“Beadle’s Dime Books” (from North American Review, July 1864; pp. 303-309)
Beadle’s Dime Books.—Novels and Library of Fiction; Biographies; Song-Books; School Series; Hand-Books for Popular Use; Hand-Books of Games, &c.; &c., &c. New York. 1859-1864. 12mo.
A young friend of ours was recently suffering from that most harassing of complaints, convalescence, of which the remedy consists in copious draughts of amusement, prescribed by the patient. Literature was imperatively called for, and administered in the shape of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. These did very well for a day or two,—when, the convalescence running into satiety of the most malignant type, a new remedy was demanded, and the clamor de profundis arose. “I wish I had a Dime Novel.” The coveted medicament was obtained, and at once took vigorous hold of the system. The rapidity of cure effected by it induced us to investigate somewhat more deeply into the attractions and character of the “Dime Books” of all kinds, and a pile of forty-five volumes—all, with the exception of a few double numbers, sold at ten cents each—lies before us, being merely a selection from among them.
These works are issued by Messrs. Beadle & Co., of New York, in virtue of an enterprise started in the year 1859. They already amount to several hundred separate publications, and circulate to the extent of many hundred thousands. This need hardly be stated to any one who is in the way of casting his eye on the counter of any railway book-stall or newsdealer’s shop. But the statistical statement, from authority, may excite some interest,—that, up to April 1st, an aggregate of five millions of Beadle’s Dime Books had been put in circulation, of which half at least were novels, nearly a third songs, and the remainder hand-books, biographies, &c. After this we are prepared for colossal statements as to the millions of reams of paper employed, &c. The sales
of single novels by popular authors often amount to nearly forty thousand in two or three months.*
It might be thought we should dwell on this evidence of abundant and quick sale somewhat less cursorily, but the American public is used not only to the assertion, but the fact, of enormous, marvelous sales of cheap literature. What these books are in themselves, and why they meet with this sale, is quite another matter, which we propose to consider shortly.
The forty-five volumes before us may be presumed to be a fair selection from the various classes. We have fourteen works of what may be called fact, i.e. biographies and tales of historic character, to which may be added an edition of the National Tax Law. We have pertaining to polite literature, oratory, and poetry, fourteen volumes, namely, five “Speakers” (two of Dialogue and three of Soliloquies), five volumes of Songs, one of Verses “suitable for albums, &c.,” a Manual of Etiquette, another of Letter-Writing, and one volume of “Fun.” Lastly, we have two volumes of the Library of Selected Fiction, and thirteen of Beadle’s Dime Novels.
The statement is made, that the editors and publishers carefully revise all works sent them by untried hands; and as many of the works of fact and literature mentioned above bear no special name, we must suppose them to have a kind of editorial sanction. The biographies in our possession are ten in number: Garibaldi, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, General Wayne, David Crockett, General Scott, Pontiac, Paul Jones, Lafayette, and Tecumseh. They do not all requite special mention, as most of them concern individuals whose lives have been long before the public in the fullest manner. The first biography issued—namely, that of Garibaldi—claims to be something original, not a servile copy of “memoirs” by Dumas or others, but resting on the original documents of the South American republics. This being so, the author might have spared a vast part of his moral reflections, and bursts of ecstatic admiration, which would have left him room to give at length the adventures of the campaigns in the Two Sicilies, so vastly more entertaining and important than the struggle in the La Plata states.
Our readers will be pleased to know that the author of the Life of Tecumseh does not attempt to settle who was the author of his death.
Neither in this nor any of the other nine biographies is there anything which a pupil at our public schools could not get out of a good encyclopaedia. The general style is loose and flat beyond conception. We are treated to such choice morsels as this: “It is the loftiest merit of a great commander, that he woo the basilisk Bellona, who tricks herself out and flounces herself in all the colors of the rainbow, and yet who caters at privation and waste, at terror and pestilence, and whose embrace is death—only when justified by considerations of right.” Truly a noble amplification and correction of one line in Macbeth and one in Il Penseroso!
In addition to these, we have two volumes of biographies of “Men of the Times,”—short notices, of fifteen or twenty pages each, of the prominent generals in the present war. Our historical series is completed by three volumes of Tales, containing the well-known, thrice-told adventures by flood and field of Kenton, Boone, Brant, &c. As the facts have been so often narrated, it would seem the duty of the editors to pay as much attention as possible to the setting, style, descriptions of character, &c., and we are accordingly favored with such acute estimates as this, speaking of a British spy in the Revolution: “He yielded his life a sacrifice to his loyalty to a king who cared nothing for suffering humanity or the rights of his subjects, so long as he could wring from their earnings the wherewithal to swell his income and minister to his pleasures.” Alas poor George III. and his daily leg of roast mutton!
