Frank Merriwell At Yale Again And Again And Again

PrintPrintEmailEmail

When he died at nearly seventy-nine, in 1945, Gilbert Patten was hailed as the last of the dime novelists. Perhaps he was indeed the last. Certainly his Frank Merriwell was the best known and most revered character of the five-cent weeklies, the cut-rate branch of the dime-novel industry. And the most durable.

Frank Merriwell made his bow on April 18, 1896, in the first issue of Tip Top Weekly . Almost twenty years later, after grinding out a 20,000-word “novel” every week, for a grand total of some 20,000,000 words of pulp-paper biography, Patten put his burden down. Others carried on the Merriwell stories briefly, and they have had many revivals over the years since. They have appeared on the radio and in the comic strips. Perhaps Frank and his clean living chums will yet appear on television; there has been talk of it. In any case, this all-around, all-American boy has been a hero to several living generations of young males. Millions now middle-aged or even older will still smile at the memory.

Sports writers, when faced with reporting a last-minute home run in the ninth inning, or a long run down the field in the fourth quarter, often referred to this providential stroke as a “Frank Merriwell finish.” This was in an era when the only football, of course, was college football. And if you don’t happen to know where Frank went to college, it was Yale. One of Merriwell’s unforgettable lines went into history:

“You are a cheap cad,” Frank told the overdressed Harvard bully.

Many of the more than nine hundred Merriwell stories, it must be recorded sadly, libeled the illustrious university in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Frank Merriwell had an appeal even to the young George Jean Nathan. Writing years later in the American Mercury , the noted drama critic (A.B., Cornell, 1904), who knew Patten only by his Tip Top Weekly by-line, “Burt L. Standish,” paid high tribute to Merriwell’s creator:

I doubt in all seriousness if there was an American writer … who was so widely known and widely read by the boys of the time … For one who read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or “Tom Sawyer,” there were ten thousand who read Standish’s “Frank Merriwell’s Dilemma,” or “Frank Merriwell at Yale.” For one who read Thomas Nelson Page, or Judge Shute, or, for that matter, Horatio Alger, Oliver Optic, or Edward S. Ellis—there were five hundred who weekly followed the exploits of Standish’s magnificent Frank … His influence on American young men was vastly greater than any of these …

My own juvenile experience fitted into this lowbrow bracket. Worse, so far as tradition in my native New England was concerned, I failed to find the sacred Youth’s Companion of much interest, save to yearn for the premiums offered for Hew subscriptions, which included wondrous jackknives equipped with four blades and as many more folding devices useful alike in the parlor or the wigwam. The Companion ’s stories were pitiable fare for one accustomed to Tip Top Weekly ’s Frank Merriwell.

Americans born too late to have met him in the glorious days of his long career may have difficulty understanding what a really superb creation Frank Merriwell was. At the turn of last century, he approximated the young god that almost every boy in the United States actually wanted to be; not, mind you, the fellow that every boy ought to be; that was the Horatio Alger lad—a rather clammy, pious young Uriah Heep who was always out to Hatter his elders or his boss; who made certain his boots were as well shined at the heel as they were at the toe, and who kept his eye pretty much on the cash register and the boss’s marriageable daughter.

No, Frank Merriwell was many cuts above the rags-to-riches hero. Even at birth, Frank already had it made—socially, financially, intellectually. He was instantly and wholly acceptable to millions of boys, city or country, native or foreign-born, and to them he represented not only manliness and success, but the more admirable attitudes and characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon “ruling class” of the period.

The creator of Frank Merriwell was born George William Patten in 1866, of old Yankee stock, in Corinna, Maine. (Later he dropped the George and used the name William Gilbert Patten.) His lather, a gigantic man who had worked in logging camps and on the river drive, was a carpenter who wished his son to follow his trade. His deeply religions mother wanted him to be a minister, and his boyhood was complicated by the fact that both parents were Adventists and extreme pacifists. They lectured him almost daily on the shamefulness of fighting, either in school or on the battlefield. This increased the boy’s natural aversion to brawls, he remembered, “and converted me into a shrinking lad with a sense of inferiority.”