Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Cents and Sensibilities

Lovers of mass-market literature, take note: Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first “dime novel”: Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens. As The Writer’s Almanac observes:
Most dime novels were filled with crime, violence, and romance. They were mostly set in America during romanticized periods in the nation’s short history -- the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or on the frontier. There were mistaken identities, villains, love stories, daring escapes, and sudden wealth. Outlaws like Jesse James and Buffalo Bill were heroes, women were swept off their feet by ne’er-do-wells, the life of frontier settlers seemed much more exciting than that of regular people stuck in nice towns, and violence was glorified. Dime novels were perceived as dangerous, especially for young people, on whom they might have a bad influence.

The content of Malaeska was no exception. Malaeska is a Native American, and her husband is white. And although he adores her, he makes no attempt to introduce her to any of his friends or relations, and has dramatic internal struggles over his son’s biracial identity. Then the settlers and the tribe become hostile, and Malaeska’s husband and her father end up killing each other. As her husband is dying, he orders his wife to take their son and have him raised a Christian by his white grandparents. They take in the boy, but force Malaeska to become a servant, and the boy grows up believing he is white, and gets engaged. But just before he is married, Malaeska reveals that she is his mother, and her son is so upset at the idea that he almost disgraced a “pure” white woman by marrying her, that he kills himself, and Malaeska dies of grief.
The Library of Congress offers its dime novel collection here.


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