THE Yates boy, aged fifteen, desired to run away. He confided the intention to his sister, and she naturally conveyed it to his parents. His father summoned him before him, and said, “ There is no need of your running away. If you will let me know any town or village in the country to which yon desire to go, you shall be set down there with your trunk. I will give you a sum of money, furthermore, to find some kind of occupation, so that you may know by actual experience the value of the good home you have left.” The offer was declined, with abashed thanks. It was not. what his imagination pictured. He waited, and after a little time turned up missing, as the saying is, with two guns and a pointer dog. He returned from Chicago broken with ague, but departed again for the Cuban war, and has not since been heard of. His escapades were laid, with a show of reason, to the sensational romances, in which it appeared he was much absorbed.
Such stories are common. One day, it is three boys who are arrested at Patterson on their way to Texas, on the proceeds of a month’s rent they have been sent to pay, but have appropriated instead. Another, three Boston boys do us the honor to believe that more adventures are to be found in New York than at home, and arrive with a slender capital of four dollars and a half to seek them; are robbed of even this by more knowing gamins of the place, and spend several nights in the station-house before they can be reclaimed. Again, a group of runaways is found behind a New Jersey haystack playing poker, with a knife and a revolver before each one, as the custom is with all well - regulated desperadoes. A late boy-murderer confessed that he had wanted to hide in a cave and prowl and kill, and that he believed he got the idea from his reading.
This last extreme is rare, and the imaginations which go to the others are of an unwaveringly logical kind, which amounts to want of balance. A grain of common sense keeps down the imitative impulse in the majority of cases. They feel that, fine, and possibly veracious, as it all is, it is not, somehow, exactly adapted to their personally taking a part in it. We outgrow it,—for I make no doubt there are those who read this who have known something of the feeling from their own experience; and it would be a poor reader indeed who had had no amicable relations with pirates, avengers, dead - shots of the plains, and destroyers in his youth. We go to our counting-room, our machineshop, our corner grocery, our law office, as the case may be. We shoot nobody at all, and do our plundering, if plunder we must, within the law, decorously, by light weights and short measures, by managing a company or borrowing of a friend. The remembrance alone survives as a source of the very general enjoyment that is got out of mock heroics.
But let notice be given that it is not an especially humorous point of view that is sought for the story-paper literature. It is an enormous field of mental activity, the greatest literary movement, in bulk, of the age, and worthy of very serious consideration for itself. Disdained as it may be by the highly cultivated for its character, the phenomenon of its existence cannot be overlooked.
The taste for cheap fiction is by no means confined to this country. America leads in this form of publication in the kind of papers mentioned; but romances that do not appear to be of a greatly higher order are almost as profuse with the venders of reading matter at Paris, Turin, or Cologne as here, and not a daily paper on the continent of Europe, in any language, but has its scrap of a continued story, its feuilleton, in every issue.
Our story papers, damp from the press and printed very black, upholster all the news-stands, but we shall study them in a more leisurely way at a stationer’s. Shall we choose this dingy one at the Five Points, where the grocery and wood and coal business is combined with the other; or this pretentious store under a lofty new tenement house in the German quarter, with the joints already warping apart, the paint blistered, and a plate-glass window cracked by uneven settling? Let it be rather one of the stuffy little, but more prosperous, ones of the up-town avenues. Some late numbers dangle from the edge of the low awning, under which it is necessary to stoop. A bell attached to the door jingles sharply. The interior is festooned with school satchels and jumping-ropes. Mother Carey’s, Mother Shipton’s, the Egyptian, the Hindoo, and the Golden Wheel of Fortune dream books, the Wild Oats, the Larry Tooley, the Eileen Alanna, the Love Among the Roses, song and dance books, in gaudy covers, ornament the window, among the tops and marbles.
The story papers, the most conspicuous stock in trade, are laid out on the front counter, neatly overlapped, so as to show all the titles and frontispieces. Ten are already in, and more to come,— the Saturday Night, the Saturday Journal, the Ledger, the Weekly, the Family Story Paper, the Fireside Companion. Near them on the glass case, in formidable piles, are the “ libraries,” These are, omitting the prominent examples which do the same sort of service for standard works, pamphlets reprinting at a dime and a half dime the stories which have appeared as serials in the papers. There are papers which, finding this practice a diversion of interest, distinctly announce that their stories will not reappear, and that them fascinations can be enjoyed only at original sources.
