- Dime Novel Bill
In the first chapter of Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men; or, The Wildest and Truest Tale I've Ever Told, the white-haired father of the title character perishes as he leads family devotions at his Kansas farmstead from a pistol shot fired by Jake M'Kandlas [sic]. Before the three-page opening chapter of this dime novel concludes, not only is Mr. Cody dead, but M'Kandlas and his band of thirty ruffians have made their escape and the victim's son has vowed vengeance. For the remainder of the novel, whose every chapter is as action-filled as the first, Buffalo Bill pursues his father's killer accompanied by his sidekick, Wild Bill Hitchcock [sic], and others who share his sense of justice. Their quest takes them not only into Indian country, where they confront savage Sioux, but also into southern Missouri, where during the novel's time setting at the onset of the Civil War, they must deal with the Confederate sympathizers, including Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch [sic again], among whom M'Kandlas has sought refuge.
This novel, the first in which Edward Z. C. Judson (writing as Ned Buntline) features a hero based on the real-life frontier figure William F. Cody, whom Judson had apparently met during a stopover at North Platte, Nebraska, on an overland railroad journey in 1869, is one of four dime novels with Western settings that Clay Reynolds has made available in The Hero of a Hundred Fights: Collected Stories from the Dime Novel King, from Buffalo Bill to Wild Bill Hickok. The others are equally action-driven. Hazel-Eye, the Girl Trapper, A Tale of Strange Young Life also begins with the murder of the protagonist's father and hinges on the mistaken identities common in nineteenth-century fiction before justice appropriately conquers. The Miner Detective; or, The Ghost of the Gulch introduces a forerunner of Sherlock Holmes who manipulates superstitious dread of the uncanny to exact revenge upon a notorious murderer. Wild Bill's Last Trail treats the last days of James Butler Hickok, who bears little resemblance to Buffalo Bill's boon companion in the earlier narrative, in a darkly fatalistic manner. These novels were published between 1869 and 1880, three in serialized format before appearing as complete books. Once he has introduced them both in a lively written general prefatory essay and in briefer headnotes for each, editor Reynolds allows the novels to speak for themselves.
That prefatory essay provides an excellent introduction to the life and art of "Ned Buntline," much of which remains speculative, and to the genre of the dime novel, which flourished in the US during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Author Judson was an important figure in the period's popular literature, and Reynolds brings him to life in a succinct overview which gives the reader plenty of tantalizing details about a man who would be of interest even if he had not written a word. More importantly, Reynolds provides us with what we need to appreciate the Buntline oeuvre. The novels are formulaic, heavy on action (much of which is improbable), short on characterization, reliant on stereotypes, reflective of the temper of their era, and immensely entertaining. The reader who puts aside expectations of what a novel should be can spend a few pleasant hours with noble and ignoble figures who engage in outrageous adventures in a western landscape often based as much on speculation as on reality. But the reader can derive more than a few hours entertainment in reading through these exciting stories. Like popular culture in general, they mirror their cultural milieu. One gets a good idea of mainstream American values (at least as they were perceived by Judson, who was writing for the masses) in the nineteenth century. Moreover, these novels—along with more highly regarded nineteenth-century sources such as the Leatherstocking tales of...