"Our Youth and Youth's Literature From A Chinese Point of View"

March 11, 1882

Frank Bellew

"Our Youth and Youth

Arts and Entertainment; Children; Chinese Americans;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

"Melican boy allee leadee Dimee Novelee; blood thundee stoley papee; muchee fightee, shootee, cuttee knifee; lun away killee Led man. Welly bad boy, Melican boy."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon is one of a series by Frank Bellew in which he depicts various aspects of American society from a supposedly Chinese point of view, mimicking Chinese calligraphy in the art and an exaggerated Chinese accent in the text. These cartoons were published during a period of intense anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, which culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That federal law imposed a ten-year ban (later extended) on Chinese immigration to the United States, and prohibited Chinese already resident in America from becoming citizens. The editorials and political cartoons of Harper’s Weekly opposed the Exclusion Act and condemned anti-Chinese prejudice and mistreatment. Bellew’s cartoons point out unfavorable aspects of American society and contrast them with the civilization of the Chinese. Here, a Chinese man removes his son from the immoral influence of American boys who have learned violence from dime novels and story papers.

Aimed largely at urban, working-class youth (especially males), dime novels and story papers were a publishing phenomenon in the nineteenth century. They were formulaic tales of adventure or romance packaged in an easy-to-read, inexpensive format, and sold at newsstands (as in this cartoon) and grocery stores across the country. The eight-page, illustrated weeklies, such as Saturday Journal and Fireside Companion, contained serialized episodes of three or four separate stories, which were later collected and reprinted as dime (and later, nickel) novels. The readership of story papers reached as high as 400,000 per issue, easily surpassing the circulation of most newspapers.

Dime novels had their Antebellum roots in romanticized adventure novels, such as the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, which emphasized tensions between the wild frontier and encroaching civilization. At mid-century, a combination of widespread literacy, advancements in print mechanization, and an improved transportation system (for distribution), laid the groundwork for the emergence of the dime novel. In June 1860, Beadle publishing house in New York published the first dime novel, Malaeska, written by Ann S. Stephens. The tale of an Indian woman who marries a white man sold 65,000 copies within a few months. That summer, Beadle also released Seth Jones, the tale of a daring and true backwoodsman, which sold 600,000 copies.

The small format (four by six inches; 100 pages), inexpensive price, and sensational, page-turning stories made dime novels enormously popular with Civil War soldiers. By 1865, Beadle had produced four million copies, as other publishers joined the dime-novel market. Firms hired unknown teachers, journalists, and clerks to crank out the conventional plots. A few famous writers, though, contributed to the genre at some point in their careers, including Louisa May Alcott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Everett, Horace Greeley, and Upton Sinclair. There were several different types of dime novels, such as urban crime stories, detective novels, narratives of working girls, costume romances, and wild west sagas, while others targeted specific immigrant groups, such as the "Ten Cent Irish Novels" and "Die Deutsche Library."

The western adventure was one of the most popular types of dime novel. In 1869, Ned Buntline, a pseudonym of Edward Judson, traveled west to interview a famous frontier scout. Instead, Buntline met a more intriguing character by the name of William Cody. Buntline romanticized Cody’s adventures into Buffalo Bill: The King of Border Men (1869), the first of a series of 550 dime novels about "Buffalo Bill" Cody (written by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham after Buntline’s death in 1879). Those and other Wild West stories were full of gun fights, gambling, dance halls, buffalo hunts, cowboys, and Indians.

In the 1880s, urban settings gained ground over tales of the West, although the latter’s popularity continued. Both types featured rugged individuals struggling for success in a hostile environment. The most prolific writer of the urban dime novels was Horatio Alger, whose books like Ragged Dick (1867), showcased poor street urchins in large American cities. With hard work, perseverance, and timely opportunity (luck), Alger’s boy-heroes traveled the road from rags to riches. Alger’s and other urban dime novels helped working-class youth, many of whom were immigrants or rural migrants, better navigate what could be the confusing ways of the city. Besides experiencing a good yarn, readers learned how to open a bank account, take public transportation, rent an inexpensive room, avoid con artists, and other valuable information.

As this cartoon makes clear, not everyone thought dime novels and story papers were innocent fun. They were denounced by some clergy, parents, teachers, and journalists for corrupting the youth of America with vulgar and violence fantasies. Anthony Comstock, the famous anti-vice crusader, warned against the morally harmful influence of dime novels and story books in a chapter of his book, Traps for the Young, published the same year that this cartoon appeared (1882).

Harper’s, the leading book publisher in the United States, joined the condemnation of "a very bad kind of literature for young people, of which the ‘dime novel’ is a type—stories in which crime is depicted as heroic, and criminals as heroes, and which distill an insidious poison of immorality into fresh and candid minds." In an effort to redeem the genre, as well as tap into the lucrative market, they established Harper’s Young People in 1879. The contents of a typical issue (1881) includes: a poem, "Picnic Sam"; an article on "Sea-Weeds, and How to Preserve Them"; part two of Sarah O. Jewett’s "A Bit of Foolishness," plus "other instructive and entertaining matter."

In fact, a two-column advertisement for Harper’s Young People, with the title in large block letters, appears strategically just beneath this cartoon. Atop the ad is the slogan: "Unsullied by unclean thought or suggestion." Below the title are testimonials from various publications, including the Sunday-School Journal and Illustrated Christian Weekly.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Our Youth and Youth
June 17, 2024

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