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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Reading an old Jesse James dime novel
While preparing my talk for the book launch of the Italian edition of my Jesse James book I read through a bunch of Jesse James material. The theme of my talk was the outlaw's transformation into a legend.
One of the books I read was the oldest Jesse James book in my collection: Jesse James' Mid-Winter Lark, or The Plundering of the Iron Mountain Train, by William Ward. This dime novel dates from 1909, when Frank James and several gang members were still alive.
Dime novels were cheaply produced magazines or paperback books that were the popular literature of their day. There were countless titles from their beginning in the 1860s to their demise in favor of pulp magazines in the 1920s.
This one, number 27 of a series about Jesse, portrays the outlaw as a strange hybrid. He's neither the noble Robin Hood some dime novels made him out to be nor the evil crook from the newspapers. He's both at the same time.
James is hiding out in the Kentucky hills when he hears a beautiful girl has been arrested for selling moonshine. Of course Jesse doesn't like government men harassing the rural poor, so he sets off to save her, leaving a trail of dead government agents wherever he goes. While he's doing this Robin Hood impersonation he's also taking vengeance out on any of the hill folk who don't stand by her side. When one man who volunteered to fight the police shows a bit of fear, Jesse shoots his ear off! Then Jesse discovers one of the hill folk had reported on the girl, and Jesse takes gruesome vengeance.
It's an odd book and I wonder what audiences 104 years ago thought of it. Perhaps they just wanted a thrill and didn't think about it much at all. Dime novels weren't exactly high literature. It does make an interesting curio, though, and an unusual landmark in the reputation of America's most famous outlaw.
If you want to get a copy, there's one for sale on Ebay.