Thanks to movie director Quentin Tarantino, most folks are familiar with the term “pulp fiction,” but the more common “dime novel” was used to describe everything from the pulp magazines starting around 1860 to the “penny dreadfuls” popular in the United Kingdom, featuring such characters as Sweeney Todd and Varney the Vampire. In the United States, fictional characters like Nick Carter were popular, but the stories about real-life American Wild West heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody really drove the genre.
Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa Territory, fought in the Civil War for the Union, was a U.S. Army scout during the Indian Wars, received the Congressional Medal of Honor and later became an entertainer, featured in his own Buffalo Bill Wild West show that toured the U.S. and Europe, giving command performances for Queen Victoria and the Pope. Even today, as a lasting tribute to his legacy, there’s an American football team named after him.
Mark Twain wrote a novel, A Horse’s Tale, about Buffalo Bill’s horse Soldier Boy, and E.E. Cummings penned a poem called “Buffalo Bill ‘s” (yes, there’s a space before the ‘s), but it was the countless dime novels written about Buffalo Bill that made a lasting impression, especially those by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, almost as colorful a character as Buffalo Bill himself. Published in the early 20th Century by Street and Smith, renowned for their strategic re-use of material, the Buffalo Bill Border Stories have been making their appearance on Project Gutenberg thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders. (See the list below for links to the e-books.)
Each novel features an adventure, or a series of related adventures, where our intrepid hero Bill manages to outwit the bad guys and save the helpless. In the books, Bill lives by a strict code, a set of rules of what is good and what is bad, of what must be done and what must never be done. As was common in those times, certain groups of people are portrayed as stereotypes, especially people of color and Native Americans, as well as people from other countries. For us today, such stereotypes are offensive, but they do serve to show how far we have come in terms of accepting the rich diversity of America.
In the novels, Bill is the ultimate hero, and he is usually accompanied by one of more “pards,” or sidekicks, who help him on his adventures. There is the Baron, a Prussian whose speech is difficult to decipher because it tries to mimic an exaggerated German accent. There’s also Nomad, an older Scout who nevertheless defers to the younger Bill for direction. And there’s Little Cayuse, the Paiute youngster who has yet to learn proper English. Bill, as the hero of course, always speaks in perfect English, never in any vernacular. Whether some, all or none of Bill’s adventures really happened will only be known to the Colonel, but the stories are “durned” fine to read.
In addition to the Buffalo Bill series, Project Manager David Edwards (De2164), also has other dime novel series and pulp magazines on their way to Project Gutenberg, including the many Nick Carter adventures as well as Frank Merriwell, the Frank Reade Library and the American Indian Weekly magazine. David has been sharing his own collection in order to preserve them before time takes its toll. Each project has to be scanned by hand and run through OCR software before it even makes it to Distributed Proofreaders, and recently David acquired thirty more titles that we can look forward to.
As the post-processor – a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who stitches a final e-book together after other volunteers have proofread and formatted it – I love working on these projects. I did my first Buffalo Bill last year while still an apprentice post-processor, and to date, I’ve sent ten so far to Project Gutenberg. Each project presents its own challenges, especially when there are advertising pages, which the publishers made frequent use of, since their business depended on quantity rather than quality. I hope that, along with David and the countless unsung heroes who are our volunteers at DP, including the wonderful Smooth Readers who faithfully read each project to catch stray errors, we will continue to provide the dime novels, a unique slice of literature, for many years to come.
This post was contributed by Susan L. Carr (Skeeter451), a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.
Buffalo Bill Border Stories
Buffalo Bill, the Border King (No. 1)
Buffalo Bill’s Spy Trailer (No. 41)
Buffalo Bill’s Still Hunt (No. 44)
Buffalo Bill’s Weird Warning (No. 66)
Buffalo Bill’s Girl Pard (No. 77)
Buffalo Bill’s Ruse (No. 82)
Buffalo Bill’s Pursuit (No. 83)
Buffalo Bill’s Bold Play (No. 101)
Buffalo Bill, Peacemaker (No. 102)
Buffalo Bill’s Big Surprise (No. 103)
Buffalo Bill’s Boy Bugler (No. 128)
Buffalo Bill Entrapped (No. 137)
Buffalo Bill’s Best Bet (No. 171)
Buffalo Bill among the Sioux (No. 176)
I smooth-read a bunch of these books for Susan. What fun they were to read! I was not offended by the descriptions of various peoples, because at the time the books were written, those descriptions were acceptable. We cannot judge old books by our time. We should judge them based on the historical time frame in which they were written. I have a degree in history, so perhaps I understand that more than most people seem able to do. At any rate, these books are entertaining reading, though somewhat improbable. I told Susan that my grandmother remembered seeing the Buffalo Bill Wild West show when she was a small girl in Germany. One of the Indians in the show was fascinated by my grandmother’s braids, patting her on the head and saying “pretty hair.” I’m very happy to have had a minor hand in getting the books ready for PG.
Great blog, Susan. Thank you for the loving care you give the books, and many thanks to DAvid for supplying them
Thanks to all who have worked on these wonderful treasures of Americana.