No far-reaching memory is needed to recall when the Ledger was the only journal of this kind. Its notorious prosperity gave rise to a swarm of imitators, eager to share the profits of so good a field. New York is still the great point of supply, but Chicago and some other Western cities have begun to find their account in similar publications for their tributary territories. As the new aspirants arose, it was necessary for each to set up its own peculiar claim to favor. One assumes to be the exclusive family story paper; another offers its readers microscopes, chromos, and supplements ; others provide the fullest contents; others go upon the reputations of writers whose abilities to captivate are known : Colonel Tipton Slasher will write— Mrs. Jennie Sarah Ring wood, whose power of passion development — Max Shorthorn, without a peer for pungent humor and drollery — A brilliant corps conceded to be, etc., etc. It would be a mistake to suppose there are not distinctions of reputation here, as among their betters.
But that was a splendid new department opened when it was observed where the most ardent class of patrons came from. They are boys. We may observe it ourselves, if we will give a little heed to the progress of the traffic on publication days. A middle-aged woman, with a shawl over her head and a half peck of potatoes in a basket, stops in for one; a shop-girl on her way home from work; a servant from one of the good houses in the side streets, come on her own account, or possibly for a schoolgirl mistress. But, with them, before them, and after them come boys. They begin to read already as they walk away, and thread the streets without heeding their bustle. To-morrow the elevator boy will have the latest number of Cloven-Hoof the Demon, as he rides you up and down at the hotel or the business block. It will be hidden under many a jacket in school-hours. A shock-headed boy from the streets—his case has not heretofore been made public — set by a family to tidy up their cellar for the spring, was found perusing it, seated on a broken stool, and reaching vaguely for such things as might be in the neighborhood in the mean time.
The adventures in the adult papers were not beyond the capacity of the boys; but one, and then another, conceived the idea of conciliating their especial interest by making a paper for them, till this branch, with its Boys’ Journal, Boys of New York, Boys of America, Boys of the World, Young Men of New York, Young Men of America, has become rather the larger of the two. The heroes are boys, and there are few departments of unusual existence in which they are not seen figuring to brilliant advantage. They are shown amply competent as the Boy Detective, the Boy Spy, the Boy Trapper, the Boy Buccaneer, the Boy Guide, the Boy Captain, the Boy Robinson Crusoe, the Boy Claude Duval, and the Boy Phœnix, or Jim Bledsoe, Jr., whose characteristic is to be impervious to harm id burning steamboats and hotels, exploding mines, and the like.
Occasionally, girls are similarly engaged, as the Girl Brigand and the Girl Dead-Shot, but are so few as to indicate clearly how very much less reliance is placed upon patronage from this quarter. The girls, in fact, are under closer supervision, and are apt to have duties for their leisure hours in the household. They have less pocket money, and few of the ready means of replenishing it at a pinch of their enterprising brothers. With their slight experience with fire-arms and rough riding, too, it can hardly be supposed that the Girl Brigand appeals to them with the fascination that might be exercised by something more nearly within the ordinary possibilities of imitation. They must even be puzzled somewhat at such ideals, and wonder at the hoys’ admiration of them.
Still, there are not wanting some efforts to attach their interest, also, to stories of a more likely character. Such a one is The Adventures of Fanny Larkhall at an Academy for Young Ladies, The air of, liveliness in the paper from which this is taken is raised to the highest point by printing each sentence in a separate paragraph. This young girl of twelve is first introduced as leaving her arithmetic lesson to go skating clandestinely in Central Park. “ Ma knows,” she remarks, “that I have no talent for arithmetic, and she might encourage what little ability I have in some other direction.” She is sent to boardingschool on the Hudson River, not far from a school at which her brother is a pupil. The teachers at both schools are very ridiculous in their appearance, and “ mean,” tyrannical, and downright wicked in their characters, all of which is of course to be resisted. Miss Larkhall is in the habit of saying “ biz” for business, “ sassy ” for saucy. She will “ get square ” with her teachers, and if they want her they must come to her. At the end of a column of slangy impudence and defiance, rankling under her keen sense of injustice, she asks, What had she done wrong? Why was she being punished ?
