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A new school approach to critiquing dime novel Westerns

Ellie Redding is tapping her computer science skills to uncover the literary brilliance of tales of the Old West

Ellie Redding. Undergraduate researcher.Ellie Redding grew up outdoors in Southern California, often spending weekends in Death Valley with her family, and fell in love with the desert and the great wide open spaces. She's a senior now, and that abiding affection for the West has led Redding to take a serious look into how the popular vision of the cowboy days was created.

In doing so, Redding is taking advantage of Stanford's encouragement for undergraduate students to tackle advanced research. Specifically, she has immersed herself in the archives of Stanford Libraries to shed light on the most prolific genre of the 19th century literature of the Wild West – the dime novel Western.

Back in the day – spanning a period from the 1860s to the 1920s – almost every literate American read dime novel Westerns. These wildly popular books were called dime novels for an obvious reason: they were printed on cheap paper with cheap ink and sold for a nickel, dime or 15 cents, putting them within reach of just about everyone. And that's who read them – just about everyone, as Redding has learned.

These everyman's novels, ordered through the mail or purchased at newsstands and dry goods stores, helped form the popular vision, accurate or not, of the rugged life west of the Mississippi River.

All this resonates with Redding. "I have a love for wide open spaces, for skies that have no light pollution," she said. "So when I stumbled across this kind of literature that romances this, written when these wide open spaces were still so much more wider, it was exciting."

Photo: Linda Cicero Stanford undergraduate Ellie Redding holds up an original dime novel book, a vivid tale of the Wild West which was often adorned with a colorful cover like the one shown here.

Through careful analysis of the writing style embodied in dime novels, Ellie Redding is challenging the popular viewpoint that these popular tales of the Wild West are "trashy."

Redding is an English major with a computer science minor, which puts her in a perfect position to conduct her Western research as a student fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, where she consults with Stanford faculty members and visiting fellows from other universities. "I'm using digital humanities tools to study the writing style of the dime Western," she said.

Although the phrase "dime novel" conjures up stereotyped yarns of Wild West adventure, accented with lurid cover illustrations, the books were aimed at youthful, working-class audiences and distributed in massive editions at newsstands and dry goods stores. With access to the extensive collection of dime novels in the special collections of Stanford Libraries, Redding has immersed herself in the style of these books, their history and their place in literature.

Redding's deep research into the topic runs counter to the opinion of dime novels held by most literary critics, she said. A common knock against the stories is that they are driven by plot, and often somewhat "trashy."

When I stumbled across this kind of literature that romances this, written when these wide open spaces were still so much more wider, it was exciting.

She has found the stories to be alive with descriptive adjectives, but almost completely lacking in adverbs, which would only serve to slow the galloping pace of the writing. The books were always intended to provide an escape for the reader, and the moments of escape are very deliberately constructed to provide that experience.

"When you really look at what's there, you see that it does a lot of the same stylistic things like all literature that people study," she said. "It affects the reader's experience, or constructs the reader's experience in some important way."

Her computer science skills have played a role as well. She's written code to search through the text, for example, studying the sentence structure and the flow of the prose. She was surprised and delighted to find the use of a sentence structure known as "Miltonic inversion," as in John Milton, the poet.

"I walk down the halls of the Humanities Center and I see so many names of people I have idolized while at Stanford," she said. "It's invaluable to be able to spend this much time developing, refining, and learning more about a single topic. I'm learning a lot about positioning myself in a field of scholars. It's also a lot of fun."

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