- Historic Sites
The Books We Got For Christmas
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Frank Merriwell was the creation of Gilbert Patten who called himself Burt L. Standish. In 1896 he started writing 20,000 words a week about Frank, whose descriptive name had been chosen after a great deal of thought. There were Frank Merriwell’s Chums, Frank Merriwell Down South, Frank Merriwell’s Courage, Daring, Faith, Foes, etc., etc. There was also Frank Merriwell at Yale, which came through as a kind of Old Blue Never-Never Land, unrecognizable to graduates; yet thousands believed that Merriwell (was he ’99, ’01 or ’02?) had really starred for Old Eli.
Any writer who, like Standish, wrote 209 books in rapid succession, could not help writing a good deal of trash. But Frank Merriwell was innocuous trash and the series hit boys like a harmless epidemic of chicken pox, just as the vacuous Bobbsey Twins sweep through neighborhood after neighborhood today.
The early Elijah Kellogg’s The Elm Island Boys developed into one of the best of the series, as did Edward Sylvester Ellis’ later Deerfoot stories. Footprints in the Forest was by Ellis, and so was such rousing historical fiction as Remember the Alamo and Trailing Geronimo. Good or bad or merely harmless, series books went on and on in the Twentieth Century when Edward Stratemeyer’s Rover Boys began roving On the Ocean, Out West, In the Jungle, On Land and Sea, In the Air until there was no part of the world left for these tireless lads to explore. Somewhere, fancy asks, did they encounter the equally indefatigable Boy Allies? And perhaps, between forays on villains and Kaiserism, hold a celebration?
But of all the series authors, the name of Horatio Alger is the one best remembered. There must be millions of Americans today who have never read a Horatio Alger book (the first appeared in 1867), but there can’t be many who don’t know what a Horatio Alger hero is. Horatio Alger wrote over a hundred books about a hundred heroes. But while the books bore different titles and the heroes different names, they were really the same book and the same hero. That did not in the least bother thousands of boy readers who eagerly followed the adventures of Ragged Dick, Tattered Tom, Phil the Fiddler, and their kind, as through pluck and luck they rose from rags to riches.
Horatio Alger can be held largely responsible for instilling into American boys of a former generation purely materialistic ideals. But he should be given credit for helping bootblacks, fiddlers, beggar boys, and their like in the streets of New York. In some of his books he portrayed their plight so vividly that public indignation was aroused against their exploitation.
In the meantime, little girls had their favorite series too and hugged to themselves the innumerable small books by Sophie May, pseudonym for Rebecca Clarke. In 1863 the Little Prudy series began, followed by the Dotty Dimple books, the Flyaway series, and others by the same author. In Little Grandfather, Sophie May tells of Willy, who walked in his sleep and sat every night by the fire in his father’s barroom. She hastens to add, for the benefit of her temperance-conscious readers, “In those days cider was almost as freely drunk as water, and so, I grieve to say, was New England rum and brandy, and you must not suppose Mr. Parlin was a bad man because he allowed such drinking in his bar-room.” Having thus conscientiously explained Willy’s papa, Sophie May gets on with the adventures of sleepwalking Willy.
In contrast to the often unrealistic series books, there appeared in 1865 a book of such realism that it stood out as unique. It came out in the year that Alice in Wonderland crossed the ocean to delight or puzzle American children. It was Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. Mary Mapes Dodge, its American author, was steeped in the history of Holland and her Dutch ancestors. Her publisher was dubious about launching the book. Would American boys and girls care for a long story about Dutch children? They did, and have been caring ever since. Within thirty years more than a hundred editions appeared in six languages.