Nineteenth Century Sensational Fiction: Dime Novels Essays

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Nineteenth Century Sensational Fiction: Dime Novels

In the late nineteenth century, a new form of sensational fiction emerged. Called dime novels because of the five to twenty-five cent sale price, these pocket-sized books told short stories of American frontier adventure. Often formulaic, these stories centered on macho heroes and damsels in distress, never venturing far beyond plotlines of capture and rescue, pursuit and escape. Violence and lewdness became the impetus for the popularity of this form which, because of its cheapness, was often passed along to friends and neighbors upon completion. The serial nature of these stories, which featured a set number of identifiable characters such as Deadwood Dick and Calamity
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In a September 1879 article to Atlantic entitled “Story-Paper Literature,” W.H. Bishop writes a criticism of dime novels or “cheap fiction.” With an adult audience assured, he goes on to not only bash the poor quality of dimes but also to summarize several of these indecent stories to make parents more aware of what their children are ingesting. He explains that through the use of “poverty-stricken human language” and plots that are “few and simple,” dimes provide boys with immoral and unrealistic fantasy worlds which are ultimately sublimated into their real lives. “Prevented from engaging in hand-to-hand conflicts with howling savages, he can yet, if circumstances be favorable, break his teacher’s watch-chain” (385). Bishop even alludes to rare occasions when boys actually turn to crime, including murder, to express this rebelliousness.

Bishop laments the fact that these throwaway novels have begun to take the place of proper literature. His elitism and upholding of canon however falter slightly when he recognizes that at least the youth have found something to read rather than nothing at all. His only pity is that the devolving form of dimes makes little effort to instill morals or realistic goals in youth.

The dime novel brought a new commercialism

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