Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: About Deadwood and DEADWOOD DICK

From: Jess Nevins (
Date: 15 Jun 2005

-----Original Message----- From: "E.Borgers" <>
> I'm interested to know some basics about the DEADWOOD DICK series, like:

> -author?- was it a multi-pen work?
> -period of publication (I guess it started not very long after the 1870s)?
> -approx. how long was it published (seems to have been very popular at
the time)

The Deadwood Dick stories were written by Edward L. Wheeler (1854/5-1885?), a veteran writer of dime novels. There were thirty-three Deadwood Dick stories in the dime novel BEADLE'S HALF-DIME LIBRARY, from 1877 to 1885. A 34th story appeared in BEADLE'S BOYS LIBRARY OF SPORT, STORY, AND ADVENTURE in 1882.

The stories were indeed very popular. Dick was the first masked outlaw of dime novel fiction, and his name had topicality going for it. More than that, however, was the thematic subtext of the series. Actually, I'll beg the list's indulgence and simply quote at length from my book:

"During the 19th century, American stories about the Western frontier go through distinct historical stages. Before the 1840s the stories were usually about the creation of a white community through the defeat of the natives (see: Hawkeye, Nick of the Woods). Between the 1840s and the 1870s stories set on the frontier were about the defense of white community. However, those threatening the community included not just natives or Mexicans, but also corrupt and wicked bankers and businessmen. Both the authors and readers of these stories were urbanites, and frontier stories which featured evil financiers and merciless businessmen, both negative aspects of the contemporary urban experience, can be seen as the displacement of city problems into a frontier setting in which the problems can be fictionally resolved in a way the audience will find satisfactory. The heroes of such stories were defenders of the status quo, defeating evil businessmen but allowing other, presumably good businessmen to take their place. The implicit message of these stories was that problems like heartless bankers were anomalies which were easily solved, and that the status quo ante was The Way Things Should Be-that the problem was not the system, but the lone individual. This pattern can also be seen in popular fiction crime stories set in the city.

"This changed in the mid-1870s. The 1870s saw the conflict between workers and management turn vicious, with strikes by Pennsylvania coal miners in 1873 and 1874 and by railway workers in 1877, both of which led to violent and bloody repressions by management. Labor conflicts in the Reconstruction South were even more charged, tied in as they were with ongoing racial and political conflicts. Relations between labor and capital were extremely bitter. Conservative defenders of the establishment used newspapers to claim that criminals like Frank and Jesse James (see: James Brothers) were caused by labor unrest, while liberal newspapers portrayed criminals as heroes of folklore, with the James brothers specifically compared to Robin Hood's men.

"This was the backdrop set for the rise of the outlaw hero in popular American fiction in the mid-1870s. Characters like Deadwood Dick and the James brothers remained outlaws, but they were made into versions of the räuberroman (see: The Räuberroman) hero. The cause of their outlawry was corrupt businessmen who had the support of the law. The outlaw heroes no longer preyed on the average inhabitant of the frontier. The victims of their robberies were members of the upper classes, usually Eastern, and when communities were threatened, the identity of the community was defined as working class, and the enemies of the community were exploitive capitalists like stockbrokers and financiers who were evil not through what they did but through what they were. Officials who represented business and the financial establishment were automatically corrupt and automatically the enemy of the outlaw hero, who fought them but defended the poor and the working class.

"Deadwood Dick and the James brothers were the two most popular outlaw characters to appear in the dime novels in the 1870s and 1880s. Led by these two, the outlaw hero character became so successful so quickly that the dominant narrative model for the dime novel Western changed after 1875, from James Fenimore Cooper-like stories to those of the outlaw hero. Deadwood Dick began as a version of the traditional frontier hero, similar to Kit Carson or Hawkeye. At this stage he is often pursued by "regulators" (see: Assowaum) who, knowingly or not, do the bidding of a wealthy villain. In later stories Dick becomes a vigilante himself, defending the community against outsiders who represented the evil Eastern moneyed interests.

"The enemies of Deadwood Dick during these years were representatives of capital: business managers, bankers, stockbrokers, industrial capitalists, and financiers. They are almost uniformly Eastern, well-dressed, corrupt, and effete. Indians and Mexicans, when they appear, are not the primary villain and are often allies of Dick and his friends. Dick's allies are the workers, farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers. In one story Dick helps striking miners defy a large corporation which is trying to crush them. The miners explicitly link themselves with the striking Pennsylvania coal miners. In another story Dick leads a miners' union, helps win fair wages for the workers and defeats a "communistic" labor organization. The communities he defends are agrarian, rural, and opposed to the sort of modernization that earlier frontier heroes like Hawkeye and Nick of the Woods had promoted.

"This story pattern continued in both the Deadwood Dick and James brothers stories until 1883. The popularity of the outlaw hero stories led to what has been called a "moral panic" on the part of the establishment, including numerous alarmist articles in the Eastern press, and so in 1883 the Postmaster General, Walter Gresham, ordered the cancellation of the Wide Awake Library, which published the Frank and Jesse James stories. This action caused the dime novel publishers to change the content of the outlaw stories. Deadwood Dick became a more conventional detective, pardoned and reconciled with society. His enemies are still often members of the upper class, but Dick became solidly entrenched in the middle class, and labor issues and his sympathies for the producing classes (as opposed to the profiting classes) vanished from the series."

> -central character: was he a historical figure, or based on one, or just
a fictional one?

No, he was purely fictional.

>From what you know of the TV serial, could this dime novels series
have had some influence on the scripts of "Deadwood" the TV series ?
(not sure this last question makes sense).

I doubt it. Leaving aside the availability of the stories, I don't see much thematic similarity between "Deadwood" and the Deadwood Dick stories; in the tv Deadwood the corruption (in the form of Swearingen) is as much a part of Deadwood as are the better citizens, while in the Deadwood Dick stories the corruption and evil is nearly always external.

> Your book on Victoriana seems very interesting. Is it an anthology of
texts from that period, or a wider study on the subject?

Thanks! It's a combination of literary criticism and book review of around 800 characters and two dozen concepts of 19th century fiction (although I go back to 1765 and up to 1905), from science fiction to fantasy to horror to detective/mystery fiction to historical romances to dime novels to penny dreadfuls to Gothics, as well as things like the work of Ponson du Terrail and Paul Feval, Russian bandit ballads, kabuki, wuxia, and Vietnamese epic poetry.

With regard to detective fiction, I discuss, in various character and concept entries, the evolution of the figure of the male detective, the evolution of the fictional female detective, and the 19th century precursors to modern hardboiled fiction. There are over 80 detective characters covered, American British, French, German, and Chinese. I think even experts will be surprised at some of the things I've uncovered, esp. in the Lady Detectives entry.

The publisher's site for the book is here:


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