In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • New Perspectives on Seriality
  • The Editors
  • Movie Stars and Seriality in the 1910s
  • Richard Abel (bio)

Scholarly work on seriality in fiction, at least in my limited view, chiefly seems to have taken on one of two subjects: (1) standardized media practices in production and distribution, or (2) narrative construction, whether in a related series of discrete stories or in lengthy texts divided into continuing episodes. Familiar studies include, among others, those on nineteenth-century fiction, early twentieth-century comic strips and film serials, later network soap operas and comedy series, more recent “bodice-rippers” and detective thrillers, and current series hits, as well as experiments on the web. Those studies obviously have been needed, insightful, and invaluable. Let me propose a slight shift in focus to the figure of the hero or heroine (or sometimes a pair) whose recurrence, I would argue, was crucial to the unusual success of seriality in mass culture at the turn of the last century. My examples come from American dime novels, pulp fiction, and early film series and serials. And my argument, put simply, is that seriality in the movies was not the same in substance and function as that in print fiction because the appeal of personalities or stars for moviegoers differed from that of the figures and characters of print fiction for readers.

In the late nineteenth century, a good number of publishers featured detective stories that appeared first in weekly magazines and often were reprinted. For Street & Smith, the most important was Nick Carter, who quickly became such a popular hero that in 1891 his exploits were serialized in the Nick Carter Detective Library, which later in the decade appeared simply as the Nick Carter Weekly or The New Nick Carter Weekly and as Tip Top Weekly.1 Detectives like Carter shared a major characteristic: they were less characters than imaginary figures that, beyond employing different tactics and stratagems (often involving disguises), changed hardly at all from one story to another. In other words, they served as a recurring name, sign, or brand that guaranteed a pleasurable adventure and perhaps also tested a reader’s skills of imagination in solving a fictional crime (fig. 1). Intriguingly, in 1909 the Nick Carter stories made motion pictures a significant element in their plots. In The Man in the Biograph, for instance, the detective drops into a nickelodeon and in one film sees a man doing some slick pickpocket work only later to discover that the pickpocket was not an actor but the “real thing.”2 In what may be the first movie novelette, Shown on the Screen, Carter has to solve not one but two related cases involving movie actors. First, he gives relief to a former pickpocket who is horrified to see his son picking pockets in a movie street scene, yet the young man turns out to have been hired to act in the film. Later, the young man and an actress are abducted, ironically, while acting in a kidnapping scene; in rescuing the couple, the [End Page 81] detective uncovers the kidnappers’ motive: the actress turns out to be the heiress to a fortune. If these stories’ mysteries and settings seem to keep up with the changing times over two decades, Carter himself remains little changed, never developing the attributes of a more dimensional character.3

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Figure 1.

Shown on the Screen cover (New York: Street and Smith, 1909).

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Figure 2.

Original book cover (1914). Author’s collection.

Most juvenile pulp fiction that engaged more closely with the movies, beginning in 1913–14, involved heroes and heroines that similarly underwent little change. For examples, there is the series published by Grosset & Dunlap: Moving Picture Chums, Moving Picture Boys, and Moving Picture Girls.4 Then, there is the Ruth Fielding series (fig. 2). It begins with the teenage Ruth in a boarding school where, sometimes with the help of friends, she plays detective, solving one mystery after another. In the ninth volume, Ruth Fielding in Moving Pictures (1916), however, she writes a photoplay in order to raise money for the school after the dormitory is...


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pp. 81-125
Launched on MUSE
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