There were “westerns” before John Wayne put his mark on them.
The men in blue and gray in the Civil War—the ones who could read, and the ones who had buddies who could read—were avid fans of the dime novel.
New printing technologies in 1860 made it possible to churn out an endless succession of cheap (10 cents, hence “dime novel”) so-called “blood-and-thunder” stories, often about heroes of the American West like Kit Carson.
These dime novels in the mid-19th century were the ‘westerns” before Hollywood invented the movie genre of the same name in the early 20th century.
The flood of cheap books was unleashed by improvements in the steam printing press and stereotype plates, the cast metal plates that used a reversed image of a full page on the press. The resulting increase in productivity and cost reduction permitted publishers to do huge press runs of the formula “western” novels that were written by assembly lines of writers. Some of the more respectable authors cranked out a new book every three months. Some of the hacks claimed to be able to produce a brand new novel in 24 hours. As you might guess, originality and quality weren’t the principal standards of excellence.
Jill Lepore, in The Story of America: Essays on Origins, notes: “Blood-and-thunders were ‘sent to the army in the field by cords, like unsawed firewood,’ one contemporary reported. After the war, dime novel westerns cultivated a vast, largely eastern, and altogether male audience: they were the first mass market fiction sold to men and boys.” (1)
Dime novel readers who weren’t Kit Carson (1809-1868) fans must have been a rare breed. Between 1860 and 1900, the American frontiersman was the hero of more than seventy of the popular books.
(1) Jill Lepore, The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 212, 217.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.