Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Father of the Dime Novel

Like many readers of western lore, I've often heard the phrase "dime novel" but didn't really know what it referred to, beyond the basics of being a small, quickly-put-together pamphlet of sorts about wild west heroes and villains. Some movies refer to them, such as Unforgiven, where a writer of these novels follows around "English Bob," inventing and embellishing that gunslinger's story, much to the derision of those around them. I delved further into the topic and discovered that the dime novel was the creation of one of the most extraordinary, adventurous characters in the old West, whose own life exceeded the adventures he wrote about.

Were it not for the fantastic imagination and prodigious output of Edward Zane Carroll Judson, the reading public would never have discovered that greatest of all reading pleasures, the dime novel. Writing as Ned Buntline, this adventurer started a trend that lasted several decades. At first, teenage boys were the main fans of these novels, but their popularity quickly spread, as many city folk and people back East were eager for any news or stories about the Wild West.

Ned was born in 1823, ran away to sea as a boy and, by the time he was fifteen, was a midshipman in the navy. Resigning four years later, he led a life of incredible adventures in the Seminole Wars, and later in the Northwest fur trade. When he was twenty-three, he was tried for murder in Nashville, was lynched by a mob, and was cut down in time to be brought back to life. He could sport more scars, including a bullet hole in his chest, than any man he met -and he had a whole supply of yarns to go with each wound.

Generally in trouble, whether financially, romantically or with the law, stocky, red-bearded Ned Buntline had at least as many enemies as friends. Unscrupulous, often accused of blackmail, defendant in several trials, he once jumped bail in St. Louis, and was heavily implicated in the 1849 riot in Astor Place in New York. A reformer who frequently got drunk after delivering a lecture on Temperance, Ned was also one of the founders of the Know Nothing Party.

In the 1840's he established Ned Buntline's Own. In this sensational weekly he published not only his novels but also stories exposing gambling, prostitution and drinking in New York City - championing the cause of the Know-Nothing movement. During the Civil War he served in the Union Army as a sergeant and afterwards undeservedly assumed the rank of Colonel, a title which stuck until his death.

It was on a Western trip that he met William Cody, dubbed him Buffalo Bill and wrote a series of dime novels based on Cody's life as a hunter and scout. He also launched Cody on a theatrical career in a play he wrote in four hours-The Scouts of the Plains-with himself playing a leading part. But despite the renown, infamous or otherwise, of his exploits, Ned Buntline is perhaps best remembered for his dime novels. Typical of his four hundred-odd stories are: The Mysteries and Miseries of New York, Navigator Ned; or, He Would Be Captain, Stella Delorme; or, The Comanche's Dream, and Buffalo Bill.

I think Ned would have a laugh today if he knew that his and others' dime novels, scorned by many in their day as being "lurid" and trash reading, are archived in the Library of Congress's Rare Book and Special Collections Division! Google "dime novels" and see the detailed covers and many titles stored for future generations, alongside Lincoln's writings and the Guttenberg Bible. Over 40,000 titles are archived - and many more have been lost to the ages.

Source: Monaghan's The Great Rascal: The Life and Advertures of Ned Buntline.


Loretta C. Rogers said...

Interesting article, Anna. Last night I was watching on TV "American Outlaw," a story about Jesse James, and the Dime Novel had featured a story about him. However, it seems Ned Buntline was as interesting as the people he wrote about. Enjoyed the post.

Watch for my June release of Lawmen and Outlaws Anthology.

Celia Yeary said...

Anna-Good article. I knew about the Dime Novel,but never knew one person "invented" them. Seems as though Ned Buntline had plenty of material from which to work! Thanks--Celia

Paty Jager said...

What a colorful character! It seems fitting he would be the one who started the "dime novels".

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Anna, I love this post! I've got dime novels in a couple of wips. Ned indeed sounds as amazing as some of his "heroes."

Thanks for the excellent research. And watch for Marrying Minda TBR on Friday. It's already up at Amazon.