It may be said at once that the juvenile branch of this literature is the worse. Very much of it is bad without mitigation. There is certain trouble in life for the girl who follows this model, and grows up and marries one of the boys similarly inspired. It falls upon teachers and parents first, then upon themselves. Instructors in some of the schools report that every third boy reads such literature, and that he is the hardest to deal with. It is in him to resist something, to dare something, in his modest way. Prevented from engaging in hand-tohand conflicts with howling savages, he can yet, if circumstances be favorable, break his teacher’s watch-chain. The Boy Scout or the Boy Phœnix would never have thought of doing less. They are not indisposed to philosophize themselves about their reading. They say, “ It makes you brave.”
The lesson of the necessity of a complete armament is so well impressed that it is not strange it is remembered by any setting out on their adventures. The whole vast action pivots, as it were, around the muzzle of an extended revolver. Every frontispiece shows a combat. Here is a milder one, however, in which a pirate, with a curious taste in bricabrac even for his class, is quaffing a draught from a goblet made of a jeweled skull.
“ With a well-directed blow Remington stretched the villain at full length upon the floor.”
“ With a grating curse, the dying wretch thrust a revolver against the Avenger’s breast, and fired.”
So the legends read, and so, by hecatombs, goes the carnage on. I estimate that in this pile of dime and half-dime libraries under my hand there are not less than ten thousand slain, ft, is in detail, too, and not mere generalizing with grape and canister. It is a low estimate, no more than fifty to a book. In this first random chapter come riding seventy road agents into a town. They slay eighteen of the residents, and are then slain themselves, — all but one, who is, by the orders of a leader named Old Bullwhacker, immediately strung up to a tree, and pays the earthly penalty of his crimes. And in the next — it is a romance called Dead wood Dick on Deck; or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up —we find a young man, named Charley Davis, dashing around a bend, bestriding his horse backwards, and firing at five mounted pursuers. They were twelve originally, but he has gradually picked off the rest. He is joined by Calamity Jane, a beautiful young woman, who carries a sixteen-shot “Winchester rifle, a brace of pistols in her belt and another in her bolsters, and between the two the pursuing five are easily disposed of. Here are a hundred dead in two chapters only, and the list of the doomed — amongst them a character named Arkansas Alf, the Danite Ghoul, who richly deserves it — is far from exhausted.
The fierce rivalry between numerous competitors tends to two results. The first is an increase in the number of the serial stories. Two are found to be carrying eight serials each at a time. Two others have seven each; another six. None have less than five. What an enormous voracity is here! Overlapping as they do, a new one commencing as an old one finishes, how does the subscriber ever escape from their toils? It seems as if, unless he would forego from one to seven eighths of the value of his money, which is not a pleasant thing to do in the most prosperous circumstances, he must be interlocked with his journal as fast as if in the arms of an octopus.
The second is the increase in sensationalism. The earlier stories were more honest and simpler. Here, now, is a unique combat, — marine divers fighting over a corpse, with knives, under water. But does anything else that is new remain? It would seem as if the last limit had been reached. After the enormous carnival of red brotherhoods, border phantoms, ghouls, demons, sleuths, ocean blood-hounds, brotherhoods of death, masked terrors, and reckless rangers, all done with the poor facilities that poverty-stricken human language affords, one could well expect to find these authors in a gasping state, reduced to the condition of the cannibals of the Orinoco, who could only go up to the hills, and say to their deities, “ Oh! ”
The same is true of the illustrations. From the point of view of art, so far as art can be considered in them, the earlier were the best. The older representations, sometimes lightly and sketchily printed, of life on the plains and spirited combats, the bold young scouts in their fringed leggings, the lithe heroine, captured or saved, twisted across the back of a galloping steed, were not always without a certain grace in the attitudes. The modern vie with one another in lurid horror and repulsiveness. The Boys of New York has a great cut occupying three fourths of its folio page. It is done in harsh ruled lines, like the most frigid kind of mechanical drawing, and printed black, black, to be visible from the longest possible distance. Coarse as it is, it breathes the essence of madness and murder. The artist should draw none henceforth but demons. Two frightful desperadoes, dark like negroes, with gleaming eyeballs and mustaches of the stubby, thick, jet-black, gambler pattern, are fighting with knives (having fallen out between themselves) in a moving hotel elevator, in which they have taken refuge to escape two detectives in chase. One detective, bounding up the stairs, appears, with a ghastly face and cocked revolver in hand, at one of the openings. as they go by. The other — the boy hero, who is not like a boy, but some strange, brawny ape — is seen clinging, with shrieks, to a ring in the bottom of the elevator, which he has clutched the better to follow them, in danger, now that he has mounted, of falling from exhaustion into the black abyss below. It haunts one. It is a nightmare.
