Thursday, June 8, 2023

On This Day in the Old West: June 9

 On June 9, 1860, the course of American literature was changed forever. Popular author Mrs. Ann Stephens (she wrote nearly 30 novels!) authored the very first Dime Novel, titled Malaseka, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.


As most of us Western authors know, pulp magazines (or pulpwood, to give the full name) got their start in 1896, when Frank Munsey converted The Argosy, his magazine, to lower-cost pulp paper. From then until the 1950s, the pulps were the main source of “popular” fiction (as opposed to hardcover books and slick-paper magazines). Well, before pulps came the dime novel, a type of periodical which resembled today’s paperback book.



In the UK, this sort of publication was called the “penny dreadful.” “Story papers” for young men were also similar, and quite popular. Dime Novel is actually an umbrella term for several formats of popular fiction that existed until 1921. The name began when Beadle’s Dime Novels first published Mrs. Stephens’ tale in 1860, with a 4 -by 6-inch format. However, other formats were also used, such as an 8- by 12-inch size, running two to three columns of story (similar to the look of the UK’s “story papers”). The first works were serialized, then reprinted in single issues, but the series often ran several hundred weekly issues.


Later, some of the stories were reprinted in smaller formats, similar to today’s paperbacks, although they were usually saddle-stitched with a cover of the same material as the interior. Some of these reprints cost a nickel, so the term “nickel weekly” came into being. Color printing for the covers came still later.


Genres for the stories were mixed. In the 1860s and 70s, Western characters were the most popular, with Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill becoming ongoing popular protagonists. In the 1880s and 90s, crime and detective fiction became more popular, with characters such as “Old Sleuth” (the first time this term was used to mean a detective—the publisher even copyrighted the name so it couldn’t be reused). The most popular of these detectives was Nick Carter, who lasted all the way from dime novel to pulp fiction, radio, movies, TV, and even a later men’s paperback series. Science fiction also existed in the dime novels, beginning with the classic Steam Man of the Prairie, with a series of “Edisonade” characters who inspired the later Tom Swift stories.



In the very first dime novel, Malaseka, was a tragedy of errors. A young frontier settler, Danforth, has secretly married Malaseka, an Indian princess, and their child is destined to be the future chieftain. However, when an Indian brave is killed by another settler, the tribe believes Danforth to be the guilty party. They attack the settlement and many are killed, including the Indian chief and his son-in-law, Danforth. With his final words, Danforth urges his wife to travel to Manhattan and live with his parents, who will welcome her and their son.


Of course, this turns out to be a terrible idea. Old Mr. Danforth now despises the Indians who have killed his son, so he takes the child away from Malaseka and he and his wife raise their grandson as their own, then send him to Europe for an education. Malaseka eventually returns to her home on the frontier, where she becomes friends with Sarah, the daughter of Danforth’s friend, who is the same age as her lost son. Eventually, of course, Sarah Jones goes to Manhattan to be educated as a lady, and she meets the elderly Danforths and befriends them. In due course, William returns home and he and Sarah fall in love and agree to marry.


When the happy young couple return to the frontier settlement to celebrate with her family, Malaseka tells William she is his true mother. William, raised to despise everything Indian, kills himself rather than “debase” Sarah with his blood. They liked their stories dark back then, and the idea of an Indian and a White actually having a happy marriage just couldn’t be imagined.


Your character could easily have read this story. They may have eagerly anticipated the next installment of the series. Even if they didn’t purchase the dime novel themselves, they could have heard it being discussed or had it read to them as a child. Malaseka’s tale would have been almost as familiar to people in that age as Star Wars & Star Trek is to us today.


J.E.S. Hays

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