Seth Jones (1860) Spotlight
About the Novel
Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (1860) is a shockingly-bloody and action-packed frontier adventure story, said to be the “perfect dime novel” according to Beadle & Adams editor, Orville Victor. As the recipient of a high-impact advertising campaign with the mysterious tagline, “Who is Seth Jones?”, this early dime novel sought to generate the mass-market interest that many blockbuster films receive today. These efforts were enormously successful. Recognized as one of the best selling novels of the late 19th century, it was said to have sold as many as 400,000 copies. Drawing on the earlier literary successes of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Series, including his best known Last of the Mohicans, Seth Jones encapsulates the rough-and-tumble racialized violence that nineteenth-century readers craved.
Set in late eighteenth-century New York, Seth Jones tells the story of the eponymous back woodsman hero, later revealed to be a gentleman, who skillfully battles local Mohawk warriors to rescue the beautiful and helpless white damsel in distress. It is useful, however, to think of the frontier and Western stories as fantasy spaces, rather than realistic or accurate historical accounts. Dime novels mass marketed the idea of Americans as rugged individualists making their own way in the world. At the core of this fantasy lies an imagined shared identity: the bonds of white brotherhood strengthened by “scenes of gory violence” focused at Native Americans and other nonwhites (Streeby 592).
Seth Jones was first published as no. 8 in Beadle's Dime Novels on October 2, 1860 by Beadle and Co. in New York. Because of the novel's popularity, it was reprinted many times. Reprints include: Beadle's Fifteen Cent Novels no. 8 (1860); Beadle's American Library no. 1 (1861); New & Old Friends no. 1 (1873); Beadle's Half Dime Library nos. 8 (1877) and 1104 (1900); Beadle's New Dime Novels no. 519 (1882); and Beadle's Pocket Library no. 82 (1885). A clothbound edition was published by Dillingham, with a new preface by Ellis, in 1907.
- Literary scholar Bill Brown observes that the dime novel Western was “the medium most responsible for . . . carrying a sensational, violent West with you while you rode an elevated train in Manhattan or waited for the fighting to begin in Shiloh” (5). How and why is violence glorified in Seth Jones? What is the role of the frontier hero in these spaces of violence? How does this violence “other”—make different or alien—Native Americans in their own lands?
- In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), Frederick Jackson Turner argues that the ever-shifting Western frontier, a zone between civilization and savagery, played a central role in the development of an American identity. In what ways does the novel’s frontier setting make “acceptable” certain kinds of violence or other behaviors that would be unacceptable in other settings? Why is this observation important?
- Acknowledging that Seth Jones is a piece of fiction best understood as fantasy, how might we characterize the worldview put forward in Seth Jones? How is this world arranged in terms of gender, race, class, religion? Which characters seem familiar to you? Which ones don’t?
- If you have read James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, in what ways does Seth Jones draw on Cooper? How is Ellis’s fictionalized captivity narrative different from Cooper’s? Why might this literary precedent be important?
- Seth Jones concludes with a wedding, a common plot element not only for providing closure and happily-ever-after endings, but a establishing a promised future of domestic tranquility. What does the wedding scene suggest about the future of New York as a settler space/state?
- In her book Sensational Designs, Jane Tompkins argues that rather than seeing stereotypes as a sign of bad writing, stereotypes play an essential role in popular literature: “As the telegraphic expression of complex clusters of value, stereotyped characters are essential to popularly successful narrative. […They] operate as a cultural shorthand, and because of their multilayered representative function are the carriers of strong emotional associations. Their familiarity and typicality, rather than making them bankrupt or stale, are the basis of their effectiveness as integers in a social equation” (xvi).
- More specifically, what representations of Native Americans did you notice in Seth Jones? For instance, are these characters given emotional depth and motivations for their actions? What representations of white settlers did you notice? Are they given emotional depth and motivations for their actions? What are we, as readers, supposed to understand about these stereotyped characters as stand-ins for tensions between whole groups of people in the U.S.?
- In his essay “Settler States of Feeling,” Mark Rifkin argues that settlers’ attachments to (once) Indigenous lands comes about through official government policies and processes, but just as importantly through ordinary, everyday structures of feeling that naturalize settler belonging and entitlement to Native lands. Can you point to certain events and/or emotional responses in Seth Jones used to establish feelings of settler belonging on Mohawk lands? How does Seth Jones “normalize settler states of presence, privilege, and power”? (342).
- What does it mean that “Seth Jones” is a disguised and fake frontiersman? What are we to make of his transformation into the polished “scholar” and gentleman, Eugene Morton? What does this transformation tell us about the slippery nature of American identities? About the value of various kinds of masculinity in the nineteenth century? About class and class-consciousness? Where does race fit in this hierarchy of masculinities?
- Bold, Christine. Selling the West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860-1960. Indian University Press, 1987.
Bold explores the ways that authors of Westerns from dime novelists such as Ellis to contemporaries such as Alan Le May both use and flex against the constraints of the genre; chapter one looks specifically at dime novel conventions with attention to Ellis.
- Brown, Bill. “Reading the West: Cultural and Historical Background.” Reading the West: An Anthology of Westerns, pp. 1-40.
Part of the Bedford Cultural Editions, Brown’s introduction to the anthology highlights features of the Western from precursors such as Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper; significant historical contexts as well as industry and marketing developments that enabled the dime Western to reach mass markets; and introduces major themes and plot devices.
- Jones, Daryl. The Dime Novel Western. Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1978.
Jones considers the development of conventionalized plots, hero and villain characters, and formulas in the Western.
- Muhlbock, Robert. “Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier and the Rhetoric of Ambivalence.” Dime Novel Round Up, vol. 72, no. 1, 2003, pp. 3-10.
Examines the ambivalence of Ellis’s narration, especially with regard to nature and the Industrial Revolution.
- Rifkin, Mark. “Settler States of Feeling: National Belonging and the Erasure of Native American Presence.” A Companion to American Literary Studies, edited by Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine. Blackwell Publishing, 2011, pp. 342-355.
While not about dime novels, Rifkin’s book chapter underscores how the erasure of Native American presence and white settler feelings of belonging are relatively unnoticed but dominant factors in nineteenth-century American literature such as Thoreau’s Walden and William Apess’s “Eulogy on King Philip.”
- Streeby, Shelley. “Dime Novels and the Rise of Mass Market Genres.” The Cambridge History of the American Novel, edited by Leonard Cassuto, Clare Virginia Eby, and Benjamin Reiss. Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 586-599.
Streeby connects the sentimental precursors of dime novels to the development of Beadle and Adams brand, noting considerable participation by women authors in the dime novel’s history. She concludes with observations on the dime novel’s fate at the dawn of early cinema and other pulp magazines.
- Tompkins, Jane. “Introduction: The Cultural Work of American Fiction.” Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Tompkins’s introduction offers a rationale for the study of popular nineteenth-century American texts, asking readers to reconsider the qualities that make a text “literary” vs. “popular.” She “explore[s] the way that [popular] literature has power in the world, to see how it connects with the beliefs and attitudes of large masses of readers so as to impress or move them deeply” (13).
- Worden, Daniel. “Masculinity for the Million: Gender in the Dime Novel Westerns.” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 3, 2007, pp. 35-60.
Worden argues for a more flexible masculinity performed and adapted by anyone, not relegated to the male body. Detached from class origins, this mode of masculinity is also a “critique of genteel and sentimental marriage plots” (38). Worden cautions that masculinity, while often associated with manifest destiny, “should not be thought of as a mere appendage to this monolithic nationalism.” (52)