The means taken to bring the papers to notice are often as enterprising as their contents. Copies of the opening chapters are thrown in at the area railings, and printed, regardless of expense, to pique curiosity, in the daily papers. The attention of the households of upper New York was widely awakened recently by an invitation telegram, sealed and addressed, the envelope and messageblank exact, saying, “ The child is still alive. You are personally interested in all the details of A Sinless Crime, to appear in to-morrow’s—.”
The villain in the story papers, as often as it is indicated clearly who he is, has no redeeming traits. The idea of mixed motives, still less the Bret Harte idea of moral grandeur illuminating lives of continuous iniquity, through their sharing a blanket or a canteen at the end with emigrants delayed in a snow-storm, has not penetrated here. It is no ordinary crimes the villains meditate, either. Murder might almost be called the least of them. The only merciful drawback to their malignity is their excessive simplicity. They go about declaring their intentions with a guilelessness often worthy of positive sympathy.
An elderly Washington aristocrat in a frontier town applies to Dead wood Dick, on the first interview, and with no assurance at all of his identity, to commit three murders for him at fifty dollars apiece. Deadwood Dick is the recipient at the time of an income of five thousand dollars a year from property in the mines (which he knows) and is also an intimate friend (though this he does not know, not being informed till the interview is over) of the parties in interest. He offers the contract the next moment, however, to another, with whom he is equally straightforward and confiding. He is found soon after knocking at the door of a cabin where a heroine is inclosed, with the request to be let in, or he will butcher her directly, and is warned away. He hires an emissary to blow up a mine, which is done, though the people whose destruction was intended escape, and are informed of it. It certainly speaks well for the peaceable disposition of the settlement — in the Black Hills — that after this and much more he continues to reside at the principal hotel, and even appears at the head of a vigilance committee to make his intended victims further trouble. The persecuted hero, like ourselves, is surprised at this. To let us all know together how it could have been so he explains: “ Money is the root of all evil, and with some of it I bought Over those present to assist me in putting an end to you.”
The good, on the other hand, are known to be good by a constant insistence upon it. We cannot doubt what we are so often assured of. It is generally necessary for the proper complication of incidents that appearances should for some time be much against them; but how immaculate they shine out in the end! The authors are often put to severe straits to bring this about. It is the diflicult point of plot-making. How can it be that they seem bad enough to lay themselves open to all this tribulation, when they are in fact so good? Credulity and gentlemanly indulgence are much needed to accept the explanations vouchsafed. A hero is occasionally even so thoroughly involved that he has no idea of his own innocence. The crimes imputed to Sandy Beverly are murder and forgery, particulars about which, it would seem, there should be a tolerable degree of certainty in one’s own mind. But he swoons when he learns that he has not done them. " The news of his innocence was too much for him to bear.” It is made clear to him by the detective, in the dénoûment, in this wise: —
“ Some years ago you were a clerk in a banking house of which Cecil Grosvenor was president. You had a small fortune of your own, and, knowing this, this man Grosvenor invited you to his grand home, which, was graced by a beautiful and aristocratic daughter. Here you were led into dissipation. Once started, yon had no control over yourself. . . . You awakened to the fact that you had squandered all your available resources, and forged your employer’s name to the tune of five thousand dollars.”
“ All true,” Sandy replied, his head bowed aud face pale.
“ Elise Grosvenor hurled this gross charge in your face as you were riding along the shore of the Potomac. At the time you were, as usual, full of liquor. The taunt maddened you. You drew a pistol and fired at her. . , . You saw the frightened steed of Elise Grosvenor plunge over the dizzy height. . . . You were never afterwards seen in the East. . . . Six months ago I assisted in a raid on a dance-house in Kansas City. . . I copied down her dying confession. She was Elise Grosvenor, once the Washington belle. She had been rescued, and with her own consent carried in a yacht to New Orleans. ... In her confession she declared you innocent. She and a companion had forged the checks and given them to you to cash, which you did without knowing of your sin.”
