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Frank Merriwell At Yale Again And Again And Again
Harvard men blanched, cads fled, girls got trembly, and Horatio Alger took a back seat when manly Frank appeared. Score? Twenty million words
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
At fourteen he entered Corinna Union Academy, where, to his teachers, he seemed lazy. Soon he was smoking Old Virginia cheroots, three-for-a-nickel, and Sweet Caporal cigarettes; and on one occasion he got “hot as a skunk” on hard cider. In addition to these delinquencies, he just wouldn’t study. Whereupon his lather told him he’d better get to his books or become an apprentice carpenter. Young Gilbert promptly ran away from home and for six months worked in a machine shop at Biddeford, Maine, for ninety cents a day. He was discharged because he demanded a higher wage.
Far from chastened, he returned home to tell his parents he had decided to become an author. To Patten Senior, “author” was merely a fancy name for “dude,” if not a delinquent. But the father was fair; he gave his son thirty days to make good, and that is just what the young man did. He wrote two short stories in four days and sent them to Orville J. Victor, head of the dime-novel department of Beadle & Adams, the New York publishers who are generally blamed for the invention of this popular sub-literary form. Back came a check for six dollars, with a note from Editor Victor saying that the new young author had talent.
The six dollars gave Father Patten pause. How long, he wanted to know, had it taken his son to earn so much money? Not bad for a sixteen-year-old boy who was lazy anyhow. The event was a turning point. Young Patten soon applied for and got a job on the nearby Pittsfield Advertiser . He saved his money and re-entered Corinna Academy. He began to read furiously in Dickens, Hawthorne, and Stevenson; and he wrote a long story that he sent to Beadle & Adams. By return mail came a check for $50. It wasn’t long before he saw his effort as a complete volume in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library . It was entitled The Diamond Sport; or, The Double Face of Bedrock , and it dealt with mining.
Now he was away and running. A second novel brought $75; a third, $100. The senior Pattens stared at this gusher in awe. Story-writer Patten, now twenty, promptly married a former schoolmate, Alice Gardner. She could spell. She could detect and correct grammatical lapses unsuspected by her husband. She took pains to copy carefully his swiftly scribbled yarns. Swiftly? Young Patten could turn out 8,000 salable words between early breakfast and sundown, though later he preferred to drift along with a 4,000-word daily average.
Yet now, with a seemingly clear field ahead, Patten revealed that his brief experience as reporter on a country weekly had left him with an all-but-fatal virus, common to newspapermen for time out of mind: he himself would found a newspaper. In the summer of 1888 the first issue of The Corinna Owl came from the press, and within a year Patten was deeply in the hole. He must have bestirred himself to some purpose, for he sold his paper to the opposition Advertiser and discharged all his debts with enough left over—he thought—to finance a long educational tour through what all readers of dime novels believed devoutly to be The Wild West.
Young Patten’s exploring took him on a railroad trip, second-class, to Omaha, Nebraska, where he spent precisely one day and one night before returning to Corinna, Maine, with ten dollars left in his pocket. Though he had little more than reached the corn belt in bucolic Iowa, he told himself that he could now “write Western stories with a more realistic touch.” Perhaps he could. The devotees of Beadle’s Half-Dime Library were soon bug-eyed to read about Old Bombshell, the Ranger Detective; and Wild Vulcan the Lone Range Rider; or, the Rustlers of the Bad Lands; and Dismal Dave’s Dandy Pard; or, the Clew of Captain Claw .
It was wonderful what twenty-four hours in Omaha could do for a rustic lad from Maine.
Though Patten obviously had taken firm hold of the dime-novel western formula, he presently moved to Camden to manage its professional baseball team in a Maine bush league. His income mounted to $2,000 that year. Baseball occupied him for three months a season, and the young manager could hardly have guessed how valuable this experience was to be when, two years later, he began his master work.
By the time the baseball season of 1891 ended, Patten felt an urge to meet his kindly editor at Beadle & Adams, Orville Victor; and in September the author and his wife moved to New York City. Victor introduced the young writer to Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, blood-and-thunder biographer of Custer, Pawnee Bill, and (as successor Lo Ned Buntline) of Buffalo Bill, possibly the most famous dime-novel name in the United States; to Frederick Dey, author of the Nick Carter stories; and Edward L. Wheeler, who invented the peerless Deadwood Dick.
Editor Victor bethought himself to give Patten a pseudonym. Now that the Maine writer was to do a series, he was William West Wilder-old Wyoming Will himself. Wilder-Patten quickly thought up Cowboy Chris, who rode the range to “lassoo” or shoot the Bad Men who were fairly swarming in Arizona and New Mexico. Within months, however, he began to feel the first warnings of the coming dissolution of the pioneer dime-novel factory; Beadle & Adams were losing out to Street & Smith and lesser houses that had entered the field. Writers found their rates cut from $150 to $125, then to $100 a story.