Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Church of Deadwood Dick


When I was in college I read a book titled Deadwood Dick on Deck; Or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up, by Edward L. Wheeler. It was a reprint of a story originally published in 1885 as an entry in the Beadle's Half Dime Library (hereafter, BHDL).

I no longer have the book and cannot find the text online, but as I recall it, there was a scene in which a character told a story beside a campfire. As he began his speech he lit a cigar. A few pages later he concluded the story and tapped the ashes out of his pipe.

The BHDL was a disposable entertainment, a pulp magazine marketed toward boys. The stories were hurriedly written, hastily edited and rushed into print. Apparently Edward L. Wheeler made a simple mistake, forgetting what kind of smoking material his character was using. It slipped past the editors and made it into print. It was all quite inconsequential.

Now, I invite you to join me in a thought experiment. Imagine that there is a cult of people who worship Deadwood Dick. We'll call them “Dickians.” It is ridiculous, I know, but bear with me as we further imagine that the Beadle's Half Dime Library is the sacred scripture of the Church of Deadwood Dick. The Dickians read the BHDL to learn about the words and deeds of their idol. They seek to discern Deadwood Dick's will for their lives in the BHDL's pulpy pages.

Next, let us imagine that there is a subset of Dickians who believe that the BHDL is not only inspired, but also inerrant. Their reasoning goes something like this: Deadwood Dick is a straight-shooter, honest and true. Deadwood Dick would not lie. Since Deadwood Dick inspired the writing of the BHDL, and since it is, in very fact, the word of Deadwood Dick, then it must be true, free of error and without contradiction. Given the premises of this thought experiment, this seems reasonable. Doesn't it?

How then, might these inerrantist Dickians explain the apparent contradiction of the character in Deadwood Dick on Deck who lights a cigar and taps out a pipe? I could suggest a few strategies.

For one, they could argue that the word of Deadwood Dick is infallible, but human beings are not. Edward L. Wheeler's original manuscript of Deadwood Dick on Deck was, therefore, inerrant, but error crept in somewhere along the line, perhaps in the process of editing or typesetting. If Wheeler's original manuscript was lost or destroyed, this assertion could not be falsified.

Or, a Dickian inerrantist might argue that there is no actual contradiction in a character lighting a cigar and tapping out a pipe. Perhaps the character finished smoking his cigar in the midst of telling his story, took out his pipe and smoked it until he finished the tale. Or, maybe he had a cold pipeful of ashes in his pocket and was, in fact, still puffing away at his cigar when he emptied the pipe into the campfire. You have to admit that it could be.

These are two possible ways that an inerrantist Dickian might explain the seeming contradiction of the cigar and the pipe. Both explanations are possible and even plausible. So the point of this (admittedly silly) thought experiment is to ask, which explanation makes the best sense of the evidence before us? Is it to say that there was no error in a non-existent original manuscript of Deadwood Dick on Deck? Is it to deny that there is actually a contradiction in lighting a cigar and tapping out a pipe? Or does it make the most sense to say that Edward L. Wheeler simply made a mistake?

More to come.

If any of my reader's owns a copy of Deadwood Dick on Deck, I would appreciate a little fact checking. What was the name of the character who lit a cigar and tapped out a pipe? In which chapter did this occur? Etc. The picture of Beadle's Half Dime Library No. 138 came from this website.

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