Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Dime Novel Debate, Again

George Cary Eggleston
After my last post on the debates about the place of the Dime Novel in American culture in the 1880s, Demian Katz got in touch to tell me about the digitization efforts underway at Villanova University - available here - plus the online collections available at Bowling Green and Stanford. Exciting stuff! I'll be checking them out presently.

That also provides a good enough excuse to share a follow-up post on the Dime Novel debate - though in this instance, it was a debate that took place behind closed doors. In George Cary Eggleston's memoir, Recollections of a Varied Life (1910), he shares a moment of literary gossip that brings some interesting voices to bear on this apparently pressing point of controversy in the 1880s.

Eggleston, brother of novelist Edward, was one of the founding members of Richard Watson Gilder's Authors Club, a gathering of literary men (and judging by this list of inaugural members, it was just men) that began to meet regularly in New York in 1882. Eggleston himself had achieved some literary celebrity with his pioneering account of his time fighting for the Confederacy, A Rebel's Recollections (1875), which, thanks to Howells, first made its appearance in the pages of the Atlantic, to no little controversy. 

As Eggleston relates here, one evening at the Authors Club conversation turned to the subject of the Dime Novel, and it soon found some prominent defenders. John Hay and Edwin Booth, in their own way, proved themselves fans of yellow-back literature, and mustered some rather interesting arguments.

John Hay (via)
John Hay's defence of the medium rested - like Frederick Whittaker's in the New York Tribune - on a comparison with the work of one particular author:
"The dime novel," Mr. Hay said, "is only a rude form of the story of adventure. If Scott's novels had been sufficiently condensed to be sold at the price, they would have been dime novels of the most successful sort. Your boy wants thrill, heroics, tall talk, and deeds of derring-do, and these are what the dime novelist gives him in abundance, and even in lavish superabundance. I remember that the favorite book of my own boyhood was J. B. Jones's 'Wild Western Scenes.' His 'Sneak' was to me a hero of romance with whom Ivanhoe could in no way compare."
There's a text to pursue...

Edwin Booth (via)
When another club member questioned the "literary quality" of the Dime Novel, Edwin Booth provided them with a compliment of sorts:
"It is very bad, I suppose," answered Edwin Booth, "but that isn't the quality they put to the front. I have read dozens, scores, hundreds of them, and I have never challenged their literary quality, because that is something to which they lay no claim. Their strength lies in dramatic situations, and they abound in these. I must say that some of them are far better, stronger, and more appealing than are many of those that have made the fortune of successful plays."
And when another asked whether it was these "dramatic situations" that prompted Booth to read them, his compliments became even more back-handed:
"No. I read them for the sake of sleep," he replied. "I read them just as I play solitaire—to divert my mind and to bring repose to me."
More on Dime Novels soon, no doubt.

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