The Cultural Work of Pop-Fiction

The four volume Twilight Saga by Stephanie Miller

Today, young people love serial fiction about vampires and the dystopian future.  In the 19th century, young Americans consumed dime novels about the frontiers of that day: the American West; “exotic” locales (like Sumatra, Burma, the Antarctic, and Pacific atolls); the cutting edge of technology (like “motion pictures,” “airships” and submarines); and the mysterious (“unexplored” regions, detectives).

These disparate genres were united by more than cheap reproduction and mass distribution. Like all best-sellers, they played into and amplified the social concerns of the people buying and reading the books. In the 19th century, that was the burgeoning working-class: young men and women entering factory work in unprecedented numbers.

One of the most resonant social themes in that era was the work ethic: that upward social mobility was within the grasp of anyone willing to  diligently apply himself to acquiring a basic education and to performing physical labor. The best-selling heroes of the day were “pull themselves up by their own boot-straps”-type fellows (and later, gals) who managed great feats due to sheer dint of pluck and character against unforgiving odds.

Odds like those came with the unpredictability of frontiers. Consider the real-life Federal programs aimed at “civilizing” Native American people. Education and manual labor were seen as “civilizing” forces for socially degraded people of all stripes: the indigent, and the alcoholic (the “poor farm” movement); the parent-less (orphan trains which shipped them to farms and rural schools); immigrants (settlement programs); African-Americans (Freedman’s Bureau); Catholics (conversion to the Protestant work-ethic via Christianity).

“40 acres and a mule” (a reconstruction-era slogan) were viewed as good for everybody.

In this cultural milieu, the generic Indian of 19th century fiction was a handy stereotype, embodying everything anti-American. Native men were characterized as warlike (warfare was viewed as recreation, not work) and lazy, creating that second stereotype, the Native female “drudge,” doomed to carry the slacker-men’s work burden.

Is it any wonder that “Indians” were a staple protagonist in the popular fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries?

A major problem is that the “bad guys” of the frontier, Native Americans, were real people. My oldest daughter’s peers are not likely to run into a vampire –except, perhaps, tonight at a Halloween costume party.

The Hunger Games saga, by Suzanne Collins

But what if she and her friends were unexpectedly thrust  onto a post-apocalyptic world and confronted with what they interpreted as a  Hunger Games scenario? Would their first response be to reach out, shake hands and assume the best? Or would their preexisting mindset about dystopia –that frontier of modern pop fiction– make them approach every unknown person as a potential adversary?

How can we posit that it worked much differently in early America when wave after wave of eastern “civilization” washed up against the receding coastline of the western frontier? It must have taken unusually discerning readers of dime books to suspend stereotypes when they arrived on the frontier and routinely encountered the protagonists of pop-culture imagination.

One of the strangest characteristics of Indian captivity narratives –fictional and not –including those of the Dakota War, is that the captive-author usually offers her readers helpful hints for Indian Captivity: which clothing and footwear are best-suited; which frying pan, washing pan, and knife to grab when fleeing the house; the most valuable cooking ingredients to pack; how to placate one’s captors. Mary Butler Renville even recommended taking a box stove and a rocking chair!

Why? Native Americans were real people and the literature of their day warned frontier residents to be prepared for Native encounters of the most extreme kind. The Boogeyman, they said, was real. He was Native American and everyone better watch out.

If you don’t believe it, read some 19th century dime fiction.


Photo credit: “We Want Our 40 Acres and a Mule” RGB Street Scholars via Google Images; the Twilight and Hunger Games sagas, Google Images.

This entry was posted in Captivity, Dime Books, pop culture, truth-telling. Bookmark the permalink.

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