"Impossible Trash": Dime Novels

The popular literature of the 19th century includes a distinctive American strain, the dime novel, which can be studied in depth in the Rare Book Division's collection of dime novels published by Erastus Beadle and his successors, such as the Diamond Dick Weekly and the Wild West Weekly, later series inspired by the Beadle dime novels. Beadle, the progenitor of this immensely popular type of publication, began issuing titles in 1850, some of which achieved sales of 300,000 copies a year. They came in various formats, some items priced at less than a dime, some at more, and they were sold in the many millions and gained worldwide popularity in translation. All in all, they made a substantial contribution of a special sort to American letters. Preachers and censorious parents denounced these cheap paperbacks as "impossible trash," but children continued to read them. During the Civil War, soldiers devoured them. Abraham Lincoln read them. The stories may have been elementary and often wildly sensational, but dime novels were also full of patriotic fervor, pioneering adventures, and other wholesome themes.

A selection of dime novels published by Erastus Beadle and his successors, 1862-1923.
The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division.

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