BOOKS FOR BOYS AND EARLY CRITICISM OF THE DIME NOVEL INDUSTRY
“The literary material is either intensely stupid, or spiced to the highest degree with sensation ..."
- From "What Our Boys Are Reading"1
As early as the 1860s, dime novel publishers sought to capitalize on the growing young readership with novels and periodicals aimed at adolescent boys. By the 1890s, nearly all “libraries” released by Beadle were for this demographic.2 Publishers promised boy readers heroes they could directly identify with and material tailored to their interests. This advertisement in Young Broadbrim Weekly no. 60 calls its stories “the ideal publication for the American youth” and promises “they are full of lively adventure, and just the kind that thrills the heart of every true boy.”
Dime novel’s cheapness meant that publishers could address their audience directly while bypassing their parents, but it wasn’t long before prominent educators and social critics took notice. Around the turn of the century "adolescence" was still a relatively new cultural concept, but American youth and especially the so-called “armies of idle and vicious [street] children” in major cities were increasingly under scrutiny.3 Middle-class social critics were convinced that “boys’ natural depravity draws them to depraved reading material.”4
William Graham Sumner typifies the middle-class response to boy's dime fiction in his 1878 essay, “What Our Boys Are Reading” (Full text available here). His two major concerns were moral contamination and nervous excitement. Believing that boy readers would emulate boy protagonists, Sumner condemned the dime novel boy hero’s dishonorable conduct, use of exaggerated ethnic slang, rebellion against home life, and lack of respect for patriarchal authority. Sumner further warned of “the great harm which is done to boys of that age ... by the nervous excitement of reading harrowing and sensational stories.” His critique reflected the typical medical thinking about adolescence at that time - that too much “nervous energy” in youth could lead to every kind of dysfuction.5 But beneath the rhetoric of medicine and morality, Sumner was reacting to the threat of an alternative working-class ethos in popular culture. He put forward a vision of boyhood - and manhood - based on self-discipline and adherence to societal structures.
1. Sumner, William Graham. “What Our Boys Are Reading” . Earth-hunger and Other Essays. Ed. Albert Galloway Keller. New Haven: Yale University, 1913. 367-377. Print.
2. Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of A Vanished Literature. Vol. 1. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1950. Print. 70.
3. Lang, Amy Schrager. The Syntax of Class: Writing Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University, 2003. Print. 14.
4. Parille, Ken. Boys At Home: Discipline, Masculinity, and “The Boy-Problem” in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2009. Print. 94.
5. Kett, Joseph F. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to Present. New York: Basic Books, 1977. Print. 135.