The treatises on polite literature and the arts of elocution and composition should be briefly noticed. We have among them three “Speakers” and two books of dialogue. These, especially the “Comic Speaker,” are in no respect better or worse than other well-known volumes of the kind. The “Patriotic Speaker” does contain several pieces we have not yet seen incorporated elsewhere, and as a whole do not wish to see again. The five volumes of Song-Books, which have in general had a very extensive circulation, are good,—made up of prime old favorites, and choice productions of more recent date. The “Knapsack Song-Book” must be excepted, however, as containing a very inferior selection. The book of Verses, for Albums, &c., is bad. The selections are generally wholly without point, from very inferior authors; and when an esteemed and beautiful piece is taken, it is hashed up in the following style. Sir W. Jones translated thus:—
“On parent knees, a naked, new-born child,
Weeping thou sat’st, while all around thee smiled.
So live, that, sinking to thy last, long sleep,
Calm thou mayst smile, while all around thee weep.”
But this will not do; the word “naked" shocks our refined ears. Hear the alteration:—
“Clasped in thy nurse’s arms, O gentle child,
Thou didst first weep while all around thee smiled.
So live, that, sinking to thy last, long sleep,
Thou mayst smile, while all around thee weep.”
Better have kept the original Persian;—and how kind to put weep and smile in italics!
The books of “Fun” read like scrap-books composed of the Editor’s Drawer in “Harper’s Magazine.” There are some really good jokes. The Manuals of “Etiquette” and “Letter-Writing” are what such manuals always are,—full of second-rate gentility, and what is rather furniture polish than that of society. “Turning up the sleeves on sitting down to table, as some persons do, is gross in the highest degree.” We should think so! But there are many useful and true things in these books, and they might be read advantageously by so-called ladies and gentlemen.
We come now to the novels. The “Library of Select Fiction” offers us two examples of reprints,—John Neal’s “White-Faced Pacer” and Mrs. Gaskell’s “Lois the Witch,” here called “The Maiden Martyr.” The latter is well known as an admirable tale. The former is graphic and characteristic, but surely, when purporting to describe the youth of the gallant Captain Nathan Hale, it need not inflict on him an entirely supposititious and unnatural family, when his own father, brothers, and sisters are so well known in Massachusetts.
But the original novels, Beadle’s Dime Novels, of which the favorite authors are Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, Mrs. Metta V. Victor, Edward S. Ellis, Esq., and A. J. H. Duganne! Ten of these novels have we faithfully read through, and more up-hill work in the main we never had; and this while Anthony Trollope and Dickens are living, and Thackeray is only just dead. We shall give abstracts of some of them, to show of what sort they are.
“Malaeska.” By Mrs. Ann S. Stephens. An Indian woman loses her white husband by her father’s hand; carries their son to his grandfather in New York, which, though the scene is laid in the last century, is always called Manhattan; is forbidden to declare herself. Attempts to reclaim her boy to a savage life,—fails,—returns to her tribe; for a wonder (why?) is not murdered; settles down in the scene of her widowhood, where she finds her son on his wedding-day, and reveals his parentage,—a revelation resulting in his suicide and her death. This is all in the regular dialect. Malaeska has the Great Spirit and hunting- grounds always on her tongue’s end. Mr. Danforth, her father-in-law, is the old-fashioned, stern father, doting on his grandchild, but hating his son’s wife. Of the style two specimens will suffice. Page 7,
“It was early in May,” etc. etc.; p. 9, in describing the very same place and time, “The heavy piles of foliage was [sic] thrifty and ripe with the warm breath of August.” Each chapter—save the mark!—is introduced by a poetical quotation, which on p. 119 is thus:—
“Wild was her look, wild was her air,
Back from her shoulders streamed the hair;
The locks that wont her brow to shade
Started erectly from her head;
Her figure seemed to rise more high,
From her pale lips a frantic cry
Rang sharply through the moon’s pale light,
And life to her was endless night.”
Constance de Beverley, thy wrongs are not yet avenged!
