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eBook available: Malaeska

MalaeskaShortly before the Civil War broke out, the publisher Beadle and Company (later Beadle and Adams) tried a publishing experiment: sell short novels for ten cents, providing inexpensive entertainment for the masses. This experiment proved to be incredibly successful, and thus the “dime novel” was popularized.

The very first story released as a Beadle’s Dime Novel was Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter, written by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, an author who would continue to contribute to the series in years to come. This debut title is now available in electronic format through Project Gutenberg thanks to our work with the Distributed Proofreaders project.

Malaeska is definitely not what one might expect from the first dime novel — it does not set the template for what would follow. While there are some action sequences here and there, the overall tone of the book is nostalgic and mournful, filled with long descriptions of natural scenes and authorial asides on the “good old days” before the tiresome modernity of 1860.

It is also surprising that the subject of this initial experiment in popular literature is not frontier adventure, lost treasure, high romance or another crowd-pleasing standard but rather interracial marriage, a subject that was definitely not considered to be a positive thing in the 19th century. Needless to say, many of the attitudes and some of the language presented by the book have not aged well, though it is perhaps to the book’s credit that it is written ambiguously enough that the reader can choose to interpret it either as a cautionary tale against violating societal norms (perhaps, though not necessarily, the original intent) or as a condemnation of the senselessness of prejudice (a more satisfying modern reading).

To experience the story for yourself and make up your own mind about its significance, you can read the full text online or download it for your e-reader at Project Gutenberg.

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Now in proofreading: Little Nobody

"Little Nobody"

“Little Nobody”

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve posted a Mrs. Alex. McVeigh Miller proofreading project, so it’s time to revisit her body of work. The latest title is Little Nobody, a novel first serialized from July 31, 1886 to October 23, 1886 in the Fireside Companion story paper and later reprinted in the Hart Series (among others).

If you want to experience some of the crazy twists and turns of a Mrs. Miller novel while helping to create a modern electronic edition of a long-forgotten text, read about our proofreading efforts in this earlier blog post and then head over to the project page.

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eBook available: Motor Matt; or, The King of the Wheel

Motor Stories #1Last year, we reintroduced the heroic Motor Matt to the world by digitizing the complete series of Motor Stories dime novels. Today, the first of those adventures has been formatted into a convenient-to-read eBook with the help of the Distributed Proofreaders project.

Motor Matt; or, The King of the Wheel is an interesting beginning to the series. Published in 1909, at a time when dime novels were nearing the end of their reign, the story shows a very conscious effort to present itself as something new and modern within a tired and aging genre.

The story is almost certainly modeled on the incredibly popular adventures of Frank Merriwell first published in Tip-Top Weekly, with a focus on the athletic and social adventures of high school boys. However, a strong emphasis on technology sets it apart. Not only is the adventure largely centered on Motor Matt’s efforts to obtain his first motorcycle, but it also features wireless communication as an integral part of the plot.

In addition to emphasizing then-cutting-edge technology, the book also seems to look disparagingly on some past dime novel tropes. Comic relief is presented in the form of Welcome Perkins, an elderly, one-legged man with a broken gun who may or may not be a reformed outlaw. He frequently offers outbursts like this one:

“It’s plumb good for a ole outlaw like me to grip a honest pa’m. It helps to make me fergit what I was and to brace up an’ be what I ort. I’m a horrible example o’ what happens to a man when he cuts loose in his youth an’ bloom an’ terrorizes all outdoors—but I can’t begin to tell ye how pacifyin’ to my reckless natur’ is the grip of a honest hand.”

The outlaw who tries to reform his wild nature is a common theme in dime novels, typified by the adventures of Deadwood Dick, but here it is rendered intentionally ridiculous.

Also quite interesting is the Native American character portrayed here. Needless to say, “Indians” are frequently used as villains or insultingly-portrayed sidekicks in the dime novel universe, but here we are given Tom Clipperton, a character who initially poses a threat to Matt not because of his race but rather because of bitterness over the racism shown him by others, including one of Matt’s friends.

Before anyone gets too excited about how progressive this book is, it should be noted that the tale still has its moments of political incorrectness, and the filler story at the end about an African tiger hunt is downright cringe-inducing. Nonetheless, Motor Matt’s debut is a fun and readable adventure that serves as a document of changing times early in the 20th century, and as such, it’s worth a look.

The entire book can be read online or downloaded in a variety of popular eBook formats at Project Gutenberg.

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eBook available: Pretty Geraldine

Pretty GeraldineOur efforts to create eBook editions of the works of Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller, which began well over a year ago with The Bride of the Tomb; and Queenie’s Terrible Secret, continue today with the release of Pretty Geraldine, the New York Sales Girl.

Pretty Geraldine, a tale of romance between an aspiring actress and a New York fireman, is actually rather tame by Mrs. Miller’s standards, with fewer murders and outrageous coincidences than readers might have come to expect. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a couple of wild moments, or that it is completely lacking in interest. This title finds Mrs. Miller in a particularly self-referential mood; not only does she quote her own poetry extensively, but she also has her heroine starring in a play adapted from one of her earlier novels, Laurel Vane. Not content to cite herself alone, she also includes poetry by other story paper serialists like Francis S. Smith and May Agnes Fleming.

