During the “age of the dime novel,” generally considered to run from 1860 to 1915, popular entertainment options were quite limited compared to today. There was no film, television, radio or Internet, and theatre was a rare luxury for most. Instead, when someone wanted a quick dose of escapist adventure or romance, chances were good they would turn to a dime novel.
The first dime novels were small pamphlets of about a hundred pages, each containing a complete story. As the years went on, publisher competition led to the format’s evolution, adding more illustrations and more color, and experimenting with different price points. While the “dime” name has stuck as a term for the format, many of the most popular titles were actually “nickel weeklies” – booklets closely resembling today’s comic books, but containing prose in place of comic panels.
One of the most influential dime novel series was actually a nickel weekly called Tip Top Weekly, published by Street & Smith and containing the ongoing adventures of ideal American boy Frank Merriwell (and later, his brother and son). The Merriwell saga was filled with sports victories, action sequences, and a bit of romance – as readers spent a good part of the series speculating on which female character Frank would ultimately marry. Quite a few Merriwell adventures can be found on Project Gutenberg, but the scope of the series – a novel a week for decades – makes this one of the longest works of serial fiction ever written.
Another title, heavily influenced by Tip Top Weekly but of a more manageable size, has recently been added to the Project Gutenberg collection in its entirety, making it the first complete dime novel series to be found there. This series is Motor Stories, containing the adventures of “Motor Matt” King, a young man with a prodigious talent for working with gas-powered motors. Over the course of the series, he travels the country (and beyond), making friends and acquiring new vehicles to experiment with. The stories were clearly written with an eye on the news, as some of the technology described here – particularly heavier-than-air flight – was quite cutting-edge at the time of publication. There are 34 Motor Matt stories in all – 32 published as the Motor Stories nickel weekly, and two more published as part of Brave & Bold (a more general-purpose series) after Motor Stories was discontinued. While they hardly qualify as great literature, all of them remain surprisingly entertaining today.
The positive features of the series can all be attributed to its author, William Wallace Cook (writing as Stanley R. Matthews), an incredibly prolific writer who was one of the few to successfully bridge the gap from the dime novel era into the succeeding pulp era. Cook was fearless about approaching a wide variety of styles and genres, and he wrote very quickly. He also had a knack for plots, meaning that even though his stories were written speedily, they don’t feel hastily-constructed, and they usually contain at least one or two interesting twists. Cook is still remembered today for his creation of Plotto, a book containing a complex mechanism for generating plots and characters – it is still in print today. To learn more about Cook and his process, you can also take a look at his autobiographical work, The Fiction Factory, written under the name John Milton Edwards, which is available in the Project Gutenberg collection.
One of the ways in which Motor Stories is fascinating, but sometimes potentially offensive to modern readers, is in the way it portrays many of its characters. The series has a surprisingly diverse cast of characters, with many of its heroes and villains representing different parts of the world. It perhaps goes without saying that the prejudices of 1909, when the series was written, were a bit different than those of today, and much of this comes through in the text, which contains broad dialect, racial slurs and grossly stereotypical portrayals of certain ethnic groups.
In some ways, however, the books manage to contain surprisingly positive messages for the time. Matt himself, who is clearly designed as a model of ideal behavior for readers to emulate, treats everyone fairly and equally regardless of their race or nationality, even though his friends often do not. This is a dramatic change from earlier dime novel “heroes,” who in some cases were known to kill people on the basis of race without even asking questions (see Frank Reade and His Steam Horse in the Project Gutenberg collection for one example of this sort of behavior, though this is certainly not the only book to embrace the repellent philosophy that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”). The author is also uniformly kind to characters of mixed race, apparently demonstrating a broad belief in the potential of the American “melting pot.” In a few cases, particularly when Chinese characters join the narrative late in the series, he also attempts to show cultural differences without dehumanizing the underlying characters – a feat that he only partially succeeds at, but that he tried puts him in a class above many of his contemporaries. Finally, while the series was clearly marketed toward boys, and most adventures go by with scarcely the appearance of a female face, on those occasions where a woman figures in the narrative, she is usually more than just a token for the “Motor Boys” to rescue (and on at least one occasion, she does the rescuing).
Apart from matters of representation, the biggest complaint most readers will have about the series is the fact that it ends where it does, with certain mysteries and plot threads entirely unresolved. Clearly Cook had set himself up to write many more of these if reader demand had been greater. As it is, the stories ended up having quite a long life. Not only were several of the early Motor Stories reprinted in Brave & Bold, but many of the stories were later edited together into longer novels to be sold in both paper-covered and cloth-bound formats. This makes the saga not only one of the last original dime novel epics but also a fairly early example of the juvenile series book later epitomized by Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. For some reason, some of the names were changed during these edits, so it is possible that more readers over the years have known Motor Matt as “Bob Steele.” However, the original versions, with their colorful covers and bite-sized delivery, may well be the most fun. It is wonderful to have them so conveniently available to the world, after more than a century in obscurity.
This post was contributed by Demian Katz, a DP volunteer.