BALLADE OF DIME NOVELS By Arthur Guiterman
GONE are the tales that once we read!
And none that come within our ken
May equal those that filled the head
Of many a worthy citizen
Who thrilled with boyish rapture, when,
In retribution stern, but just,
"The deadly rifle spoke — and then
Another redskin bit the dust!"
We had no malice, not a shred;
For which of us would hurt a wren?
Not blood, but ink was what we shed;
And yet, we bore ourselves like men!
With Buckskin Joe and Bigfoot Ben
In clutch of steel we put our trust,
Until, deprived of oxygen,
Another redskin bit the dust.
On moccasin with silent tread
We tracked our foes through marsh and fen.
We rescued maidens, sore bestead
From savage thrall and outlaw's den.
We feared no odds of one to ten,
Nor hatchet stroke nor bowie thrust,
While still, in wood or rocky glen,
Another redskin bit the dust.
Take up the long neglected pen,
Redeem its valiant steel from rust,
And write those magic words again:
"Another redskin bit the dust!"
“Many a savage form bit the dust, and many a savage howl followed the discharge of his trusty gun.”
Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, Malaeska; The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (New York: Irwin P. Beadle & Co., 1860), chapter 2.
Over sixty years ago, a number of dime novel collectors led by Albert Johannsen embarked on a quest to trace the origin of that quintessential dime novel phrase: “bit the dust,” when used in the sense of meeting sudden death. Articles in The Antiquarian Bookman, May 27, and July 1, 1950, and in the Chicago Daily Tribune, in August and September 1950, attempted to resolve this literary mystery.
Their search logically began with the Judaeo-Christian Bible. In Psalms 72 (King James Version), we find a promising lead:
“They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust.”
But on page 27 of volume 3 of The House of Beadle and Adams, Johannsen discounted the phrases “lick the dust” or “eat the dust” in the KJV as equivocal. I agree. The meaning here is humiliation, rather than violent death. He concluded,
[the true first usage of] “bit the dust…must be credited to a dime novelist, Mrs. Ann Stephens, in 1839.”
And that, so it seemed, was that!
Although Malaeska was first published in 1839 by William W. Snowden in The Ladies' Companion, an earlier and shorter version had appeared four years earlier. On page 206 of The Portland Magazine, Devoted to Literature, Volume I, 1834-5, and entitled The Jockey Cap, the now classic story of the unhappy Native American Malaeska and her Anglo settler husband featured the expression "bit the dust" . This periodical was published by Edward Stephens and edited by Ann. (The text reprinted by Beadle in Dime Novel No. 1, 1860, was essentially the expanded novel of 1839.)
The question remains: did Mrs. Stephens originate the catchy phrase? The answer is a resounding No!
With a little more effort, we can push the date back nearly ninety years -- the first-known purely English usage of “bite the dust,” dating from 1748, is by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett, in his translation from the French of Alain-Rene LeSage’s 1715 picaresque novel Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, in Book III, Chapter II:
In LeSage's original French, the sentence reads:
“Nous fimes mordre la poussiere a deux de ses gens, et les deux autres s’enfuirent.”
Smollett renders this as:
“We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight.”
“Mordre la poussiere” means literally “to bite the dust.” The choice of phrase harks back to a much more ancient original. Both LeSage and Smollett, well grounded in the classics, turned naturally to the expression, thanks to their long familiarity with the works of Homer, where I believe the concept originated. LeSage (1668-1747) studied with the Jesuits in Paris and became fluent in Spanish. His first works were translations of Spanish literature, but he soon branched out into plays and original novels, some with Spanish settings, like Gil Blas, published in parts between 1715 and 1735, and Le Bachelier de Salamanque. His bawdy, picaresque novels matched the talents of Tobias Smollett as a translator.
Among military and medical personnel, who face violent death on a regular basis, a vast repertoire of graveyard humor and euphemisms has existed since antiquity. Expressions like "kick the bucket," "to snuff it," "croak," "wet work," and so on have equivalents worldwide. The classic Monty Python "Dead Parrot Sketch" features a full range, from "bleedin' demised" to "gone to join the Choir Invisible."
The bulk of eighteenth-century education in Europe and the U.K. was taken up with the Greek and Latin classics, with some basic courses in maths, history and informal life lessons in the social graces. Students were forced to memorize thousands of lines of Homer, Xenophon, Herodotus,Vergil, Caesar, Cicero and other writers of antiquity. Those who went on to become writers found that their prose was shaped by the verses and phrases that had been crammed into their heads at school. The thundering metres of Homer, with lines ending in repeating catch-phrases, particularly stuck in their minds.
While it is a truism that modern English owes more to the KJV and Shakespeare than to any other sources, we must not forget the works of the semi-mythical bards whose orally-transmitted epic poems have come to be credited to “Homer.” The Iliad and Odyssey, the two most widely transmitted books in Mediterranean antiquity, were probably first written down in the 8th century BCE. Individual elements may well date from about 1,200 BCE, during the Greek Bronze Age. The Iliad in particular often describes violent falls and death by this almost jocular expression. Its stark image of falling flat on one’s face could not be more graphic.
In order to round out the complicated hexameters of their epics and as a mnemonic device, the Greek bards used a repertoire of stock metrical epithets, such as “the much-roaring sea”, "Faithful Hector," “horse-taming Trojans” or “rosy-fingered dawn.” One common ending line used the expression “bit the dust” (“pethaino” or “daykono [h]o Skone” in Greek.)
The literary language of the Romans included many exact parallels to Greek poetic phrases. Vergil’s Latin equivalent in the Aeneid (Book XI, l. 669) is “humum mandere.”
George Chapman’s verse translation of Homer's Iliad, begun in 1598, does not use the exact phrase, nor do other early rhymed versions. Translations of Homer made after Smollett's Gil Blas, employ it often. The 1809 edition of the Rev. James Morrice’s The Iliad of Homer, Translated into English Blank Verse, uses “bit the dust” in many descriptions of the violent ends of Greek and Trojan warriors. For example, in Book XI, lines 750-752:
Full fifty cuts
I took; from each two warriors bit the dust,
Slain by my spear.
Samuel Butler’s later prose version (1898) translates the phrase in the same words:
"Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him."
Until proven otherwise, I think we may safely conclude that the concept, rather than the actual English phraseology, originated in the Greek epics of the post-Mycenean age, while the English expression derived from a French original in the early eighteenth century.
The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, 1821, p. 493:
(In a translation of a poem in Arabic, describing a fight with a British amphibious force, occurred the following line:)
“We drove them to their boats; and many there were of them who bit the dust – who left their bodies at the Ahmoody Gate festering in the sun, a prey to the dogs.”
The Extractor; or, Universal Reportorium of Literature, Science and the Arts, Vol. II, March to July 1829, p. 146, “Defence of the Castle of Trinity:”
“Ten minutes had elapsed since the firing began, and in that time many a brave fellow had bit the dust.”
The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. III, No. 150, May 16, 1835, p. 368:
“Dogs of all degrees bit the dust, and were caught up dead in stupid amazement by their owners.”
The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine, Vol. VIII, 1836, p. 44:
“There the Pantheon stands – its deities
Have bit the dust”
I could go on belaboring the point, but further quotations would be superfluous. Albert Johannsen and his colleagues were incredible researchers, but they lacked an essential tool that has now become commonplace – the Internet “search engine.”