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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
A competing publisher produced a pale and prosaic imitation of Frank Merriwell who called himself Fred Fearnot. He was run through 1,382 issues, over 28 years. Fred was a headline hunter, pure and simple. At one time he was “Battling for the Boers”; at another, hobnobbing with the Sultan on the Island of Sulu. A little later he was, like Teddy Roosevelt, giving advice to the Kaiser in his Royal Palace. Among his more humdrum activities were playing a part in the circus he owned, running a ranch, and assisting temperance crusades. Every now and then he was forced to return to New York for a few days to look after his highly speculative stocks.
Frank Reade, Jr., a scientific type, invented his own novel means of travel in the shape of a submarine sea serpent, an amphibious device known as the Electric Boomerang—especially equipped for crossing the heart of Africa in the face of savage tribes—an electric tricycle, a steam man and a steam team, an electric snow-cutter and numerous flying machines. So equipped he could rescue one fair female from the clutches of a polar bear one day, and her twin sister from the savages of Darkest Africa the next day. Rescuing, rather than pure science, was Frank’s primary business in life. He was always glad enough when his machine was accidentally wrecked at the end of the story, with’ all hands saved. In this way he could turn his mind to a new and better machine.
A dime novel hero might somehow, in the midst of his rough surroundings, have about him a mysterious air of gentlemanliness. In this case the eternally surprised reader would find his hero ultimately restored to the fame and fortune which he had lost through the machinations of the villain. On the other hand, he might frankly work—or fight—his way upward from rags to riches. Even in the Nineteenth Century this Horatio Alger theme had provoked a scolding from the moralists because of its lack of realism in dealing with the problems facing youth in modern industrial society. In the latter days of the dime novel, around 1900, this particular moral defect was remedied by means of an opportunism which must have caused the Alger hero to turn over in his fictional grave. An orphan discovered by the wealthy Fred Fearnot was taught a trick he could do with a chicken. With very little urging the orphan picked up a chicken, made a tour of the local taverns, bet repeatedly on his ability to hoodoo the chicken, and cleared five hundred dollars. When a lady protested that he had been gambling, the orphan solemnly explained: “No, ma’am, I never touched a card. It was not a game of chance at all. It was betting on a fact.” Thus early was it established that Our Hero was a Financier, not a Gambler.
Getting a start in the world of dime novel finance required, almost inevitably, a rescue. The messenger boys of Wall Street, 488 of them in as many issues of Fame and Fortune Weekly , seemed always to be passing when a young heiress was facing death on her runaway horse, a child needed snatching from in front of a speeding horsecar or a millionaire was going down for the third time. It was almost a matter of routine, suggesting that the rescue was only a symbol for the ability to be in the right place at the right time, an essential virtue which any businessman will recognize. As the “Young Wonder of Wall Street” himself remarked: “I’m $4,000 to the good, and it’s all due to the fact that Master Jack Meredith happened to lean too far out of his papa’s window and took a tumble in consequence, just as I was coming along in time to catch him. It’s better to be born lucky than rich.”
The Young Wonder’s method of improving upon his opportunities was to eavesdrop. Whenever, in a ferry, or in a crowded train, or at the baseball stadium, he overheard two brokers discussing a tip, or two directors explaining how they were going to boom their company’s stock, then unload and buy back at a low figure, the Wonder was all ears. Until such propitious moments, he cautiously kept his funds in a safe-deposit vault. But when he did invest he staked his all—he never stultified his heroic leanings with a diversified portfolio. As his profits mounted quickly to $80,000 he continued to report regularly for his messenger boy duties. Only when he reached a quartermillion did he resign and go into business for himself.
The dime novel worshipped success, as it exalted danger and adventure; it instilled many of our subconscious habits of thought. It was a common thing, cheap to buy, and like most common things, rarely preserved. But those few yellowed thrillers that survive have more than a mere nostalgic interest, for they teach us a great deal about our nationalistic ways and our creed of self-reliance. To this day they reflect, however crudely, the American spirit of an earlier and perhaps more innocent age.