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Founding Fictions: Dime Novels of the American Revolution

by Michael Taylor on 2017-07-06T13:37:00-06:00 in Archives, CSWR, Library, American Studies, History

"The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other," John Adams wrote in 1790. "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war."

Adams could almost have been predicting the appearance of a long-running series of melodramatic adventure stories called The Liberty Boys of '76. Published between 1901 and 1925, the 612 stories are set during the American Revolution and chronicle the exploits of a band of freedom-fighting colonists and their leader, Dick Slater, who vowed to avenge the death of his father at the hands of British Loyalists two days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Many of the issues in this series are available in the Seder Dime Novel Collection in UNM’s Center for Southwest Research & Special Collections. In celebration of the Fourth of July, we have chosen The Liberty Boys of ’76 as the subject of our latest "Rare Book of the Month" column.

Though they actually sold for five to eight cents per issue, the Liberty Boys stories belonged to a form of popular fiction known as the dime novel. The first dime novels were published in 1860 by the New York firm of Beadle and Company. Other publishers quickly followed. The stories were issued with cheap but attractively illustrated paper covers, which were the main selling point. In fact, as J. Randolph Cox writes in The Dime Novel Companion, by the 1890s, the covers of dime novels "might be drawn first and the writer asked to provide a story to fit." It was not uncommon for the same story to be reissued several times with a new cover. 

Dime novels were originally intended for adults, but their readership quickly shifted to juveniles, particularly boys. Very few publications in this genre were marketed to girls. Though educators and social leaders frowned on dime novels because they glorified violence and were often not well written, that didn't reduce their popularity. The most successful series, on the contrary, were translated into nearly every European language, undoubtedly shaping America’s international image in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, just like popular TV shows and movies do today. 

From a scholarly perspective, dime novels such as The Liberty Boys of '76 are a useful (and fun) resource for studying a wide range of topics. Many scholars have used them to examine historical attitudes towards race, gender, and class (the Liberty Boys stories, for example, feature Native American and African American characters). Dime novels can also be used to trace popular themes in fiction, from crime, war, patriotism, and immigration, to modern technology and the American West. In addition, the stories reflect changes in nineteenth-century society, especially the rise in leisure time for young adults and the public debate over how that time should be properly spent. 

Other questions that dime novels provide material for studying include how America chose to view its past at a time when its place in the world was rapidly changing, the Western frontier was disappearing, and the forces of industrialization and immigration were transforming the nation into something very different from what the Founding Fathers had known. The Liberty Boys also shed light on how Americans saw themselves in relation to the British Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite calls for isolationism and anti-imperialism, the United States was then on the verge of surpassing Great Britain as a world power, but would soon form an alliance with its "cousins across the pond" that endures to this day.

Can you think of other ways that dime novels like The Liberty Boys could be used? Please leave a comment below! We'd love to hear your ideas.

To learn more about the 2,000+ items in the Seder Dime Novel Collection, click here to view the collection guide. 


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