December 17, 2015

Fiction in Montana's Historic Newspapers

by Natasha Hollenbach, Montana Newspaper Project Assistant

Tis the season of traveling.  For me, the most difficult part of my packing process is deciding what I’m going to read on the plane (and in the airports).  Kindle has simplified the process in terms of space, but the problem of which book remains.  Do I want to read something funny or serious?  Fiction or non-fiction?  This genre or that genre?  For this reading season, I have brought together some suggestions from historical Montana newspapers available on Chronicling America (

Most scholarly discussion on fiction found in newspapers focus on the serial publication of novels.  If this appeals to you, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was published in The Roundup Record from July 23, 1909 through Oct 15, 1909.  Or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four ran in The Kalispell Bee during the month of February 1902.  It can be fascinating to see how the reading the story in a serial form creates a different experience, and sometimes the newspaper version of the story is significantly different from the novel version.  However, by limiting themselves to serialized novels, these researchers have overlooked most of the fiction published in newspapers from 1880-1922.

Roundup Record - July 16, 1909
Most Montana newspaper fiction during this period were one or two column short stories.  Even the researchers who acknowledge their existence tend to dismiss these stories as romances aimed at women readers.  While it is true, that the majority I ran across were romances, a substaintial number weren't. Even the romances show a variety of themes, settings, and endings.  Below are links to several stories highlighting this genre’s range.
Vera’s Trustee by Clarissa Mackie
The Girl from Goshen by Clarissa Mackie
Out of the Sky A Fourth of July Story by Clarissa Mackie
On the Border A Story for Memorial Day by F.A. Mitchel
A Belgian War Romance by Louise B. Cummings
Love’s Horrors by Louise B. Cummings
The Spotted Death A Story of Vengeance by F A Mitchel
Robin’s Christmas Gift by Clarissa Mackie

From The Spotted Death A Story of Vengeance
The Ronan Pioneer - April 12, 1912
Obviously this genre encompasses a great deal.  However, there were a number of surprising non-romance stories.  Here are two that I think of as Frankenstein-type stories.  Both have an emphasis on the legal implications, which is an angle that I’d never considered.
A Scientist’s Startling Proof by Oscar Cox
Omnium A Story of the Year 1985 by F.A. Mitchel (Before you write in angry comments, I know this is not from a Montana paper, but it's one of my favorites so I'm including it.)
There are ghost stories,
Perhaps not surprisingly there are numerous stories were the point seems to be imparting a moral lesson. 
Her Easter Bonnet by Clarissa Mackie
The Call It Occasions a Struggle Between Love and Duty by Clarissa Mackie
An Easter Lily It Inspires Good Feeling and Good Deeds by Clarissa Mackie

From An Easter Lily
The Whitefish Pilot - May 18, 1911
Next three stories don’t fit into any of the above categories but I think are worth mentioning.  The first is the social implications of the new technology: telephone party lines.  The second straddles the line of moral lesson and war.  The last story from 1913 surprised me because I really expected a different ending.  I interpret my surprise as partly due to a change in societal expectations and partly a difference in common story plots between then and now.
A Party Wire Muddle by Constance Wild
The Milksop by F. A. Mitchel
The New Girl She Found a Friend in Need by Clarissa Mackie
One of the main tropes during this period is coincidence.  Below are three stories (and believe me there were many more) that rest solely on a coincidence massive enough to be Shakespearian.  Just as I was beginning to lose hope, I found the last story on the list which actually goes against type.  It seems to me there is a research topic here about literary trends and their development.
If you’ve been looking at the authors, you’ll realize most of these stories have been written by three or four authors.  Many of them seemingly women.  However, my favorite of these authors is F.A. Mitchel.  The reason he’s my favorite is because his stories are the most diverse.  (Also in a couple of his stories he refers to East Tennessee, which is the correct name for that part of the state and he knows that East Tennessee supported the Union during the Civil War. I grew up in East Tennessee and it makes me happy when people get these things right.)  Below are a couple of his stories for a compare and contrast exercise.  They both are set during the Civil War in the South with a 11-12 year old boy as protagonist. However, compare the plots. Based on newspaper articles about Mitchel, I learned that he served in the Union army, and I definitely see some writer bias influencing the endings.
The Little Courier by F. A. Mitchel
The Little Bridge Burner A Civil War Story by F. A. Mitchel

From The Little Bridge Burner
The Western News - May 25, 1910
Whatever your reading tastes are, the historic newspapers of Chronicling America have a story for you.  So for all your travels or when staying at home, I hope you find the perfect reading material.

Harter, E. & Harter, D. (1991). Boilerplating America: The Hidden Newspaper. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.
Johanningsmeir, C. (2004). "The Devil, Capitalism, and Frank Norris: Defining the 'Reading Field' for Sunday Newspaper Fiction, 1870-1910." American Periodicals, 14(1), 91-112.
Johanningsmeier, C. (1995). "Expanding the Scope of 'Periodical History' for Literary Studies: Irving Bacheller and His Newspaper Fiction Syndicate." American Periodicals, 5, 14-39.
Lichtenstein, Nelson (1978). "Authorial Professionalism and the Literary Marketplace 1885-1900." American Studies, 19(1), 35-53.