The dime novel authors were a diverse lot, and in many cases, their identities are hard to establish. Usually a single author would write under many names; Frederick van Rensselaer Day, for example, also wrote as Varick Vanardy and Marion Gilmore, among others. Other times a “house pseudonym” would be established so that many writers could work together on a popular series while giving the appearance of consistent authorship, as in the case of the “Nick Carter” detective stories, often credited to Nick or Nicholas Carter. One particularly tangled example is the case of Bertha M Clay, a name originally concocted in 1870 when Street & Smith pirated a British story signed with the initials “C.M.B.” for its New York Weekly story paper. C.M.B. was actually British author Charlotte M. Brame, but the pseudonym stuck. Over the years, Brame’s work was published under her own name (which was often misspelled Braeme) and as Bertha M. Clay. The work of other authors was also printed as Bertha M. Clay, creating a huge bibliography for the fictional writer. To demonstrate exactly how confusing this can become, there are known examples where both the Nick Carter and Bertha M. Clay pseudonyms were used by Frederick van Rensselaer Day.
The key qualification for success in the dimes was the ability to write huge amounts of text very quickly; of course, some writers just dabbled in the form, and not every dime novelist has hundreds of titles to his or her name. Making a living at writing dime novels was a risky business, prone to instability and dramatic highs and lows. Some of these extremes are discussed in The Fiction Factory, the autobiography of author William Wallace Cook (published under psedonym John Milton Edwards), which described one cheap fiction author’s twenty-year career around the turn of the century.
Regardless of output volume, the writers were a diverse lot. Many, as one might expect, were imaginative people living ordinary lives far removed from the astonishing adventures they wrote. Eugene T. Sawyer, for example, another Nick Carter writer, admitted to extrapolating the setting of his many New York-based stories from a single four-day visit in 1865. On the other end of the spectrum, some dime novelists were real-life adventurers: military men like Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, a Confederate who traveled the world as a soldier of fortune after the Civil War but settled down to a prolific literary life in 1870; celebrities like Buffalo Bill, who appears to have actually written at least 27 of the hundreds of titles attributed to him; and frontiersmen like Joseph E. Badger, who, as A. H. Post, wrote a pseudonymous autobiography called Roving Joe.
Many authors wrote exclusively for the dimes, but others had parallel careers in other fields; some, like Charles Dunning Clark, worked in newspapers; others (including Thomas Chalmers Harbaugh) eventually graduated to more prestigious hardcover publishing. Perhaps the most famous “dime novel graduate” is Louisa May Alcott, who wrote around thirty pseudonymous sensational novels for the story papers, several of which saw print as dime novels both before and after their author achieved more lasting success with Little Women. Other dime novelists still remembered today include Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, and possibly Theodore Dreiser, who edited Street & Smith's Diamond Dick, Jr. for a time.
The vast majority of dime novels have distinctive illustration on their covers, and at least some also contain pictures inside. Although the illustrations are a part of the books’ mystique, their illustrators are even less well-known than their authors. In many cases, dime novel publishers would hire a relatively small number of artists to churn out covers for a large number of books, but much of the artwork is unsigned, making it hard to match works with artists. In some cases, the illustrators took a front seat in the creative process: artwork was sometimes produced in advance of text and writers were encouraged to produce matching text.
It is difficult to make broad generalizations about the readership of dime novels. Given the huge sales figures, it was a large audience, and given the shifts in tone and content over the years, the composition of the audience almost certainly changed over time. Dime novels predate the current culture of written fan analysis, so there is not a large body of primary source material written by those who enjoyed this form of entertainment. In spite of all these difficulties, it is possible to understand a little about the consumers of dime novels.
Since dime novels were still a relative novelty during the Civil War, participants in that conflict formed a significant part of the early audience. Even Abraham Lincoln was part of the readership, since he offered praise for Maum Guinea, an early dime novel with slavery themes.
Although early dime novels had some very famous readers, over time, they came to be associated with the lower and working classes. Historian Michael Denning argues that “the bulk of the audience of dime novels were workers – craftworkers, factory operatives, domestic servants, and domestic workers.” There were exceptions, of course; dime novel author Eugene Sawyer claimed to have “seen bankers and capitalists gravely paying their nickels for the same tales as their elevator boys read.” Immigrants also made up a portion of the readership, sometimes enjoying translations of the novels in their native tongue (such as the American-published but German-language Die Deutsch Library) while others used the books as a means of gaining confidence in the English language.
Since the stereotypical dime novel is an action-packed adventure with a male hero, it is easy to assume that dime novels were aimed at a male audience. However, a large but less-studied section of the genre consisted of female-oriented romance novels. Additionally, it is not safe to assume that readers stayed within the stereotypical gender boundaries. A study of post-dime novel series fiction showed many girls enjoying “boys’ books,” and it would not be surprising if this trend could be found among earlier readers. In a memoir, Russian immigrant Abraham Bisno wrote about his appreciation for the sorts of stories found in the romance novels, showing gender drift in the other direction as well.
Just as the British penny “bloods” made way for the more juvenile dreadfuls, dime novels began targeting a younger audience over time. This trend was encouraged when one of the major publishers, Frank Tousey, made a conscious effort to market to adolescents starting in 1878. The nostalgic writings of Edmund Pearson in the early 20th century confirm that children and teens made up a significant part of the dime novel audience as the 19th century came to a close.
1. Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels; or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature (1929; repr., Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1968), 214.
2. J. Randolph Cox, The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000), 49-50.
3. Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Culture in America, (London: Verso, 1987), 23.
13. Madeleine B. Stern, "Dime Novels by 'The Children's Friend'" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 197-9.
14. Lydia Schurman, e-mail message to author, December 31, 2012.
16. Wilbur R. Miller, "From Old Cap Collier to Nick Carter; Or, Images of Crime and Criminal Justice in American Dime Novel Detective Stories, 1880-1920" in Crime and Culture: An Historical Perspective, ed. Amy Gilman Srebnick and René Lévy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 199.
22. Nancy Tillman Romalov, "Unearthing the Historical Reader, or, Reading Girls' Reading" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 91-2.