“Alice Wilde,” by Mrs. M. V. Victor, is very much better; but the characters—the refined gentleman who affects the disguise of a backwoodsman, the young lady at once perfectly masculine and perfectly feminine, and her mad lover—are all cruelly unnatural, and but little relieved by the negro humor. The word “shall,” we need not say, has but rare admission into Mrs. Victor’s style. The same writer gives us the “Backwood’s Bride,”—more masculine young lady, more hair-breadth ’scapes, and the addition of a cruel, unnatural father, who suddenly is awakened to a sense of his daughter’s misery, by no means at its highest point. The humors of Aunt Debby are delicious, but monotonous. Some terrible mistakes in style occur:—Page 7, “Whom, he was bound, should not have a single one.” P. 23, “It was him”; and on p. 25, the common but silly vulgarism, “illy,”—as if “well” and “ill” were not adverbs. In “Uncle Ezekiel,” an insolent, loquacious, detestable Yankee-notion-monger appears as the protector of a lovely young lady against the wiles of her aristocratic English relatives, and marries her to this protégé, a young backwoodsman. This of course gives a fine opportunity for all the conventional falsehoods about England and the English, who yet appear even in this book more amiable than in Sam Slick. Mrs. Victor describes her heroine’s home, when necessary, as in the wildest part of the prairies, but contrives to get an admirable girl’s school and academy founded close by as soon as she is old enough to attend them. “Maum Guinea,” by the same author, is one of the thousand stories of negro life which owe their style, character, and very existence to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The Unionist’s Daughter” has its scene laid in Tennessee. In order to increase the interest, Mrs. Victor confesses that she has taken liberties with the chronology. But it is a little too bad to introduce a Tennessee gentleman as ostracized for voting the Union ticket in 1860. Does Mrs. Victor remember for
what candidates the vote of Tennessee was given? “The Reefer of ’76” is a very weak dilution of Cooper’s sea novels, almost wholly without an attempt at plot. Mr. E. S. Ellis’s “Seth Jones” and “Trail Hunters” are good, very good. Mr. Ellis’s novels are favorites, and deserve to be. He shows variety and originality in his characters; and his Indians are human beings, and not fancy pieces. “Godbold the Spy,” and “The Land Claim,” are commonplace, pointless,—old fun, old adventures, old scenes. “Massasoit’s Daughter,” by A. J. H. Duganne, is geography run mad. The scene is laid in Massachusetts. Mr. Duganne begins by laying a reef of rocks along the shores of Cape Cod (p. 11). He then establishes a flourishing colony of Narragansetts at Wachusett (p. 16). A score of miles south of this hill is Massachusetts Bay (p. 17), whose shores are inhabited by Pequods; a reach of rocks environs the mouth of the Mystic (p. 24); and the Indian of Wachusett is in the habit of launching his canoe on the rivers of the Penobscot, Merrimac, and Piscataqua, even to the far Connecticut (p. 73). These exquisite touches of geography quite overshadow the minor absurdities of an English sailor, in the year 1615, feeling conscientious scruples about selling an Indian into slavery, and the like.
Why these works are popular is a problem quite as much for the moralist and the student of national character as for the critic. It is a satisfaction that, being so, they are without exception, so far as we can judge, unobjectionable morally, whatever fault be found with their literary style and composition. They do not even obscurely pander to vice, or excite the passions. And it is a striking fact, to be learned from Messrs. Beadle & Co.’s account of sales, that the best books on their list are those for which there is the greatest demand. This fact should serve to stimulate them to endeavor to secure superior excellence, and to elevate the character of their books. If a novel as good as those by Mr. Ellis sells twice as fast as one by an inferior author, it is for their interest to obtain the services of other writers of not less merit than he. With such established popularity as they have obtained for their publications, a serious responsibility rests upon them. They are wielding an instrument of immense power in education and civilization. They are bound to use it, not alone with reference to their own profit, but with constant regard to its effect upon the public. By discarding poor works, by publishing books of real excellence and interest, exact in statement, careful in style, and true to nature, they may do much to form a correct public taste, and to supply with sound information a vast body of readers not likely to be reached by any other literature. They may become, what we have no doubt they desire to be, real public benefactors. They can find no more honorable employ-
ment than that of supplying at a low cost to their immense constituency the popular masterpieces of English literature both of the past and of the present time.
The success of Messrs. Beadle & Co.’s undertaking has led other publishers in New York and Boston to engage in similar enterprises. As yet none of them, so far as we are aware, has reached any great magnitude. But we wish them all success, and regard the competition thus established as likely to be of service in raising the character of cheap literature generally.
* Over 350,000 copies of the Dime Song-Book No. 1 have been sold. The Dime National Tax Law has reached a circulation of more than 20,000 copies. The first edition of the Dime Novel “Seth Jones” was of 60,000 copies. Sales almost unprecedented in the annals of booksellers. A Dime Novel is issued each month, and the series has undoubtedly obtained greater popularity than any other series of works of fiction published in America.