The heroines have for the most part, like full-private James, no characteristic trait of any distinctive kind. She is very beautiful; she often has hair “ purple-black ” in color, and always “ great. ” eyes of some of the desirable shades; but generally she is simply a precious bundle of goods to be snatched out of deadly perils, and plotted and fought about. She has little actively to do but clasp her hands together, and little to say except “ Oh, how can I repay you, my noble, my generous preserver! ” She dispenses with ehaperonage in a way the first society can never be brought to approve of.
Vast ingenuity is used in supplying motives to the “sleuth-like” personages so numerously engaged throughout the narratives in persistent schemes of vengeance. The original grievance is often found to be very slight. Nor can we believe that the following is always so seriously meant as it is said to be. The “ human blood-hound ” and “ destroying angel ” —there is the remarkable phenomenon in one case where “ his heart was as white as his face with rage, as he grasped his bowie and followed on the stranger’s track ” — is continually letting his victim give him the slip without reason. “See here! if you do that again,” he seems to be saying, or, “ If ever I set eyes on you once more, it will be the worse for you.” The plots in fact do not hasten to their conclusion, but are dragged back and detained from it. Time after time the occasion for the avenger to do whatever he is going to is flagrantly then and there, but he does not do it.
As to their constructions, vast as the ground the stories now cover, they are few and simple. This is constant: that the villain gets himself into trouble by loving the horoine, who cares nothing about him. The hero lays himself open by stepping in, in the nick of time, to protect her from consequent schemes of vengeance. Now it is in a Fourteenth Street tenement house, now in a palace in Russian Moscow, now in mediæval Venice, and again at ancient Palmyra; but the repulsing with Scorn, the protection, the schemes of vengeance, and their coming to naught are everywhere the same. It sometimes seems hard upon the villain. Everything is against him from the first. She very often has no cause of complaint in the world, to begin with, but an “instinctive repulsion. But once rejected, he has cause enough, it may well be believed.
The “ woman scorned ” is his counterpart, and the second great source of trouble. She appears in the midst of marriages, in the stories in which she takes part, and forbids the bans, so sure as the marriages are set to take place. With the unscrupulous guardian, who has the keepers of insane asylums to aid him in his projects; the persons changed at birth, or returning thirty years after they were supposed to be lost at sea; the reprobate father or brother arousing acute jealousies by being taken on his clandestine visits after money for a lover, I have mentioned most of the essential elements. Generally, in the shorter stories, of which each paper contains a number besides its serials, there is a great deal of Cinderella business. Poor and plain nieces or wards marry the fine gentleman, in spite of the supercilious daughter, after all.
It is not exalted game to pick to pieces works from which not too much is expected at the best, and the plain road has by no means been abandoned in search of absurdities. But the surprising thing to learn is that there is really so much less in them than might be expected. The admiration grows for the craving which can swallow, without misgiving, so grand a tissue of extravagances, inaneness, contradictions, and want of probable cause. The stories are not ingenious, even, and ingenuity was perhaps supposed to be their strong point.
It is not that they do not give epigrams, bright conversations, penetrating reflections. We can recollect when we skipped all that in the best of books, and desired only to rush headlong on with the movement. Poe, Cooper, Feval, Collins, Charles Reade, have written stories in which what the people do is of very much more interest than what they are; but in these is a kind of fatality; events hold together; they could not have been otherwise.
Though written almost exclusively for the use of the lower classes of society, the story papers are not accurate pictures of their life. They are not a mass of evidence from which, though rude, a valuable insight into their thoughts, feelings, and doings can be obtained by others who do not know them. The figures are like to nature only as much as those drawn without models by an inferior artist are. The product is dried and hectic. The writers do not seem to be telling anything they have seen and known, but following, at third and fourth hand, traditions above them which they have read. The most enlightened field of the novel is social history, — to portray James K. Jackson and Elizabeth May Johnson in relation to their surroundings and times, as the formal historians do Napoleon Bonaparte and Katharine of Aragon. This is a field into which they very superficially enter. Perhaps they consult their popularity in not doing So. A considerable part of their audience is not reflective. It has rather simple wants and aspirations. Lack of culture is a continuous childhood. A statement is enough; a demonstation is not necessary. It is only a tyrannical employer or an unprincipled guardian who prevents the attainment of perfect happiness. Do readers wish for profound and intimate observations made about them which they never think of making about themselves ? George Eliot says of a heroine that she is “ ardent, theoretic, and intellectually consequent; ” Mrs. Ringwood, that she had a blue silk dress and a perfect form.
