The First Dime Novel – A Woman’s Work
To look at contemporary Horror, one must look at genres. And when the history of how genres became established comes to light, one of the first places to look is at the early pulps. This time period – the Industrial Revolution – led to such rapid advances in publishing opportunities that there was plenty of room for experimentation. Newspapers began carrying serialized fiction, and that spawned magazine interest in fiction. Not only did “trade” and specialized health and women’s magazines start carrying fiction pieces – typically included to enhance nonfiction articles and advertisements – but magazines devoted entirely to fiction evolved from the rising interests of the public. The content for such magazines frequently included subjects of contemporary national interest – such as issues surrounding slavery and eventually the Civil War, the “settling” of the Western Frontier and its “assimilation” of native peoples, travel and the encountered exotic peoples and places, mystery and social subterfuge, science and imagined advances along with their consequences, women’s rights, children’s issues, and the haunting of the past as it foreshadowed the future in mass social anxiety.
These fiction-dedicated magazines which we call “pulp” magazines consisted of what was labeled Sensation fiction. This was fiction considered to be melodramatic, trite fare commonly consumed by women. It was meant to titillate and entertain, but many writers used it as a kind of forum to also “educate” their readers about social issues. While women started as the target audience, once children and whole families began following these story types, the fan base became more diverse – especially among the lower and middle classes who because of the technological advances were able to afford such entertainments.
The first of these “pulp” magazines were called “Dime Novels.” Packed with Sensational stories and accompanied by magnificent artwork, these 10-cent magazines helped to create what we know as the modern genres of popular fiction. And the first one was written by a woman: writer Ann Sophia Stephens (1813-1886)…
Ann Sophia Stephens, 1810-1886, writer (Malaeska)
A writer of historic melodrama, a publisher and poet, Stephens wrote the first Dime Novel titled “Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” published June 9, 1860 by Beadle’s Dime Novels No. 1. (University 1). The story holds up well today as long as one considers that it is serving as a mirror of the time in which it was both written and published. With characters that are over-romanticized and stereotypical, it is easy today to find offense; but in Stephens’ day, the work was meant to alter attitudes and engender an understanding and admiration for Native people. When viewed through an historical lens, much more is revealed about how our national ideology was taking shape. For example, Malaeska was first serialized in The Ladies’ Companion in 1839, then later reprinted in 1860 as a Dime Novel, and the two versions reveal much about our national thinking. In the 1830’s the national interest with Native Americans came under the guise of concern for the Vanishing American; by the 1860’s savage and bloody encounters with Indians on the forefront of Manifest Destiny had changed sentiments and were reflected in dime novels. Covers changed from poetic and romantic views to warfare and horrific scenes (Cho 2).
Not Horror, you say. But I suppose that depends on whether you were a woman or a Native American living in that day… But in the end the arrival of the Dime Novel laid the groundwork for Horror pulps and the rise of both the comic book (first established in 1842 – The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Rudolphe Topffer) and graphic novels, sometimes called picture novels (the first estimated be issued in 1790-93 – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake).
As the demand for Sensation fiction rose, women writers responded – and for much the same reasons many of us write today: admittedly there are projects we nurture with hopes of higher criticism, and there are those stories we write just to tell the tale. But at the heart of the matter is livelihood. We all need a paycheck. And that is what makes what these women did all the more fantastic: they risked it all to tell stories that shone a light on the unpopular and less perfect side of human society… sometimes to the tune of very public criticism and censure.
Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Ramona all drag into the light issues of the day that no proper lady was expected to think about, consider, or comment upon. Yet they did… unleashing some of the first written treatises on American feminism. These were tough issues to breach in casual conversation: human rights, women’s rights, patient’s rights, mental illness… Yet tucked away in the much-belittled category of Sensation fiction, cultural awareness bloomed. And it did so in the hands of surprisingly well-received authors…
Seeley Register, 1831-1885, writer (pseud. of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor): Attributed with writing the first American detective novel by a woman – The Dead Letter, as a Dime Novel
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935, writer, lecturer and social reformer (The Yellow Wallpaper, also authored Women and Economics; The Home: It’s Work and Influence; Does a Man Support His Wife)
These writers also revealed a wicked story-telling talent which included what some could consider to be early Horror. For example, The Yellow Wallpaper is often regarded as Horror piece, as are many early ghost stories and tales with supernatural elements which often appear in Sensation fiction. Then there are the surprises of the Sensation genre.Take Louisa May Alcott – a totally unsuspected player in this game. Known for her young adult book, Little Women, it was rather recently discovered that Alcott – writing as A.M. Barnard – authored a phenomenal number of Sensation tales that would now be called thrillers, romance, suspense, and even ghost stories (might I recommend “Behind a Mask” and “The Abbott’s Ghost” for the curious). These fiction works financially sustained her family and brought her much personal pleasure as recorded in her journals. She even pays tribute to the disparaged genre of Sensation fiction by personifying her own experiences in the popular character of Jo in Little Women, who succeeds in establishing a writing profession much to the consternation of everyone around her. For so many writers of Sensation fiction and Dime Novels, serious social issues lay masked beneath the thrilling tales. And so far, we have only mentioned a few American writers of Sensation…
Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888, writer (The Abbott’s Ghost)
Who could suspect that such fertile soil for social awareness was about to sprout the recognizable modern genre of American Horror?
REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY :
American Women’s Dime Novel Project, http://chnm.gmu.edu/ dimenovels/
Barnard, A.M. [Louisa May Alcott]. “The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation: a Christmas Story.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1867. Project Gutenberg EBooks. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8694/pg8694.html
Cho, Yu-Fang. “A Romance of (Miscege)Nations: Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1839, 1860). Arizona Quarterly: A journal of American Literature, Culture and Theory. 63.1 (Spring 2007): 1-25. Web. Retreived on 11/20/2012 from http://18.104.22.168/login?=0&type=summary&url=/journals/arizona_quarterly_a_jounal_of_ american_literature_culture_and_theory/v063/63.1cho.pdf
Cox, Michael and R.A. Gilbert. Introduction. Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology. Eds. Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, c1991. Print.
Day of the Woman: a Blog for the Feminine Side of Fear, http://dayofwoman.blogspot.com/2013/02/why-women-in-horror-month.html
Lundie, Catherine A. Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Print.
Pykett, Lyn. The Improper Feminine: The Woman’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. New York: Routledge, c1992. Print.
Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. New York, Picador, c2009. Print.Smith, Andrew and Diana Wallace. “The Female Gothic: Then and Now.” University of Glamorgan. 2004. PDF. Retrieved 10/25/2012 from http://ww4.ncsu.edu/--leila/documents/ThefemalGothic-ThenNow.pdf
Stephens, Ann S. Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Beadle and Adams Dime Novel Digitalization Project. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Libraries, February 4, 2000. As originally published in: Beadle's Dime Novels, no. 1 (June 9, 1860) Published: New York : Beadle & Co., June 9, 1860.University of New England. “Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens Collection, 1835-1892.” Maine Women Writers Collection. Portland, ME: University of New England. Web. Retrieved 11/20/2012 from http://www.une.edu/mwwc/research/featuredwriters/stephensa.cfm
Wharton, Edith. “Kerfol.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c 1916. Project Gutenberg EBooks.Web. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm
---. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” The Descent of Man and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1914. Project Gutenberg EBooks. Web. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4519/4519-h/4519-h.htm#bell
Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women. New York: Fordham University Press, c2008Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. New York: St. Martin’s Press LLC, c2001. Print