The Magazine That Taught Faulkner, Fitzgerald, And Millay How To Write

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At first, it might seem F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eudora Welty, and E. B. White have little in common besides their country of birth and their line of work. But when they were growing up, these writers all were devoted readers of the same publication: St. Nicholas, the monthly magazine for children. Founded in 1873, St. Nicholas delighted and instructed children for almost seventy years.

 

The magazine’s tone was set by its first editor, Mary Mapes Dodge. Mrs. Dodge, the author of Hans Brinker, counted many writers and artists among her friends, and she got them to write and draw for her magazine. While she was editor—and after she had retired— St. Nicholas published such storytellers, poets, and illustrators as Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling, Whittier, Twain, William Dean Howells, Louisa May Alcott, William Cullen Bryant, Bret Harte, L. Frank Baum, Jack London, A. A. Milne, Frederic Remington, Howard PyIe, and Jacob Riis.

Although the children enjoyed the work of these famous contributors, the section of the magazine closest to their hearts never ran a word by any of them. In 1899 the magazine established the St. Nicholas League, which published the work of the children themselves. In announcing the new department, St. Nicholas declared that it “stands for intellectual advancement and for higher ideals of life. To learn more and more of the best that has been thought and done in the world’—to get closer to the heart of nature and acquire a deeper sympathy with her various forms—these are its chief aims, and the League is in favor of any worthy pursuit or pastime that is a means to this end.” The League published many solemn editorials on this theme over the years, but no editorial expressed the League’s purpose better than its seven-word motto: “Live to learn and learn to live.”

The St. Nicholas League pursued its high ideals in a way that wholly engaged its readers. Each month, the League held contests for the best poems, stories, essays, drawings, puzzles, and puzzle solutions its readers could devise. There were gold badges for the winners, silver badges for the runners-up, and cash awards for “honor members,” those children who had won both gold and silver badges.

Along with the prize entries, the League ran as many other submissions as space allowed and published an honor roll for all those children whose good work could not be squeezed in. Anyone under the age of eighteen could enter a contest, as long as a parent, teacher, or guardian endorsed the entry as the child’s original work. For most of the League’s history, members could send in a total of only one contribution a month, and the entries had to be on the announced theme: poems on the subject “A Song of the Woods”; prose on the theme “My Favorite Character in Fiction”; photographs that fit the title “A Pleasant Memory.”

The submissions give clues about the magazine’s readers. Judging by all the references to private schools and summer homes, it seems a safe bet that many St. Nicholas readers grew up in comfortable surroundings. Long before travel became as convenient or common as it is today, St. Nicholas readers were sending in essays and letters about their journeys to distant lands.

St. Nicholas Leaguers liked to read. By the time they were in their mid-teens, many of the children were already familiar with books to a degree that adults today might envy. In a 1925 essay entitled “What I Call Good Reading,” fourteen-year-old Helen Felton wrote, “The immortal Shakespeare, and Longfellow, Whittier, Burns, Lowell, Wordsworth, Shelley, and many others, have furnished me with hours of sheer delight, lost in the current of the poet’s glowing lines.” And in March 1905, when the League published the results of an essay contest entitled “An Episode in Greek History,” the editors remarked, completely straightfaced, that “if we may judge anything by numbers, Leonidas and Militades are the League’s favorite Grecian heroes.”

 

The St. Nicholas League encouraged conventional values and standards of excellence in letters as well as in life. A 1901 editorial gently chided a “few otherwise good poets who insist on rhyming ‘weak’ with ‘asleep,’ ‘skate’ with ‘lake,’ ‘sun’ with ‘come,’ etc. This is fatal in these days of careful technique.” Editorials, essays, and poems praised patience, perseverence, and hard work. Fifteen-year-old Chester E. Floyd expressed all these virtues in his 1911 goldbadge essay, “Latin as a Favorite Study.” “The elusive constructions seem to take an evil delight in slipping from my grasp, and Latin idioms rise to mock me, but gradually I work out a translation, taking a fresh start after each paragraph is conquered, until finally I close my books with a feeling similar, in a small degree, to that experienced after a hard-earned foot-ball victory.”

The writing and artwork of the St. Nicholas Leaguers was full of curiosity, optimism, and enthusiasm, and one of their greatest enthusiasms was the League itself. Every issue seems to carry a letter of praise and thanks from a happy reader or prizewinner. One of the most eloquent came in 1910 from a girl whose poems had garnered her many League prizes and much attention: