Boys' Adventure Magazines and the Discourse of Adventure, 1860-1885

Boys’ Adventure Magazines and the Discourse of Adventure, 1860-1885

Richard D. Fulton

Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, 15:1 (2010)


The meteoric rise in popularity of boys’ adventure magazines in the period 1860-1880 can be attributed in part to their common discourse, which they shared with each other and perhaps 6 million boys and girls. That characteristic discourse included a rhetoric that emphasized sensational actions, simple good/evil characters and situations, simple language, colorful slang, jargon, and recurring metaphors (especially sporting and military metaphors) to emphasize action and excitement. Although readership cut across class lines, the common values were gendered male and located in the lower middle and working classes: cleverness, personal honor, strength, generosity, a predilection to violence, respect for physical achievement, and the satisfaction of revenge. This paper examines the discourse in detail and indicates how it filled all elements of the magazines, from advertising to images to articles and stories, and speculates on the role of magazines in spreading these values in popular culture.

The 500-odd Victorian boys’ adventure magazines published in the latter half of the nineteenth century have stoked controversy since they first started appearing in large numbers in the 1860s. Many mid-century moral guardians, ever alert to the springs of moral pollution set to ensnare innocent youth, considered them to be no different from the penny bloods, an easy stretch since the adventure magazines often included crime stories and they cost a penny (six pence for the collected monthly). The journalist James Greenwood spoke for many of his contemporaries when he claimed the bloods and “gallows magazines” sold at trashy newsdealers in trashy alleys in Clerkenwell seduced boys into a life of crime. Greenwood warned his readers of the Fagins of the periodical world, “low-minded, nasty fellows, the proprietors and promoters of what may be truthfully described as ‘gallows literature,’” who would inevitably lead poor half-literate street lads to ruin.

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