Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Gretchen Woertendyke


This dissertation argues that in the midst of an uncertain but formative period of continental expansion, a revolutionary brand of popular crime fiction appeared and flourished in the pages of cheap periodicals and paperback novels. It consisted of conventional adventure romances and pulpy proto-dime novels that focused on frontier violence and backwoods criminals. Often popular in their day but quickly forgotten, these texts have been given short shrift by scholars and critics due to their shoddiness or ostensibly minor role in literary history. I contend that this obscure brand of crime fiction in fact has much to offer in the ongoing conversation about geographical borders and the roles they play in our conception of nation, culture, and literature.

I will demonstrate the ways in which a specific group of American literary figures – Steelkilt, John Murrell, and Joaquin Murieta, among others – all of whom were featured in popular fiction between the 1830s and 1850s, dramatically altered the representation of crime in antebellum U.S. fiction, while also helping to shape national conceptions of expansion, imperialism, region, and identity. Though often subsumed under the umbrellas of various genres, I consider the narratives containing these characters to be forerunners of a transnational crime genre that continues to be popular today. The texts under consideration in this study begin with Morgan Neville’s 1828 sketch “Last of the Boatmen,” continue through the crime novels of the 1830s and 40s penned by Emerson Bennett and H.R. Howard, and reach their murderous pinnacle in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854). The transnational frontier bandits developed in these pages represent the unstable and at times impossible nature of the U.S. ‘civilizing’ mission. My dissertation aims to perform a threefold critical intervention: to argue that these characters’ appearances in popular texts reveal disturbing fissures in the conventional narrative of U.S. western expansion and national identity, to show that the regions they inhabit function as alien or non-national spaces characterized by culturally polyglot populations and unmapped terrain; and, finally, to demonstrate the overall impact they have on popular U.S. literature and culture in the 1830s, 40s and 50s.