The Spotter Detective, or the Girls of New York, seemed to promise a glimpse into social life. John Blaine, a strangely handsome man, escapes from Sing-Sing prison. He had been sentenced for assault with intent to kill, but this was only because “ he had not a hundred thousand dollars at his back to buy corrupt judges and jurors.” Three beautiful young ladies, in entirely disconnected situations, and a lunatic on Randall’s Island are greatly affected by the news. The lunatic at once returns to his senses, goes to the St. Nicholas Hotel, and demands in what is a fairly amusing passage, “ Young man, I ’ll trouble you for that package I left in your safe. Room 440.”
“ It was another man that had 440 last night, and I never saw you before,” the clerk replies.
“ Oh, I didn’t say it was last night. It was before your time. Look back eighteen months; say, two years ago.” He had been stopping there, it seems, when suddenly seized with lunacy.
He receives his package, which contains five thousand dollars, and then becomes the Spotter Detective. The convict is described as being “ a gentleman born.” “Not that some feudal despot in the olden time had laid a knightly sword upon the shoulder of an ironhanded soldier stained with gore, and bade him, ‘ Rise up, Sir John Blaine.’ No! John Blaine’s father was a seaman bold, whose boast in his cups was, ‘ A wife in every port; ’ his mother a poor, weak girl, a child of Erin’s green isle, the daughter of a buxom dame, who kept a sailor boarding-house.”He makes his mysterious escapes, and keeps up the chase by concealing himself in the apartments of the three beautiful girls by turns. What is the secret of his mysterious power over them ? Aha! that is the point! Well, they are in one way and another his daughters. One resides in an elegant mansion on Madison Avenue; another boards — young, single, blazing with diamonds, and moving in the finest circles, though quite unattended — at the Hoffman House; the third is a sewing-girl. The book is peculiar in not making it clear whether the characters are to be considered depraved or not. Most of them have the look of it, as the convict Blaine; a card sharper, Captain O'Shane, and another who is at the beginning a tramp as well, Captain Blackie; and the guardian, Elbert van Tromp. The latter agrees to secure his lovely ward and cousin in marriage to Captain Blackie in consideration of a commission of fifty thousand dollars on her fortune. There is no reason in the world, as he is young, handsome, and a “ lady-killer,” why he should not take her himself with the whole million, but he prefers this method. The marriage is solemnized, Blackie having, however, reformed. John Blaine kills the honest Spotter Detective, and gets clear, and no poetic justice at all is done. Two interwoven young millionaires fall in love with two working-girls, whom they meet at a glass-blowers’ ball, visit them at their apartment, where they keep house together, and marry them. The influence of this part must be in the direction of an easy making of acquaintances, which by no means always turns out so happily.
There are a great many poor persons in the narratives, and the capitalist is occasionally abused, showing that an eye is kept on the popular movements of the day; but poverty is not really glorified. The deserving characters are almost sure to be secretly of good families, and in reduced circumstances only for a short time. Ordinary origin and a humdrum course of life at honest, manual labor are not much wanted even here. The names are selected for their distinction with as much care as those of fashionable New York up-town hotels. The responsiveness of the faces of the characters, particularly the bad ones, who ought to be more hardened, to their emotions is one of the points to note. They turn “ sickly yellow,” “ghastly pale,” and “white, rigid, and haggard ” with extraordinary frequency.
The literary influences descending from above are chiefly those of G. P. R. James, Lever, Captain Marryatt, Bret Harte (for material), Ouida, Miss Braddon, the books Handy Andy, Verdant Green, Valentine Vox, and the Memoirs of Vidocq, — all of course immensely diluted and deteriorated. Dickens, too, is discernible in names and a whole ragged school of characters whose aspiration is to get something to eat. The faults of style are a superabundance of adjectives and bad grammar. There is the general merit, on the other hand, of short and clear sentences, in deference to readers who wish the fewest possible obstacles between themselves and a direct comprehension of what is going on. If any one expression of those that are popular is more common than another, it is the word “ erelong ” in concluding paragraphs. Its use helps to give a kind of rhythmic flow to the long-continuing movement of the narratives: “ And erelong Reginald DeLacey Earlscourfc [or Cuthbert Raven wood Leigh] was on his way to Grangerfield Manor.”
