I Can’t Hear a Damn Word You’re Saying “‘Those who deprecate the free supply of such ficticious works as the public demands, are generally in favor of the entire exclusion of fiction of a sensational cast, a course which will unavoidably result in alienating from the library the very class most needing its beneficial influence'” Denning, 49. It is obvious here that William Fletcher attached more significance and importance to dime novels than most “serious intellectuals” did in the late 1800’s.
In fact, most people, particularly in the middle class, thought dime novels were vulgar and that they caused young children to imitate the actions of the likes of Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick. But both the production and the popularity of dime novels especially among the working class suggest that something more profound than cheap entertainment compelled them to read these works of fiction. Contrary to what many literary scholars and those in the middle class believed–and perhaps as indicated by the various reactions to them, these plotlines and characters were appealing to the working class on more than just one level.Order now
The rate at which dime novels were produced is astounding. “William Wallace Cook began by receiving a title and synopsis for a serial, and would then write, adapt and revise installments to meet the ever-changing specifications of the publisher. Almost all the accounts tell the story of novels written at exceptional speed in marathon sessions, and all emphasize the sheer quantity of writing” Denning, 21. It was not uncommon for authors to write entire pieces in one week or less, some not bothering to edit their work.
Many admitted that their motivation for writing stories at such a pace was money, but most maintained that the material contained in their stories was not immoral or vulgar, but rather, useful. It is interesting to note here that, while the adverse reaction against dime novels eventually became a reflection of the class that was supposedly reading them, the authors themselves were not from the working class. In fact, the dime novel “was a commercial product of a burgeoning industry employing relatively educated professionals–writers who also worked as journalists, teachers, or clerks” 45.
The judgments passed on those reading the dime novels was limited to the working class; but the very material that was thought to be immoral was invented in the minds of middle class people. In addition, while the working class may have been the target audience, perhaps in an attempt to redefine class boundaries, in actuality, the population of dime novel readers transcended those very boundaries. The action- and romance-packed stories appealed to all: men, women, children, both young and old.
For people such as bankers and capitalists, dime novels served as more of a distraction from the North/South divide that the country was actually experiencing “Reading the West”, 32 If the popularity of these novels was so widespread, even extending into middle-class interests, one must wonder why the reaction by literary critics and other middle-class people was so strong, and at times, excessive. Critics were unsure of how dime novels would impact the working class readers and what action, if any, they might provoke.
Either they were “a narcotic escape from daily life with no genuine symbolic meaning or, with Comstock, a symbolic universe so potents as to erase the real world from the minds of readers, leading them to act out the scenes depicted in dime novels” 54. Anthony Comstock was the leader of these latter believers, calling editors of such fiction “Satan’s efficient agents” who would ultimately destroy the young Denning, 51. He eventually began arresting people who sold these novels or those who allowed children under sixteen years of age to have access to dime novels.
Libraries joined in on the censorship, attempting to keep sensational fiction off their bookshelves. If the intended audience of dime novels was the working class, and there was such a strong reaction against the works, then presumably there was something about the way the expected results would have impacted the working class that scared critics. As with any modern influential product of mass media, like the program “South Park,” people feared that children would be corrupted and prone to acts of violence after reading such fiction.
However, it is unlikely that the fear of violence by children was the only reason critics did not hold dime novels in such high esteem. An issue to be raised is the overwhelming concern that the middle class expressed regarding the lower classes. The concern was not for the well-being of the working class who cared if their morals were deteriorating? , but rather, the concern appears to be out of fear that the process of reading the dime novels, and the stories contained therein, were somehow beneficial to them. Indeed, the working class was introduced to a new wave in literature that provided a new perspective on life.
They were beginning to fantasize and to adopt the storylines and characters as a part of their own life, as a distant, yet possible reality. To some extent this could have put the middle class at ease, seeing dime novels as a way of creating a temporary feeling of content among the working class while maintaining the rigid and unsafe working conditions that generally were the cause of their unhappiness. This, however, did not entirely comfort the middle class; perhaps the benefits of these dime novels were extending a bit too far.
