Saturday, December 17, 2011

Charles Bragin and the Dime Novel Club Reprints



E.M. Sanchez Saavedra

In every field of collecting certain individuals rise head and shoulders above the rest. Dime novels, story papers and penny dreadfuls are no exception. England’s “Barry Ono” (Frederick Valentine Harrison, 1876 - 1941), much of whose collection is now in the British Library, amassed the greatest personal accumulation of “bloods” and boys’ journals. His American counterpart was “a graying, five-foot-four Brooklynite with a voice like the roar of a prairie fire” named Charles Bragin (1891? - 1974). Unlike the dandy, twinkly London music hall performer and “king of the penny dreadfuls,” Bragin was a solidly working-class businessman -- an exporter of automobile accessories -- who lived in the Bensonhurst section of New York City. According to a tongue-in-cheek article by Pete Martin in the Saturday Evening Post for August 3, 1946, Bragin had three passions in life: laziness, baseball and dime novels. His success as an exporter enabled him to realize all three passions when he retired in 1931 at the age of thirty-nine. He rarely missed a N.Y. Yankees game. He generally took things easy and sent hired teams of “book scouts” throughout the country to ferret out dime novels, instead of beating his feet and the boondocks. In the depths of the Great Depression, many people were glad to get this regular employment. He always paid cash, so his collection of about 1,000 novels swelled to 20,000+ in a few years. Eventually, it was reputedly closer to 50,000.

 As a small boy, Bragin discovered the joys of reading the thin pamphlets that jostled one another in every newsstand, cigar store and general emporium, their lurid covers competing for customers’ nickels. He never lost his childhood sense of pleasure in handling novels and showing them to anyone who would listen to his anecdotes of authors and publishers.

Most collectors with uncommon interests have a sense that they are probably the only people on the planet with a yen for whatever stirs their collecting passion. Before the Internet, if their quarry was out of the main line of stamps, coins, furniture, pottery or fine art, finding fellow enthusiasts was difficult, if not impossible. Dime novels were given an unexpected boost when in 1920 Dr. Frank P. O’Brien, a New York oral surgeon and fanatical collector of Beadle imprints, sold a large portion of his collection at an auction of “American Pioneer Life.”

The catalogue may be seen online HERE

This sale, at which individual lots went for unheard-of sums, galvanized book collectors into taking a favorable look at what was then considered pure trash. A fondness for disreputable blood-and-thunder tales was akin to confessing a love of pornography or carnival freak shows. After the success of the auction, Dr. O’Brien then donated the remainder of his collection to the New York Public Library, thus cementing their new respectability. Charles Bragin, then starting out in business, probably grinned his wide grin at the public’s altered attitude to his favorite collectibles and muttered “I told you so.”

In the spring of 1945, Ralph F. Cummings, founder and editor of Dime Novel Round-Up, began issuing a modest series of facsimile reprints with Deadwood Dick and Frank James on the Trail. Charles Bragin loved the idea of reprinting some of the gems from his own collection and followed suit several months later. He began by creating a “Dime Novel Club,” which was more a list of subscribers than an interactive organization for collectors to socialize and swap. That function was, (and still is to a certain extent,) handled by the “Happy Hours Brotherhood,” and its Dime Novel Round-Up. Bragin’s “Advisory Board” of honorary members boasted an impressive lineup, including Albert Johannsen, George Hess, J. Frank Dobie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Burton Rascoe, “Ellery Queen,” Robert Moses, Vincent Starrett and a sprinkling of jurists, journalists, business leaders and academics. He outlined an ambitious ten-year plan for reprinting facsimiles of the scarcest and most influential novels in most genres. Within a year, Bragin was the public face of novel collecting. He was written up in True Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. His booming voice was heard on the radio and he became a local Brooklyn celebrity.

Eventually, Bragin’s enterprise merged with the “Happy Hours Brotherhood’s” and by 1960, a total of 73 novels had been reproduced. Their planigraphic printing technique on pulp paper resulted in a product that closely resembled the original. Bragin was concerned that his copies would be mistaken for rare antique novels and took some steps to prevent this. Several reprints are smaller or larger than the originals. Three-color covers were reproduced in a two-color separation. Novels containing two stories were abridged to include only the principal yarn. Advertisements for Dime Novel Club reprints might replace an original Beadle or Tousey advertising page. Most carry a “Dime Novel Club Reprint No. x” stamp in several places, or a “Charles Bragin” stamp. Unfortunately, now that the pulp paper reprints are older than some of the originals from which Bragin worked (in 1945, a 1905 novel was only forty years old) they have browned to the point that they are difficult to distinguish from their prototypes at first glance.

About thirty years ago, I purchased a group of dime novels from the late Edward T. LeBlanc, longtime editor of Dime Novel Round-Up. Comparing several titles with Dime Novel Club reprints, I realized that they were the originals from which Bragin had worked! The first “Gentleman Joe” story by Joseph E. Badger in Street and Smith’s Nugget Library had been printed on wretchedly acidic pulp, and was heavily patched by an earlier owner. A shadow of the patch is visible on the reprint, as well as a retouching of the picture caption, necessitated by an ink smudge. The Lawyer Detective, in Old Cap Collier Library No. 379, demonstrated Bragin’s attempt to distinguish between his reprint and the original. For a few issues, Norman L. Munro enlarged the format of the library and increased the price from five to ten cents. Bragin reduced the reprint to a smaller size. The patched spine of the original is just barely visible on the lower left-hand margin of the reprint’s cover illustration. The reprint of Old Sleuth, Badger & Co. replaces an ad for George Munro’s Die Deutsche Library with an ad for the Old Sleuth Library and other Munro booklets.

The Bragin reprints have been both a blessing and a curse to researchers. On the plus side, they made rare texts available in a pleasingly nostalgic format. On the negative side, they have skewed the study sample to include only novels readily available as reprints. Past anthologies, such as E.F. Bleiler’s Eight Dime Novels (N.Y.: Dover, 1974), relied heavily on Bragin reprints. In a field comprising literally tens of thousands of novels, much research and commentary in the past six decades has focused on a mere 73 items! Without them, however, dime novel collecting research might nearly have died away altogether. Libraries and historical societies are justly reluctant to allow the public to handle their fragile treasures and funds are usually unavailable to microfilm or digitize their holdings. Some shining exceptions are the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Bowling Green State University, Ohio, Stanford University, California, and Emory University, Georgia.

For a complete list of reprints, see “Just Like the Original: The Story of the Happy Hours Brotherhood and Dime Novel Club Facsimile Reproductions” by Edward T. LeBlanc, Dime Novel Round-Up, Vol. 64, No. 3, June 1995. The University of Dayton, Ohio, has most of the reprints. 

A selection of reprint novels and Bragin catalogues may be viewed online HERE

Part II Gallery HERE

No comments:

Post a Comment