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This art form dismayed the moralist, delighted small boys, and somehow put its own stamp on the American legend
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
His sentence was finished in a ringing shriek, for Calamity had drawn a revolver and shot him, even while his sarcastic words left his lips, and he fell to the ground, wounded through the breast.
“ ‘So much for your lyin’, you miserable whelp!’ the girl cried, wrought suddenly to a high pitch of anger. ‘If I was dishonored once, by one such as you, no man’s defiling touch has reached me since …’
“Now she dashed away through the narrow gulch, catching with delight long breaths of the perfume of flowers which met her nostrils at every onward leap of her horse, piercing the gloom of the night with her dark lovely eyes, searchingly, lest she should be surprised; lighting a cigar at full motion …”
Attracted by the glowing panatela, four desperadoes leap from ambush, Colts Hashing, but this vintage cover girl simply rides them down, amid “howls of pain and rage, and curses too vile to repeat here,” and gallops off unscathed, whooping like a Comanche.
Here, in capsule form, we have the prototype of the classic dime novel scene, with a lair sampling of its normal ingredients—action and sudden death, virtue preserved and ambush outwitted, rough talk and high-flown writing. For those who appreciate the rarer spices in this vanished literary cupboard, there are finer points—the complicated syntax, delivered at a dead run by the leading character; the anticlimactical epithet (“whelp̶;); the new twist on the fate-worsethan-death; the totally unexplained villains; the note of pious forbearance by the author (“curses too vile to repeat here”); the difficult but admirable teat (“lighting a cigar at lull motion”). That Calamity can do this while also bending both nostrils to the heady prairie flora only goes to show that the killer behind the gun is really a girl at heart. Characterization in the dime novel was terse. This, for example, is the entire description of one Silas Rodgers: ”… a man honest and upright alter the fashion of frontiersmen. He was brave, and had shot two or three in brawls, but was not regarded as quarrelsome.”
During the hall century of the popularity of the dime novel, from 1860 to about 1910, millions of boys, vigorous parental opposition notwithstanding, luxuriated in this imaginative world. They took their reading straight, without benefit of “comics,” and in the closest, dimmest, smallest possible print—although even this could be reduced in size if, at the end of the yarn, the cascade of words outran the space, so that the final episodes might well be visible only to those equipped with magnifying glasses. The only visual lure was the cover picture.
The problem of the age, apparently, was not why Johnny couldn’t read, but how to stop him. Dime novel vocabulary was never simplified to suit a boy’s “age level.” An academy “derived its appellation” from a nearby lake. A man never crossed a plain—he “traversed” it. The silvery beams of the moon did not fall upon a face, but upon a “pain-distorted countenance,” which was “rendered doubly repulsive by the red streaks where the mingled blood and brains had oozed from the shattered skull.” Or, in another field of action: “Miss Howard patronized the elevated road to her home in the Bronx.”
Dime novels, of course, were not novels at all and during most of their long vogue cost only a nickel, forced down by competition among the publishers and from the candy interests. While many of the central figures in later days were fictional, the early ones were supposedly taken from life-Daniel Boone, Pontiac, Mad Anthony Wayne, Custer, Billy die Kid—and the tales were put forward unblushingly as gospel truth, down to the last bloodstained pool of gore.
Belief, apparently, was widespread, no matter how strange the speech which emerged from the grim lips of the actors, who were capable of such interesting phrases as “Hark, pard!” Anyone under stress was ready at the drop of a hat to utter a mouthful. Consider one bride-to-be, observing a posse closing in on her groom: “Those dreadful men, of which there are so many, who J believe would murder you; they may kill you at any time!”
Or Billy the Kid, rallying his men: “Hurrah! Hurrah! my brave lads. Strike hard and strike home. Hurl back the fiends, sweep them from the lace of the earth!”
Or a Texas Ranger, who has just completed the hanging of two Mexicans, whose sin seems to be a matter of mere birth: “Hang there! vile varlets! Hang, I say, and idly dangle above the mad waters, which shall soon be contaminated with thy loathsome carcasses! Hang higher than Haman, thou base, degraded sons of a semi-monthly, revolutionized, conglomerated, amalgamated, bastard republic! Hang!”
(“Yer sling the dang’est, biggest words I ever knowed any one else tew let loose,” remarks an admiring friend.)