The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.
XI. The Later Novel: Howells
§ 1. The Dime Novel
THE ROMANCE of the school of Cooper was not only falling into disuse among most writers of capacity at the time of his death but was rapidly descending into the hands of fertile hacks who for fifty years were to hold an immense audience without more than barely deserving a history. It was in that very year (1851) that Robert Bonner bought the New York Ledger and began to make it the congenial home of a sensationalism which, hitherto most nearly anticipated by such a romancer as Joseph Holt Ingraham, reached unsurpassable dimensions with the prolific Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. From the Ledger no step in advance had to be taken by the inventors of the “dime nove,” which was started upon its long career by the publishing firm of Beadle and Adams of New York in 1860. Edward S. Ellis’s Seth Jones or The Captive of the Frontier (1860), one of the earliest of the sort, its hero formerly a scout under Ethan Allen but now adventuring in Western New York, sold over 600,000 copies in half a dozen languages. Though no other single dime novel was perhaps ever so popular, the type prospered, depending almost exclusively upon native authors and native material: first the old frontier of Cooper and then the trans-Mississippi region, with its Indians, its Mexicans, its bandits, its troopers, and above all, its cowboys, among whom “Buffalo Bill” (Col. William F. Cody) achieved a primacy much like that of Daniel Boone among the older order of scouts. Cheap, conventional, hasty,—Albert W. Aiken long averaged one such novel a week, and Col. Ingram Prentiss produced in all over six hundred,—they were exciting, innocent enough, and scrupulously devoted to the doctrines of poetic justice, but they lacked all distinction, and Frank Norris could justly grieve that the epic days of Western settlement found only such tawdry Homers. In the fourth quarter of the century the detective story rivalled the frontier tale; after 1900, both, though reduced to the price of five cents apiece, gave way before the still more exciting and easily comprehended moving picture.