The Dime Novel Heroine
The unyielding gentility of Cooper's heroines was dramatically challenged in the Beadle Wild Western dime novels of the late 1870s. Charles Webber and Frederick Whittaker, among others, used the age-old device of a woman disguised as a man in an attempt to evolve the sentimental heroine. The first woman to commit an act of violence is a half-breed Indian named Dove-Eye, who rescues Colonel Wilder from Indians through the use of her battle axe in Edward Willett's Silver-spur; or, The Mountain Heroine. A Tale of the Arapaho County. Other Amazonian heroines make aggressive sexual overtures to male characters and shoot others with pistols, testimony to the increasing sensationalism of the Beadle novels. Philip S. Warne's A Hard Crowd; or, Gentleman Sam's Sister, features two women in men's clothing, expert shooters who are completely at home in the violent surroundings of Omaha. One of them, Pepita, has been wronged by a man and desires vengeance: this increasingly common rationale for violence supplanted the socially standard Indian-hating with elements of narrow melodrama.
Edward L. Wheeler's women characters, notably Wild Edna and Calamity Jane, combine an exterior of manly passion, skill and toughness with a wistful, ingenuous interior. Calamity Jane is a "softhearted Amazon" of alabaster countenance who wears dainty slippers and can speak correct English. Deserted by her lover, Jane's behavior becomes reckless--she neglects proprieties and subsequently diminishes her prospects for marriage. Calamity Jane is the feminine counterpart of Deadwood Dick, but she is unable to shed her persona with the ease of the male characters. In terms of action, however, heroines such as Jane are distinguishable from their male counterparts only by the physical fact of their sex.
Leatherstocking's intuitive sense of right and wrong and his intimate identification with nature inform the original prototype of the Wild Western hero. But by 1877, when Wheeler began the Deadwood Dick stories, this hero had been cut loose from nature and Cooper-esque gentility and transformed into a self-reliant bandit who behaved pretty much as he pleased. The heroine came to be basically indistinguishable from the hero. When the frontiersman replaced the heroine as the center of the narrative, the Western story lost its social significance. The Leatherstocking- type character, after all, only wanted to escape society; his ideas about primitive nature were largely ignored by a society increasingly committed to the industrial revolution and widespread development.