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Thursday, April 4, 2013
Dime Novels in the Wild West
During their height in the 1880s-1900, there were countless series released by dozens of publishers and written by a small army of hacks. There were Westerns, mysteries, espionage, historicals, and more. The vast majority were marketed towards juvenile boys and often featured young heroes.
I've read about a dozen dime novels and have several in my book collection. Most are atrociously written with formulaic plots yet show an energy and innocence lacking in much of today's popular writing. The most interesting ones for me are the Westerns, especially the many titles starring a heroic Jesse James. Some of these were published even while Frank and Jesse were still out robbing banks and helped add to their mythic character.
In many ways, the legend of the Wild West was born in dime novels. While researching my book on Wyatt Earp, I came across an interesting anecdote. Wyatt was chasing some stagecoach robbers outside of Tombstone, Arizona, and found their recently vacated camp. Among the items he found there was half of a dime novel. It was common back then to tear off the pages you had already read in order to lighten your load. As Earp followed the trail of the outlaws, he found another camp, with the missing pages. So real-life Western outlaws were reading dime novels!
Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.