Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Pestilent stuff": The New York Tribune's Dime Novel War of 1884

In March 1884, the New York Tribune took aim at what it considered to be one of the evils of the age: the dime novel. Frederick Whittaker, prolific dime novelist, fought back.

I came across this moment of controversy while I was writing a lecture for children about highwaymen and riverboat gamblers. I wanted an example from the nineteenth century of adults criticising the moral ills of popular culture directed at young people. Having come across a few vague references to this specific instance, I finally managed to track it down thanks to Chronicling America, the Library of Congress' wonderful newspaper database. And it doesn't disappoint - not least because of the spirited defence of the medium that was published in its wake.

The Tribune's attack, "Dime Novel Work" (March 10, 1884) - available here - certainly begins arrestingly, and in a way that echoes contemporary terrors rather uncomfortably:
"The work of the dime novel is being performed with even more than usual success. The other day three boys robbed their parents and started off for the boundless West. More recently a lad in a Philadelphia public school drew a revolver on his teacher, and examination showed that seven other boys present were armed with revolvers and bowie-knives [...] The class of literature which is mainly responsible for all this folly is distributed all over the country in immense quantities, and it is distinctly evil in its teachings and tendencies."
The Tribune, then, had no qualms about laying the blame for late nineteenth century juvenile delinquency - including guns in school - squarely at the door of the dime-novel. It argued that these publications focussed on "thieves, robbers and immoral characters" who teach that "violence and trickery and immorality are manly, and that the character to be admired is the bully and ruffian who knocks everybody about, and cuts throats right and left, and plunders successfully, and is hail-fellow with the thieves and dangerous classes generally." As such, this "pestilent stuff" was to blame for putting "a great many boys" on "the road to ruin." That strikes me as a pretty timeless formulation, reproduced and reapplied to different elements of popular culture ever since (and not new in 1884, either).* The Tribune looked to "local preventive organizations" and, more particularly, "parents and relatives", to "cut off the supply" to children.

At least one dime novelist was not impressed with this attack on his livelihood. Frederick Whittaker was a prolific author for the House of Beadle and Adams and other similar publishers. As this profile on the fantastic Yesterday's Papers highlights, Whittaker was a rather "complex" figure, variously a "cavalryman, biographer, spiritualist and labor crusader." Today, he's probably best known for his hagiographic account of  the life of George Armstrong Custer, written with the encouragement of his widow, Libbie, soon after Custer's death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (available here).

Whittaker's response to the Tribune's criticism of the dime-novel - "Dime Novels: A Defence By A Writer Of Them" (March 16, 1884) - is available here. Unsurprisingly, he argued vociferously against what he felt were the "false and outrageously unjust" claims of the Tribune, as well as "the injustice and falsity of the accusation that constantly comes from the press, that dime novels are necessarily [...] bad and corrupting in their influence." But in so doing, Whittaker introduced a number of interesting issues, shifting the debate to the perennial subject of what constituted a national literature in America, and probing a number of Transatlantic tensions.

First, Whittaker was adamant that "the dime novel is now the only representative of purely American literature that exists on its own merits alone." This meant that, in his view, dime novelists were the only self-supporting American writers who weren't propped up by "private means" or, like Longfellow, "a professorship in a college", before achieving literary success. As such, dime novels held the key to what Whittaker described as "the regeneration of American literature." He developed that nativist strain in a direct attack on imported literature. For Whittaker, dime novels actually offered "better and more wholesome" entertainment "than half the stuff that is offered by the piratical houses called 'respectable.'" Such works contained "too much English stuff" and other "padding" for the tastes of the "the people" - the ordinary Americans to whom the dime novelists addressed themselves. Such audiences, he knew, "want their story, and they want every word in it made to help out that story."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for this blogger, Whittaker gave a nod to the genealogy of the medium. He highlighted that dime novels featured stories "of all classes" - but included many which were "founded on history, like those of Scott." Linking back to Sir Walter was certainly an interesting way to try and insulate the dime novel from its critics. It's food for thought - as are Whittaker's other claims.

And this is food for thought, too. Of Whittaker's many, many publications, the only one that I've been able to turn-up online (Custer biography excepted) is this version of Nemo, King of the Tramps, available here. Has no one set about digitizing dime novels systematically? Each time I look I'm surprised. If it's the case that I'm missing something obvious and some glorious horde of Beadle books exists in an unexplored corner of the internet, please let me know! Below, some scans of both Tribune articles. Very rough and ready, but better than nothing I hope (right-click and save will work best). If you really want to dig in to them, I'd follow the links above to the relevant pages on Chronicling America. Alternatively, Yesterday's Papers has a decent scan of a printed version of Whittaker's article at the bottom of this post.

'Dime Novel Work', New York Tribune, March 10 1884, p. 4
Frederick Whittaker, 'Dime Novels - A Defence By a Writer of Them', New York Tribune, March 16 1884, p. 8

* A sharp tangent, this, but still: reading the Tribune's attack I couldn't help but draw a mental line to some of the criticism surrounding rapper Chief Keef's new album, a work whose timing has rather reignited the "hip hop is bad for you" debate. Examples here and here. Less tangential, perhaps: it would be interesting to draw another line between the Tribune's 1884 dime novel attack and Concord Library's decision to ban Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exactly a year later, in March 1885. More on that here.


Demian Katz said...

We've just begun some dime novel digitization efforts in the Digital Library @ Villanova University. Only a few titles so far (and many not strictly dime novels but rather related popular literature), but keep an eye on the collection -- we expect that it will grow significantly in the coming months.

On the closely related "Nickel Weekly" front, there are good collections online at Bowling Green and Stanford.

Thomas Ruys Smith said...

Wonderful, many thanks for letting me know and good luck with the project. I'll highlight those links in a future post!