Raising a Dime Novel: Cobb’s The False Knight

Give me them good ol’ days of guns, of snakes, an’ gapin’ jaws
Of wolves an’ ragin’ catamounts, with blood upon their paws;
W’en six-foot heroes courted girls that they had snatched away
From out a bloody bandit’s clasp, an’ tramped him into clay.

I wish we had some writers now who understand the job,
Some writers who can sling themselves like ol’ Sylvanus Cobb!

Sam Walter Foss, “Uncle Seth on the Modern Novel”

Outstanding popular novelist of nineteenth century America, Sylvanus Cobb Jr (1823-87) was famous for contributions to the New York Ledger. From 1856 until his death in 1887 the Ledger published his short stories and serialised novels, adding up to 89,544 pages of manuscript. During his whole career he produced 120 novels, over 800 short stories, and over 90,000 manuscript pages of short pieces for weeklies.

Sylvanus Cobb Jr.

Sylvanus Cobb Jr.

Cobb was a scrupulous researcher, and three years’ experience as a seafarer in the United States Navy provided him with plenty of material. But in addition to his own name, he found it advantageous to employ several pseudonyms. Under “Colonel Walter B. Dunlap,” he cultivated notoriety as an adventurer and expert on the East.

“Colonel Dunlap,” wrote his publisher:

has travelled through Asia and Africa, and has had considerable experience in fighting elephants, lions, tigers, boa constrictors, cannibals and other tough customers …

At the same time that Cobb’s own novels were appearing in the Ledger, so did seventy-two of the Colonel’s “Forest Adventures” and several “Sketches of Adventure.” His publisher spruiked one of the Colonel’s serialised novels, Lorinda the Princess; or, The Sultana’s Diadem as

a new story of Eastern life, with which Colonel Dunlap is so familiar. He has travelled a great deal, and, judging from his thrilling sketches in the Ledger, he has had more adventures than almost any other living man.

The Colonel grew into such a vivid figure that the Ledger received countless inquiries about him, and one man claimed to have met him out West.

Cobb’s brilliant writing reached Australian shores in the 1880s. The False Knight appeared serialized far and wide, creating a sensation from the Nepean, through Horsham, to out beyond the black stump. It is to this medieval story of love, mystery, and adventure set in the Black Forest of Germany that we now turn in our quest for gems of penny and dime novels that would otherwise remain buried. The serial begins next week.

Context and commentary by Oliver Raven will accompany each instalment. An acute observer and entertaining writer, Oliver is expert in German history, culture and language, and has trodden among some of the very scenes and castles where the adventure takes place.

Perhaps he will be able to keep Cobb honest. I doubt it.

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