However much it takes from others, the story-paper literature is found to have two departments, distinctively, of its own. They are of a surprising character. The first is the utilization, by paraphrasing them, of pieces which are having a successful run at the theatres. The Two Orphans, Divorce, Under the Gas-Light, and other such have appeared in this way. Reversing a common process, they are not “ dramatized for the stage,” but narrativized for the story paper.
The other is more curious still, and a model in boldness to over-timid romancers at large. It is the actual introduction of living persons, whose names and addresses are in the directory, selected from any that may be prominent before the community. Sometimes the adventures in which they figure are said to be facts, but oftener they are as the chronicler pleases. He handles them with a freedom like that with which Scott used mediæval history. Oakey Hall; the handsome actor, Montague; Mabel Leonard, the child actress; Jim Fisk; Captain Kelso, of the central police station; Aristarchi Bey, the resident Turkish minister, are among those who have figured in this way.
The exhibition of the latter diplomat must be surprising to any of his friends who may chance to fall in with it. He is no longer the handsome and courtly favorite of civilized social circles whom the newspaper correspondents represent, but a barbarous bashaw of the most conventional type, a perfect Blue-Beard. He makes frequent use of “ Allah il Allah ” and “ Bismillah,'” and calls people “ Gaiours ” and “ Christian dogs ” at the Astor House. He desires to include among his wives Miss Pearl Carlin, who is brought to his notice at New Haven, where he is having fire-arms manufactured for his government. But her affections are fixed on an honest mechanic, and though he offers, after the wellknown Oriental fashion of computing, “ as many thousand dollars as there are days in the year ” for her, she refuses him in scornful words, which are greatly to her credit.
“ What! a horrid old Turk, with a gray beard like a goat! Let him go and buy his Georgians and Circassians. I would n’t have the monster if he were rolling in money. I am an American girl, and don’t let him forget it.”
This seems “racy” enough “of the soil ” almost to satisfy the critics who are in search of that quality.
Another story, taken at random, opens with the opening of a village school in the frontier settlement of Fort Dodge. “ Behind the desk Cyrus C. Carpenter presided with that calm, manly dignity which in after years distinguished him in the gubernatorial chair of the State.” The trait of modernism is further shown in keeping nearly as close to the current matter of popular interest as the third edition of the evening paper. The rage for walking matches was not over before it had its appropriate serial, Boh Anderson, the Young Pedestrian. He went into scientific training, and backed himself to walk to St. Louis in a given number of hours. Evil-disposed parties secretly started at the same time to try various murderous schemes, by way of saving money they had bet against him. The first was the letting loose on him of a raging bull-dog, foaming mad. He vanquished it, and no doubt all his other perils in turn, but at this point the present writer left him.
There is a popular impression among people who attach weight to the expression, “truth stranger than fiction” (as though it were not truer, of course), and appreciate too little the difficulty of making something out of nothing, that the material is chiefly matter of pure invention. Such is not the case. The writers keep scrap-books of all the horrible circumstances coming under their notice, and put them together to suit. It is all in the papers. The liveliest ingenuity cannot stimulate the novelist to the desperate inventions of beings whose whole existence is at stake.
The fault is simply with the taste of such material, its exclusive and fatiguing bent towards the unusual and terrible. “ This is positively too ridiculous,” as the man is said to have said coming home to dinner, after an annoying day in his business, and finding his whole family lying murdered. It is a catalogue of wild “ sensations,” which writers of a better grade are chary in dealing with, but in themselves they are true enough. Who will invent the Bender family, the Cox-Alston duel, Charley Ross, or that Chicago suicide who died by poison, shooting, hanging, setting his clothes on fire, and drowning in a bath-tub all at once, at the Palmer House ?
And now, having begun to say something in their favor, let us see if anything more can be said. There are story papers and story papers. It may be that those of the cheapest and flashiest order have been too exclusively dwelt upon. Those popular novelists, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, Mrs. Ann H. Stephens, and May Agnes Fleming contribute Heart Histories, Deserted Wives, and Brides of an Evening to the story papers, and shall one disparage what is found on the table of so many boudoirs, far indeed removed from the lower classes? Some reprint as serials, with their own matters, standard productions, like the Count of Monte Cristo, the Memoirs of Houdin the Conjurer, and Tom Cringle’s Log. Others give away Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Bab Ballads for supplements. In general, in the libraries good literature is beginning to mingle among the bad in a very curious way. Robinson Crusoe, very much mangled, it is true, at half a dime, may be found in the Wide-Awake Library, sandwiched between Bowie Knife Ben and Death Notch the Destroyer.
