- Historic Sites
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
In 1892 a son was born to the Pattens. Times grew worse; and at last Patten could no longer meet the modest rent. He had just finished a story which had been accepted, and although he knew the house rule of payment only on publication, he was desperate. Thereupon he approached old William Adams, head of the firm. Mumbling about the general improvidence of authors, Adams gave Patten a check, not for the expected $100, but for $90, pointing out that Fire-eye, the Thugs’ Terror would not hit the newsstands for another ten days. And ten days at Beadle & Adams was ten dollars.
Patten left the office vowing that he would never write another word for Beadle & Adams, and entered the stable of hack writers employed by Norman Munro, publisher of the Old Cap Collier Library and of a weekly, Golden Hours . Patten wrote a Cap Collier story, then tore off a 60,000-word serial for which he received his biggest check up to then, for $250. But Munro could not use enough of Patten’s material, and he moved again, this time to up-and-coming Street & Smith, where he was hired to write a 60,000-worder to fit a title, The Boy from the West , which may well have been worth the $150 he got for it. He continued to write for Street & Smith.
There was, however, one more hard blow to be suffered before Patten’s career was to hit its full and incomparable stride. This concerns a melodrama, Men of Millions , which the adaptable author wrote during those terrible months when even food and rent had been a problem. Oddly enough, in this milieu so new to him, Patten had no difficulty finding a producer. A company was engaged, rehearsals got under way, and one grim night in the fall of 1895 the show opened in New Haven. And on the same night it closed. As Playwright Patten recalled it in later years, the leading woman, a Miss Hopkins, knew nothing of restraint. In full voice and positive gestures she acted every line. The actor playing an important character role appeared in a condition as if cast for the part of Joe Morgan, the notable drunk in Ten Nights in a Bar Room . Crowds of Yale students in the audience enjoyed themselves riotously, booing and jeering until at last the curtain came mercifully down.
The Pattens returned to the lower-rent area in Maine, where the modest checks from Street & Smith, for whom Patten continued to write serials, were sufficient to support his family and his parents. And then, on the memorable eighteenth of December—it was 1895—came what was, to employ a felicitous dime-novel phrase, “a letter freighted with DESTINY.” It was from Ormond Smith.
Street & Smith were alert to the changing times. For a year or more they had detected a gradual falling off in demand for the five-cent weeklies. The Wild West type was notably fading. Of the detectives, only Nick Carter was holding fast. It was patently time for a new series, or Library as they were known.
Ormond Smith wrote that he knew exactly what would fill the need: stories centering about an adventurous schoolboy athlete. To begin with, the new hero must have a “catchy” name. The satellite characters around him should include a Dutchman, an Irishman, and “any other dialect you are familiar with.” The essential idea of this series, Smith continued, “is to interest young readers in the career of a young man at a boarding school.” The stories must be “ American and thoroughly up to date.”
The first twelve stories should . deal with life at a first-class preparatory school. By that time, Smith went on, “the readers will have become sufficiently well acquainted with the hero,” who would now leave school to travel in far, romantic places. He also suggested that “a little love element would also not be amiss, though this is not particularly important.”
Smith meant that this new character was to be no passing fancy. “When the hero is once projected on his travels,” continued the letter to the delighted Patten, “there is an infinite variety of incident to choose from … After we run through twenty or thirty numbers of this, we would bring the hero back and have him go to college.” The publisher was even ready to suggest which college. “Yale University,” said he. As for the creator, he was to be known and revered as “Burt L. Standish.”
In his letter Smith stipulated that Frank should have sufficient means for his luxurious life. Patten therefore knew almost automatically that his hero must “belong,” in every sense, to what later, more status-conscious times were to term the upper middle class. In 1895 Patten was, for all his Maine accent, no rustic. He had a pretty good idea of what Street & Smith wanted: it was the authentic, patented, All-American youth—gentlemanly, educated, adventurous, brave, handsome, brilliant, athletic, wealthy, and almost unbearably clean-living.