A Diamond in the Rough: The Rough Past of Dime Novels and Why They Matter

Brandy Nicholson
May 10, 2016 · 9 min read

Dime novels of the 19th century have been thought of as cheap, melodramatic fiction written purely for entertainment purposes, and this is true. I am in no way denying that description of dime novels; however, I believe that dime novels can be both cheap, melodramatic entertainment and much more. Dime novels are dominated by stories written about women by women and were shamed for it. Stories that center around women and women’s issues and concerns almost always come under fire for some reason of another — ranging from skill to credibility –especially those considered popular culture. Pop culture is popular for a reason; that reason can be because it is well-written, entertaining, or many people can connect with the message the media portrays. 19th century women connected with dime novels in a way that many scholars write off as (sometimes harmful) fantasy indulgence. I believe the fantasy world created within dime novels and dime novel tropes have been torn down by critics for superficial reasons despite dime novels have historical and literary importance to women of the 19th century.

Dime novels got their start in the late 19th-century and rose in popularity until their fall in the early 20th-century. They were normally sold for ten cents (sometimes five cents) at grocery stores or through the mail. While traditionally the term “dime novel” refers to the original, cheap paperback novels, it has evolved over the decades to refer to any cheap, quickly written, attention-grabbing pot-boiler (any form of literature or media that is meant to pay the creator’s expenses rather than for literary value or merit). Today, the term “dime novel” refers to mainly sensationalized media of any form, whether it be comic books or soap operas. But how did the dime novel come to basically mean “a piece of media with absolutely no actual literary value whatsoever”? A better question is “why”. Despite being exceedingly popular with the general public (the literacy rate around the American Civil War skyrocketed because so many people wanted to read the most popular dime novels), scholarly or highbrow critics ridiculed dime novels for their melodramatic content. The middle-class also had problems with dime novels, but their problems mostly came from their focus on, as stated by the American Women’s Dime Novel Project, “dime novel romance’s sensationalism and decidedly unmiddle-class notions of gender relations in which young girls took active roles in courting men and pursuing love”. The middle-class believed that dime novels were not proper women’s reading material and that the “degraded” literature would bring about America’s moral decline. Though the middle-class saw dime novels as a battleground for them to impose their own gender norms onto the working-class, their campaign did nothing to quell the demand for dime novels.

Literary criticism of dime novels takes root in the content of the novels and why that content was consumed. Yet, today’s analysis of dime novels appears to be more influenced by the taste of collectors rather than by actual historical analysis. Michael Denning is quoted by Helen Nelson in her thesis, “throughout the standard works, these narratives are repeatedly defined as sub-literary — as daydreams, wish fulfillments, narcotics — with no further end than as a brief distraction from a life of work” (4). Instead of being analyzed for their literary and historical significance, dime novels have been stereotyped as “degraded” literature with little actual value other than to be collected and displayed as examples of pop culture or to be learned from as what not to do when writing a novel. Viewing dime novels are pure escapism clouds a researcher’s perspective of what the genre could tell them about the less durable notions of a society or even a particular subgroup. Nelson also quotes Mary Noel on how dime novels should be used as a tool to understand the feelings of the masses: “Popular literature reflects the fleeting notions, the less enduring ideals, the physical settings, the mannerisms of the time that passes” (5). Popular literature is created for the masses, to appeal to their tastes, opinions, and values while at the same time bringing the readers into a world of the fantastical as to catch their initial attention. For women readers, this last observation is especially important because of how restricted their options of indulgence were during the 19th century.

Women’s lives in the 19th century centered around the home and domestic life, though many working-class women worked outside of the home to support their families in addition to their domestic duties. Many women also saw opportunities for themselves outside of the domestic sphere. Women-only schools opened up rapidly — by 1880, there were nearly eight hundred throughout the country — and many women began working in factories, offices, and retail establishment; however, these opportunities were mainly open for working-class women rather than all women. Middle-class women were expected to not work or support themselves in any manner. They could only hope to marry a good man who could support them and be a good husband. Of course, even with the opportunities the working-class women strived for, women were still contained within a stereotyped set of gender roles and morality but to a lesser degree than that of middle-class women. Dime novels became especially important to women during this time between forced duty and freedom of choice. The new form of literature allowed women to explore ways of life they could not achieve in reality without losing their socioeconomic status or moral standing. Women could vicariously live through the unrestrained — and yes, melodramatic — characters in dime novels while still going about their own lives.

