Chapter 9


The Western Hero In The Dime Novel

I. From Seth Jones to Deadwood Dick

The first of mass-audience publisher Erastus Beadle's "dime novels" appeared in June, 1860. These novels were patterned after the Ballou-Gleason periodical stories and usually dealt with Western adventure. Over the next five years, Beadle's sales reached five millions, a figure which marked a revolution in nineteenth-century publishing in America. He was the Carnegie of the mass-audience press.

Orville J. Victor, Beadle's editor, had an uncanny knack for keeping up with changes in public taste and kept his writers composing at great speed. Many of them could write one thousand words an hour for hours on end. The fiction produced under such conditions is unapologetically formulaic and subliterary, though the Beadle novels' incredible appeal implies it must have remained constant to the dream life of the reading public. Victor claimed that the idea for the Beadle Westerns sprang from Cooper's tales, an ancestry that is evident in the large numbers of characters who assume the Leatherstocking persona--the aged and eccentric hunter--only to reveal their actual youth and gentle breeding by novel's conclusion. For example, Edward S. Ellis's Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier, which Victor called the "perfect Dime Novel," combines the Leatherstocking persona with the dialect humor of the comic stage Yankee. Despite alterations, the aging hunter character is fairly stable in the novels, maintaining his innate virtue and choosing the long rifle over the more modern repeaters. However, the development of the Western hero did not proceed in a straight line. Leatherstocking's younger double, the "Kit Carson" character, proved less predictable.

Leatherstocking's doubles are young, handsome, and at least potentially genteel. Many of them are able to speak in correct English--especially when in love with a heroine--and are allowed to marry above their social station. Lewis Dernor in Ellis's The Riflemen of the Miami, for example, is given the right to mate with upper-class Edith Sudbury after he experiences pangs of sensibility while clasping her hand. The broad trend in the Beadle novels is toward a hero who is a younger, more genteel version of Leatherstocking. The promotion of the Western hero to a part in the love story is the key stage in his development. Edward L. Wheeler's character of Deadwood Dick is a self-made man, the beau ideal of the hunter and scout, and yet is a romantic lover of unquestioned status. Dick exhibits conflicting social impulses: he was once a bandit but he also leads a miners' union and raises their wages. Wheeler's eclectic portrayal of Deadwood Dick reflects the increasing sensationalism of the 1870s.

II. Buffalo Bill and Buck Taylor

The literary character of Buffalo Bill, unlike that of Deadwood Dick, is based on a actual man. William F. Cody, former member of the Nebraska Legislature, stepped more flamboyantly into the public eye as the star of his own Wild West show. Along with his predecessors Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the life of William Cody was completely transformed in the stories written about him. Yet the fictional version of Buffalo Bill was so accurate an expression of the reading public's demands that it shaped an actual man in its image.

Writer Edward Z. C. Judson, alias Ned Buntline, went to Fort McPherson, Nebraska to meet Cody, who had been enlisted in the Union Army to fight the Sioux. Buntline then wrote "Buffalo Bill, The King of the Border Men" for the New York Weekly and the character--a younger version of Leatherstocking, skilled in stealthy scouting but without a dialect--was soon to become a far-reaching fad. Cody was invited to New York by Buntline to view a play based on Buntline's serial. The manager of the Bowery Theater offered Cody five hundred dollars a week to play himself in the production, but Cody refused. On a second visit to New York, however, Buntline did get Cody involved in theatrical production, and after three years of association the men hired John Burke as business manager. Burke set about to canonize Buffalo Bill in the ranks of American Western heroes, among figures like Daniel Boone and Kit Carson. Prentiss Ingraham, Cody's staff writer, turned out hundreds of stories about Buffalo Bill which featured Bill's flashy and theatrical attire: velvet vests, scarlet sashes, broad sombreros, etc. Cody himself was credited with authorship of numerous Western stories about other characters and eventually starred in his own Wild West Show. The literary and theatrical creation became almost indistinguishable from the actual man.

The "cowboy," the Wild Western hero so familiar today, came into being only in the wake of Buffalo Bill's popularity. The term initially referred to a rather crude class of common laborers who posed a threat to law and order: in 1881, President Chester Arthur called for Army help in cracking down on a group of "armed desperadoes known as 'cowboys'" terrorizing the Territory of Arizona and northern Mexico. But it was Henry King's description in Scribner's of a picturesque and honor-bound figure which resonated widely in Western attitudes toward the cowboy. At the "Old Glory Blowout" Fourth of July celebration in North Platte, Nebraska, Cody was appointed Grand Marshal and Buck Taylor starred as the prominent roping and riding cowboy. The Wild West show was born. As press agent, Ingraham went on to apologize for the cowboy class in numerous novels which featured heroes reminiscent of Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill--fair but fearless men who fought Indians, Mexicans and outlaws and fell in love with tough women.

Chapter 10