,’ this literary movement spurred a great engagement with reading from a stratum of society heretofore unassociated with the activity. However, the genre also spurred fierce debate over everything from what made literature ‘great’ to what effect media had on readers and their actions. Whereas reading had once been a marker of education and intellectual or religious knowledge, dime and pulp novels exacerbated a new tension based on class with this once elite pursuit.
The dime novels of mid-nineteenth century America have their antecedents across the Atlantic. In 1830s Great Britain, stories ranging from tales of adventures to crime were published and sold for a penny, providing an explanation for their name, “penny dreadfuls.” American publishers such as Erastus and Irwin Beadle (of Beadle & Adams) hired authors to write about these same themes, a regular stream of little books high on content. With their portrayals of the wild frontier and characters like the James brothers, heroic men and damsels in distress, these works were believed to particularly appeal to boys and laboring men. However, there was a significant market of romance stories meant to appeal to young women as well. Though the many series were often formulaic—and authors were given general guidelines in terms of what to write about, as well as a list of “moral standards” to follow—they followed popular tastes and sold extremely well.
[Video: “The Pulp Novel” (http://ww3.tvo.org/video/163545/pulp-novel); an interview with Walter B. Gibson, author of a popular series of pulp stories starring “the Shadow” in the 1930s. Provides insight into the writing process of pulp novels and the type of content that could be found in them.]
Around the turn of the century, larger collections of shorter serialized stories were gathered and formed the pulp magazines, reaching their zenith of popularity from the 1920s through World War II. Specifically targeting adults, they tried to break away from the association with children that was often the case for the similar medium of dime novels. Sold at newsstands for about a dime, these magazines shirked the precedents set forth by the glossy magazines emerging in the late nineteenth century. Instead of focusing on advertising and illustrations, they were largely supported by sales revenue, including very few ads and illustrations per issue, but a lot of text. Pulp magazines were also a venue for publishing stories from individuals who would become renowned authors of iconic books. For instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs first released his famous “Tarzan of the Apes” in serialized form in pulp magazine, All-Story, while Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler also launched their literary careers with hard-boiled detective stories in the pages of other pulps such as the Black Mask.
These forms of literature were enjoyed by a diverse group of people—but not everyone would admit to it. While studies of the era showed that by far the most prolific readers of pulp fiction had little education and low salaries, some prominent individuals were said to have enjoyed them on occasion as well (including Henry Ward Beecher, a minister from the famous religious and literary family). However, much of the rhetoric coming from the middle and upper classes in relation to this form of reading was derogatory. Numerous criticisms were lodged toward these stories, labeling them as lacking literary merit and corrupting a generation. For instance, J. T. Crane (a minister, whose son would become a famous author himself, Stephen Crane) wrote:
And yet novel-reading has become one of the great vices of our age. Multitudes care for nothing but light reading. The bookstores abound with works of fiction. The records of our public libraries show that there are more readers in this department than any other–perhaps more than in all the rest. The literature which finds its way into the hands of our people, as they journey by land or water, is almost invariably fictitious. Our weekly periodicals, secular and religious, often have their serial story. Our Sunday school libraries have been overwhelmed by the flood of weak and washy literature till scarce a vestige of sober history or real biography shows itself above the surface of the wild wilderness of waters. A whole generation of young people are growing up, to whom solid books are unknown, to whom the great historic names of the past are but a sound, and whose ignorance of the world of fact is poorly compensated by their acquaintance with the world of dreams…
As scholar Michael Denning points out regarding this ‘otherness’ of pulp fiction, using another quote about working-class culture. He cites Stedman Jones, who stated: “It was certainly never suggested that this culture was the self-conscious creation of workers or that it was confined to workers, only that, by sheer weight of numbers, the preoccupations and predilections of workers imposed a discernable imprint on the shape taken by this culture.”
No matter how much the ‘better’ classes may have indulged in this ‘cheap’ pastime, they did not seem to feel it safe or appropriate to conflate it with their own standing. Pulp fiction was for the lowly masses of immigrants and working poor. Unsurprisingly, disassociating oneself with it in could mean further entrenching one’s higher social standing.
However, even more serious criticisms were lodged toward pulp fiction in its heyday. As has been the case at various points in history, this medium—which would often depict violence and other seedy aspects of life—was blamed for the deviant behavior of the public, particularly of young people. Though evidence countered this belief (such as the fact that some of the accused claimed to not be readers of such books), when children engaged in criminal or immoral behavior, pulp novels served as an easy scapegoat. A boy named Jesse Pomeroy enacted violence toward children, culminating in murder, of which he was found guilty in 1874. As he was also reported to be a big reader of dime novels, critics considered this to be evidence of the harmful and uselessness of pulp fiction in society. Librarians even went so far as to steer children away from the dime novels they were fond of reading, promoting other literary works instead and even trying to prevent their circulation in their institutions. While it is certainly true that material that could be considered objectionable was at times found in dime novels and pulp magazines, to some, the case of their immorality was overstated. As one journalist stated:
…[T]hey were sensational in much the same sense that Scott and Cooper are sensational; that is, they were tales of adventure and combat. There is nothing more grotesque than the charge that they were “immoral,” since they were so amusingly strict in their moral standards. They were brief historical novels, or romances of love and warfare, written by authors who were well up in the second rank of writers of their time…
As was stated, some publishers of dime novels held their writers to certain rules of morality. Whether this was always the case is another matter, but certainly for all of the cries against these works there were plenty of others who supported this vestige of their childhood—and even more who continued to read pulp fiction regardless of these criticisms.
Though this pulp literature is characterized by its disposability—as Erin A. Smith states in her research, “…few readers deemed them worthy of preserving [and] pulp paper is delicate and decomposes rapidly. Most titles were quite literally read to pieces…” —, it persists as a major part of American popular culture and history. From movies and television to art and contemporary literature, twentieth and twenty-first century media continue to draw on the common themes of this literary movement for contemporary audiences.
The content and social consequences of dime novels and the pulps have kept both scholarly and amateur interest high. Here are just a few of the digital projects that keep this American tradition alive:
- George Mason University, “American Women’s Dime Novel Project” (http://chnm.gmu.edu/dimenovels/index.html)
- Northern Illinois University, “The Horatio Alger Collection” (http://www.ulib.niu.edu/rarebooks/Alger/algerindex.cfm)
- Northern Illinois University, “Beadle and Adams Dime Novel Digitization Project” (http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/)
- Stanford University, “Dime Novels & Penny Dreadfuls” (http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/dp/pennies/home.html)
- “The Pulp Magazines Project” (http://www.pulpmags.org/default.htm)
- “Nineteenth Century American Children & What They Read” (http://www.merrycoz.org/kids.htm)
- “The Paperback Revolution” (http://www.crcstudio.org/paperbacks/index.php)