Our collective national self-image is largely formed by an evolving popular culture. The lore of the American West that says we are a gun-toting, independent, self-reliant people is largely the creation Ned Buntline--King of the dime novel. Born Edward Zane Carroll Judson Sr. on March 20, 1821, Buntline penned more than 400 adventure novels, only slightly based on fact, and countless short stories. He made lots of money churning these out. He reportedly wrote a 600-page novel in less than 36 hours. He was prolific to say the least.
Forget about Walt Whitman and Mark Twain in terms of successful contemporary writers. Ned made far more money. He didn't bother to let quality get in the way. He stated, "I found that to make a living I must write ‘trash’ for the masses, for he who endeavors to write for the critical few, and do his genius justice, will go hungry if he has no other means of support.”
While touring the country on a temperance lecture circuit in Nebraska, Buntline met the army scout, William F. Cody. He wrote several stories and plays about Buffalo Bill, creating a sensation. Cody would star in the play in Chicago and from that experience learn how to create the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured America and Europe. The subsequent novels and movies, which have formed our image of the American West were all shaped by Buntline and his creation of Buffalo Bill.
Buntline was fairly disreputable, a drunkard who was kicked out of the army for drunkenness, a traveling temperance speaker, frequently speaking to his audience drunk. He was a womanizer who was married seven times. He murdered the husband of one of his mistresses, supposedly in self-defense. At his trial he was shot and hung by friends of the murdered man. However, he was cut down by supporters from the awning post before strangling. He became involved in the nativist Know-Nothing Party. He helped instigate the Astor Place Riot of 1849 which pitted nativist against immigrants, resulting in the deaths of 25 people. He was reportedly being paid more than $20,000 per year writing stories which stirred up the less educated whom he had little respect for, but made him rich. He preached America was for Americans.
Buntline was a great American huckster. He told so many tall tales, he frequently believed them. Regardless of his ability to write and create an image the strong American West built on self-reliance and independence, Buntline's fiction was not self-realized. For all of his wealth, bravado and seeming "success" - he died in debt at age 63 in 1886. The fanfare faded, his fame diminished and his legacy, which was built on "trash" did not survive the test of time. Though he changed America, few know his name today.