You can read the whole book online (or download it in several popular eBook formats) at Project Gutenberg. We’ll keep the Mrs. Miller coming as time permits!

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eBook available: The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept Seas

The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept SeasHot on the heels of The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders comes the release of another “Captain Wilbur Lawton” children’s adventure novel, The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept Seas. Like the Boy Aviators adventure that preceded this, War Swept Seas takes the heroes of an established line of books and faces them with the dangers of a brewing global conflict.

With this type of series book, it is often difficult to identify authors, since most titles were published pseudonymously, and some pseudonyms were shared. There was no real Captain Wilbur Lawton. It is known that at least some of the Lawton titles were actually the work of journalist John Henry Goldfrap, but it is possible that other authors contributed as well. If both Air Raiders and War Swept Seas are truly the product of the same pen, it shows significant growth between the two books, as War Swept Seas is a significantly more readable and interesting tale than its predecessor (and, for that matter, the previous Ocean Wireless Boys adventure, The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Pacific). You won’t find a whole lot of complex plot here, but the author throws in such a steady stream of action that it’s hardly missed.

War Swept Seas has much in common with Air Raiders: it is set at the very dawn of the war, and its American protagonists take a neutral posture in the conflict (in spite of having primarily German antagonists). Unlike the Boy Aviators, who sought to profit from the war, the Ocean Wireless Boys are simply innocent bystanders, first threatened by British war ships while passengers on a German vessel, and later endangered by all sides (and particularly a vengeful German professor) while on a peaceful mission in Europe. This allows the author to present a different perspective on war than is often found in similar but more hawkish series. Indeed, the book even goes so far as to give its protagonist, who is portrayed as faultlessly brave and heroic, an extended anti-war speech:

“Tell you what, Bill,” said Jack, as they returned to the hotel to breakfast, and found that the fire had been extinguished and the panic quieted down, “war is a pretty thing on paper, and uniforms, and bands, and fluttering flags, and all that to make a fellow feel martial and war-like, but it’s little realities like these that make you feel the world would be a heap better off without soldiers or sailors whose places could be taken by a few wise diplomats in black tail coats. It wouldn’t be so pretty but it would be a lot more like horse sense.”

A marked contrast to the more common message that war is hard but necessary, or even that war holds an unavoidable attraction to all boys. It would have been interesting to have seen if the message evolved in subsequent volumes after deeper U.S. involvement in the war, but sadly, Goldfrap died in 1917, and no further Captain Lawton adventures were published.

The entire book can now be read online or downloaded in a variety of popular eBook formats through Project Gutenberg.

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Now in proofreading: Her Dark Inheritance

Dark InheritanceWhile we have devoted a lot of our proofreading energy to the works of Mrs. Alex. McVeigh Miller, she was far from the only author writing twisty story paper melodramas in the late 19th century. One of Mrs. Miller’s many prolific contemporaries was Mrs. E. Burke Collins, a writer whose own life had some startling twists and turns, as alluded to in this article. Our latest Distributed Proofreaders release is one of Mrs. Collins’ works, a tale of a young woman with a terrible secret.

For a taste of the story, and to help produce a modern eBook edition of the text, you can first read about our proofreading efforts in this earlier article, then visit the project page to begin work.

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eBook available: The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders

The Boy Aviators with the Air RaidersToday, we have contributed a fourth World War I-themed children’s novel to Project Gutenberg. This title, The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders, was written in the early days of the war and published in 1915, and this gives it a significantly different tone from the other three titles we have released, all of which were produced later.

The books published after America’s entry in the war have a distinct flavor of propaganda about them, emphasizing patriotism and portraying Germans as distasteful stereotypes. This earlier title, produced at a time of America’s neutrality, has an entirely different tone, and indeed, neutrality features prominently in the plot.

As the book begins, the titular Boy Aviators are representing a company which has produced an advanced seaplane. A prototype was sent to France before the war broke out, and while American neutrality prevents further models from being shipped, it does allow royalties to be paid on French-built replicas of the prototype. The boys are tasked with demonstrating the plane to show its value to the French government and secure a contract. Of course, German spies are desperately trying to steal or destroy the plane before this can happen!

The centrality of German espionage to the plot is not surprising for the period; prior to the war, tales of German conspiracy and invasion were popular enough in the English-speaking world to nearly form a genre of their own. While this theme lends a certain air of paranoia to the book, the overall portrayal of the Germans is far more even-handed than what would come later. While the Germans are pitted against the book’s protagonists, the boys treat their adversaries with sympathy and admiration. In the words of young Frank, “while we may sympathize with the Allies in this struggle at the same time we do not hate the German people, but feel the warmest friendship for them.”

