5

IMAGINING ALTERNATIVE SOCIAL NORMS

"Grim and uncommunicative, there roams through the country of gold a youth in black, at the head of a bold lawless gang of road-riders ..."
- From Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road

<em>Deadwood Dick's Big Deal; or, The Gold Brick of Oregon</em> (Beadle's Frontier Series no. 30)

Deadwood Dick and Old Broadbrim respond to societal problems and flawed institutions by resisting social norms and creating alternative mechanisms for achieving justice. For Deadwood Dick, masculinity is central to his radicalism. As Daniel Worden writes, “Deadwood Dick represents the fluid justice called for in a time of political and economic upheaval; the bandit hero has a sense of right and wrong that is not hampered by rules of law or class bias.”1 Robbed of his place among the Eastern elite, Deadwood Dick forges a new identity out West with his band of outlaws. One symbol of his defiance of social norms is the extent to which he can avoid domestication. Dime novels are typically known for their stable marriage plot endings, wherein all major female characters settle down with the hero or his friends. Deadwood Dick does marry and separate from his wives several times throughout the series, but he always ends up free for further adventures.

<em>Old Broadbrim Playing A Desperate Game; or, The Mystery of the Red Dragon</em> (Old Broadbrim Weekly no. 27)




The detective and criminals in Old Broadbrim stories, too, offer many examples of resistance to social norms. Once discovered, criminals still have options to evade domestication by the state; they might flee the country and meet some accidental death there in an instance of poetic justice, or they might choose suicide rather than jail. This provides closure for the reader but not in a institutionally-sanctioned way; as Pamela Bedore argues, “suicide in dime novels functions as a means of empowerment for criminals that subtly critiques the prison system.”2 Old Broadbrim, for his part, seems more interested in uncovering truth than defending the state or the status quo. When he does take an interest in a criminal’s punishment, it’s so he and his network of private detectives can replace or overrule the decisions of the municipal justice system.

It’s clear that Deadwood Dick and Old Broadbrim were able to mount significant cultural critiques and subvert societal structures. The next sections will examine how this radical legacy developed with the rise of the boy hero and the boy demographic of dime novel readers.

1. Worden, Daniel. “Masculinity for the Million: Gender in Dime Novel Westerns.” Arizona Quarterly 63.3 (2007): 35-60. Print. 46.
2. Bedore, Pamela. Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print. 50.