As mentioned earlier, some critics did not know what to make of the response of working class readers to these works of fiction. Were they simply an escape or would they serve as a push that would ultimately cause the working class to rise? The answer probably lies in between these two extremes. What is apparent is that dime novels, conveniently able to fit in one’s back pocket, were carried everywhere. Reading was a way of passing time during the commute, and even more intriguing, a way of passing the time during work breaks.
The fact that the stories were taken across and between the boundaries of home and work indicates that they were providing their readers with something they were unable to get from work. In this respect, dime novels were an escape from the harsh reality and working conditions of factories and other places inhabited by the working class. They were so pervasive that some workers would read them as they worked, unable to leave the tales of adventures until the ride home. Some interpreted the passion for reading as an inability of the working class to do nothing more with their free time than merely be entertained.
Long hours, said one Detroit Knight of Labor, made workers “‘incapable of doing anything requiring thought. . . They will read trashy novels, or go to a variety theater or a dance, but nothing beyond amusements'” Denning, 45. While long days did tend to drain workers, they did not read as passively as this Knight of Labor suggested. “‘Sometimes I wonder how it would seem,'” said one tailoress, “‘if I should have the luck that you read about in the novels–get rich all of a sudden and have your fine house and carriage as some of the girls have that I used to go with'” Denning, 35.
In fact, reading about the lives of those such as Buffalo Bill and “Willful” Gaynell did exactly this: provide a sense of wonder, the possibility that the rags to riches story would one day be their own. On the surface, dime novels appeared solely immoral and profane. The Indian-scalping and gun-happy adventures of Buffalo Bill, in particular, were disconcerting to critics and the cause of their unrest about the “contamination of the morals of the working class” “Reading the West, 3. But the actions of Buffalo Bill seemed justified enough.
When he killed others, it was only because his life or someone’s close to him was immediately in danger; the reasons were always very personal and never frivolous. In addition, regardless of his pursuits, it was clear that Buffalo Bill always kept his mother and family in mind. These indications were always at the end of each chapter, where the main character would ride home and pay off the mortgage or buy food for his hungry family. “‘The best of the story papers,'” notes W. H. Bishop, “‘reward virtue and punish vice.
Their dependence upon the family keeps them, as a rule, free of dangerous appeals to the lower passions'” 53. Perhaps for women dime novels disrupted the norm a bit more than those stories targeted at young boys. In stories such as Buffalo Bill’s, women were protected, one might say “respected,” but their ability to fight and to be successful on the frontier was never actualized, because it was never women who fought, only men dressed as women. Novels such as “The Hidden Hand” and “Willful Gaynell” presented images of women opposite those in which they were seen in real life.
These stories were a reflection of the emergence of the working girl, Capitola unable to find work as a girl and Gaynell as a headstrong factory girl. In the first, Capitola dresses as a boy reversing traditional gender switches in order to get a job. “One circumstance he had particularly remarked,” notes the author of “The Hidden Hand,” E. D. E. N. Southworth, “the language used by the poor child during her examination was much superior to the slang she had previously affected, to support her assumed character of newsboy” 41. What is implied here is that girls were more articulate and perhaps more learned than boys.
More importantly, this gender switching reaffirmed that gender is often performance and not entirely natural, and that women could “do” men just as successfully as men could “do” women. Dime novels were never as morally contaminating as the middle class suspected they would be. One might even argue that their anticipated explosive effect was, in fact, a creation of the middle class and may have not been as disruptive had this class not expressed such disgust and concern. This reaction seems to be indicative of the fact that dime novels provided more for the working class than merely cheap entertainment although that was just as important.
Their production, circulationa and the reaction they provoked all contributed to what we might call the “Dime Novel Scare” of the late 1800’s. And while the fiction stories created an excitement in the working class, a sense that there was potential in their own lives to be like the characters they read about, they did not cause a mass alliance of and rebellion by the working class. What they did was allow the working class to see dime novels as an arena much like the one they lived in, one that saw class struggles and the introduction of the potential of both men and women, regardless of class.