Of course, while the Germans get a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal, it would be hard to find a children’s series book of this period that didn’t feature some sort of character offensive to modern sensibilities, and in this instance, most of the cringe-inducing content arrives courtesy of Pudge, one of the heroes, but also a stereotypical “jolly fat boy,” clumsy, more cowardly than his peers, fixated on food, and prone to frequent alliterative exclamations such as “Sugar and sandwiches!” and “Tamales and terrapins!” It could be argued that even Pudge’s portrayal is, on the balance, positive, since he repeatedly performs heroic acts in defiance of his personal limitations, but his positioning as (unfunny) comic relief purely on the basis of a physical attribute is hard to ignore.

As with many of its peers, Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders is interesting as a study of its period, but weak as actual entertainment. While the book certainly delivers some action-packed flying sequences as the boys prove the worth of their plane in active war zones, it has little else to offer. Its prose is unengaging and filled with long, awkward sentences, and the theme of neutrality that runs through the story eventually brings the tale to a startlingly unsatisfying conclusion, perhaps the only ending possible given the many uncertainties of an ongoing conflict.

Since the entire book is available for online reading or download through Project Gutenberg, you are now free to read it and form your own conclusions. In spite of its low literary standards, it is a title worth studying as an example of an early, tentative attempt to use the novelty of an ongoing war to sell books to children.

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eBook available: Deadwood Dick Jr. Branded

Deadwood Dick Jr. BrandedThe latest eBook to come out of the Distributed Proofreaders project using content from the Digital Library is Deadwood Dick Jr. Branded; or, Red Rover at Powder Pocket, a dime novel first published in 1896.

Deadwood Dick Jr. was the hero of close to one hundred adventures in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library. Borrowing the name of the famous outlaw-hero Deadwood Dick, the younger character occasionally acted as an outlaw himself but more frequently played the role of detective. In this story, Deadwood Dick Jr. and an outlaw known as Red Rover confront one another during a train robbery, and much of the text is devoted to their attempts to outmaneuver one another as Red Rover tries to get away with a fortune and Deadwood Dick Jr. tries to uphold the law.

Some of the usual dime novel standbys can be found here — gun fights, outlandish disguises, etc. — but a surprising amount of space is devoted to lengthy debates about matters of honor. This talkiness means that this is hardly the most exciting tale to be found in the dime novel universe, but it is an interesting portrait of a particular idealized vision of the Wild West.

The full book can be read online or downloaded in a variety of popular electronic formats at Project Gutenberg.

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Now in proofreading: The Spruce Street Tragedy

Spruce Street TragedyThe dime novels of the late 19th century introduced a lot of detective characters, many of them with “old” in their names: Old Cap Collier, Old Sleuth, Old Broadbrim, etc., etc. The hero of our latest Distributed Proofreaders project, a doctor-detective known as Old Spicer, is far from the most famous of these law enforcers, but he was successful enough to star in a series of mysteries that began in the late 1880′s and was still in print in the early 1900′s. The adventure at hand, The Spruce Street Tragedy; or, Old Spicer Handles a Double Mystery, published as part of the semi-monthly Old Cap Collier Library, has our hero investigating a double murder.

You can help shed some light on this mystery by assisting with the process of converting this vintage text into a modern eBook. To join the cause, first read this earlier post about how proofreading works, then dig into the work at the project page.

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eBook available: The Wonder of War on Land

WonderOur third World War I-themed children’s novel (following The Liberty Girl and The Brighton Boys in the Trenches) is now available in eBook format thanks to our collaboration with the Distributed Proofreaders project.

This book, Francis Rolt-Wheeler’s The Wonder of War on Land, is quite an unusual creation. It is a novel about a young American boy who witnesses German attacks on Belgium early in the war and becomes increasingly involved in the unfolding conflict. In spite of its fictional nature, it looks like a work of non-fiction, illustrated throughout with photographs (often unrelated to the text) and making fairly heavy use of footnotes (sometimes to cite sources of anecdotes shared by characters, sometimes to indicate places where events have been presented out of historical order).

The actual text of the story is just as unusual as its formatting. After an introduction proclaiming the author’s desire “[t]o give the boys of the United States a fair viewpoint on this war,” the reader is presented with the novel itself, a strange mix of lengthy didactic monologues, pro-French/anti-German propaganda, bizarre incidents, surprisingly unrestrained violence, and periodic hints of the supernatural. By the time our hero is fleeing Belgium in the company of a friendly hunchback and a caged eagle which he captured in hand-to-wing combat as a symbol of victory, it is clear that this is not quite the typical war novel.

The book never quite seems to know what it wants to be — a textbook, an inspirational adventure novel, a document of the horrors of war — and so it never quite meshes into a satisfying whole. However, the fact that it is such an odd hodge-podge makes it an interesting study, and the unusual biography of the author may serve to shed some light on its eccentricities.

If you wish to see the whole thing for yourself, the book can be read online or downloaded in various popular eBook formats through Project Gutenberg.

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Last Modified: April 23, 2014