This is a phase of the subject which would bear working out by itself. Perhaps it offers a solution of the problem how the literature of the masses is to be improved. Would the adults take Charles Reade, Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Victor Hugo, and the boys Scott, Bulwer, Manzoni, G. P. R. James, Irving’s brigand tales and Conquest of Granada, Poe’s Gold Bug and Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, if they were as cheap as the others ? Is it simply and only a question of cheapness, and has the taste of the audience of story-paper buyers been maligned ?
These papers have editorial pages in which a variety of good advice is printed, calculated to counteract, if attended to, though it may possibly be neglected by those whom it could most serve, the unsettling influence of the body of the contents. They aim at the good graces of the family. There is a department of “ answers to correspondents,” embodying information on manners, morals, dress, education, the affections. Edith F. is informed that too many rings on the fingers are vulgar; Emma D. that pie should be eaten with a fork; and L. M. that there is no such thing as love at first sight. Any young lady, it is tartly said, to whom a young man should propose marriage at first sight would endeavor to restrain his impetuosity for a day or two, so as to discover from what lunatic asylum he had escaped, and have him returned to his keepers. There are short essays and reflections on housekeeping; the care of children; the advisability of cheerfulness and economy; of going early to bed and of rising early; even, somewhat strangely, on moderation and taste in reading. They are trite and Tupperish, but one learns these things somewhere for the first time, and then they are strikingly novel. Who was the profound writer in whom they were new to us? How could we know he took them from predecessors who originated them not far from January 1st of the year One?
In considering the real influence of these papers it must be reckoned, not upon those who have outgrown them, and been led by the study of better things to see their absurdity, but on those who remain immersed in them for lack of better ideals, or leave them only to read nothing at all. They are by no means needed to account for an adventurous spirit in human nature. Robinson Crusoe ran away to sea in the year 1632, when this kind of literature could have been very little prevalent. But they certainly foment it to the utmost. The first condition of a happy existence is the ability to support ennui. But the personages here are never exhibited attending to the ordinary duties of existence. Embarked in the chase for some lost child, abducted heiress, or secreted will, they rush hither and thither, without ever stopping, around the world, and around again, if need be; and when it is done they fall into a state of inanition, or at least, they would, only at that very moment the story is done, also. The labors and sacrifices demanded are of too extreme a type to be valuable as examples. The heroes and heroines would die for each other at any time, but which would curb his temper in a provoking moment; which would get up first and make the fire, in case there were no servants? — but there always are servants, in troops.
Still, the best of the story papers reward virtue and punish vice. Their dependence upon the family keeps them, as a rule, free of dangerous appeals to the lower passions. Ranging over all countries and periods, they convey considerable information about history and foreign parts into quarters where very little would otherwise penetrate. They encourage a chivalrous devotion to woman, though they do not do much towards making her more worthy of it. The story papers, then,—it is not here a question of those that have been said to be positively bad, — are not an unmixed evil. The legitimate charge against them is not that they are so bad, but only that they are not better.
The great question is, Are they better than nothing ? There are persons who read neither story-papers nor anything else. They are no doubt exemplary and superior in many relations of life, prudent in matters of sentiment, cool in business, with the extra time for use that might otherwise have been expended in flights of the imagination; but let us believe that they have secretly their follies, too, as much as if they believed in pirates, hidden treasures, and destroyers.
The taste for reading, however perverted, is connected with something noble, with an interest in things outside of the small domain of self, with a praiseworthy curiosity about the great planet we inhabit. One is almost ready to say that, rather than not have it at all, it had better be nourished on no better food than story papers.
But it is a pity it is no better. This is the last, as it was the first and the continuous reflection from a view of the enormous extent of this imaginative craving, and the means by which it is ministered to. There ought to be in it information of worth; a separation of sense from nonsense; characters which, without preaching, should remain in the memory, as a stimulus to better things in trying times.
W. H. Bishop.