For my analysis of dime novels and their importance in women’s culture, I am examining the dime novel “Big-Rifle Nick” and, specifically, the character of Adeline Rushford, what she represents for the 19th century woman, and the dime novel character tropes that women could live vicariously through. The Women and the World of Dime Novels exhibit summarizes “Big-Rifle Nick” in one sentence: “Adeline Rushford is a captive of the Indians, and her lover, Jack Wilson, is on a mission to rescue her”. Of course, much more happens in the novel than just that, but it is the most simplified version of events. Rushford’s captivity initially presents her as a passive, secondary character in the story, as does the title, but she takes an active role in her own escape. Her activeness puts her in the role of the Independent Woman trope, a role that I believe many 19th century women would have envied. The Women and the World of Dime Novels exhibit defines the Independent Woman trope as women who are “admired for their strength and for their ability to defend themselves and those they love. They never give into despair, and they always continue to fight for the things they want and against the people who stand in their way”. Adeline Rushford also encompasses two other important tropes: the Indians’ Captive and the Sundered Lover. The Indians’ Captain is self-explanatory, but it becomes much more important in dime novels when taken into account with the time dime novels were popular. Colonial expansion put Native Americans in the spotlight as villains in dime novels, especially if the fictional depictions were written as allies to the British (many dime novel heroines were written to support American revolutionaries). The Sundered Lover trope is described as “a young couple and their journey toward happiness and marriage”. This trope was exceedingly popular in dime novels, and the lovers would be separated by any sort of means, whether by a disapproving parent, a spurned suitor, or one of them being held captive by Indians. Each trope represented in the character of Rushford can be linked to real life aspirations of the women who read her story.

Adeline Rushford represents the fantasies of 19th century women through her tropes, and I believe that representation falls in line with Kate Ellis’ viewpoint in her paper “Women, Culture and Revolution”. Ellis states, “But as women have gained more freedom (defined at this point as the ability to do what men do) they have appropriated in fiction more and more of the candor about themselves . . . that has traditionally been a masculine privilege” (3). The tropes in women’s dime novels were created from a desire to represent pieces of women’s personalities and desires they had not previously been allowed to openly cater to. . Perhaps even the melodramatics of dime novels can be explained by Ellis observation, as well. Women’s emotions, especially “undesired” emotions such as anger, were often suppressed, so it would make sense for women’s fiction to take advantage of the new medium to express what women had not been allowed to express before. The dime novel tropes allowed women to explore themselves on a level they had not had access to before, and they took advantage of that freedom, writing fantastical fiction straight from their own desires. Rushford begins her story as a captive and ends it free and married to the man she loves. The Indians’ Captive and Sundered Lover tropes are important to creating the basis of Rushford’s character, story, and connection to the readers. Readers would immediately be drawn to her story of romance and drama. Rushford’s support for the American Revolutionaries would only fuel the connection, especially in the face of one of her captors — a British Captain named James Lundy, who forces his presence and romantic intentions on Rushford immediately upon her capture. Rushford rejects Lundy instantaneously, despite him offering her freedom in exchange for her hand in marriage. “‘As my affianced bride I could demand you from the Indians, and they would dare not refuse my request . . .’ ‘Then let me remain in bondage. I am not afraid to die’” (49). Rushford asserts herself as powerful in spite of her position as a captive. Her refusal to cower in the face of her own (possible) death marks her with the Independent Woman trope and leads into the Sundered Lover trope to further endear her to readers. Her “unfeminine” words and actions voice what women readers wanted from their own lives — to assert themselves as people who desired choice in their lives instead of simply duty. The story then returns to Wilson as he confronts Lundy about Rushford’s whereabouts. Wilson represents the ideal man a 19th century woman would want for her husband; he is kind, intelligent, strong, moral, and loyal to Rushford and comes to her aid as soon as he can. Unfortunately for both Wilson and Rushford, Lundy is an excellent liar and convinces Wilson that Rushford is nowhere near the Indians’ camp, and Wilson leaves. However, Rushford has not been sitting idle. She waits for the opportune moment to make her escape and takes it. As she escapes, she is accosted by an Indian, who is determined to take her back to the camp. Rushford refuses to be taken captive again, and she’s determined to ensure her freedom no matter what must be done. “The captor’s knife was sticking in his belt, and the maiden could place her hand upon it. Concentrating all her strength she drew it suddenly forth, and with a reverse motion plunged it into the side of the savage” (83–84). Rushford kills an Indian for her freedom, and if that doesn’t say Independent Woman then nothing else will. Rushford’s very masculine act separates her from the traditional 19th century feminine sphere, and yet she still gets her man at the end of the novel. Her actions gain her freedom and do not force her to sacrifice her happiness for it, something the 19th century woman most definitely desired.

Over the decades, critics have either broken down dime novels to be insignificant pieces of pop culture or labeled them as harmful, degenerate literature. Those claims are partially true; there is no denying that, but it also doesn’t exempt dime novels from being analyzed as important pieces of fiction from the past. Adeline Rushford, and other heroines like her, may seem melodramatic and rehashed versions of one another to the outsiders looking in, but they were important to the people who needed them most — 19th century women.

Works Cited

“Dime Novels.” The Newberry. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2016.

“The American Women’s Dime Novel — American Women’s Dime Novel Project.” American Women’s Dime Novel Project. N.p., 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 06 May 2016.

Ellis, Kate. “Women, Culture and Revolution”. The Radical Teacher 1.2 (1976): 3–8. Web. 07 May 2016.

Hartman, Dorothy W. “Lives of Women.” Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, 2016. Web. 07 May 2016.

Nelson, Helen C. Navigating Nineteenth Century Novels: Linking Historical and Literary Perspectives to Explore the Influence of Dime Novels in Nineteenth Century America. Thesis. Humboldt State University, 2005. N.p.: n.p., 2005. Print.

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