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The Magazine That Taught Faulkner, Fitzgerald, And Millay How To Write
When many of our greatest authors were children, they were first published in the pages of St. Nicholas
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
I am writing to thank you for my cash prize and to say good-by, for “Friends” was my last contribution. I am going to buy with my five dollars a beautiful copy of “Browning,” whom I admire so much that my prize will give me more pleasure in that form than in any other.
Although I shall never write for the League again, I shall not allow myself to become a stranger to it. You have been a great help and a great encouragement to me, and I am sorry to grow up and leave you.
Your loving graduate, Edna Vincent Millay.
A decade earlier the editors had predicted that “some of those who are winning prizes, as well as many of those who are not, are going to be heard from by and by in the grown-up magazines and picture galleries of the world.” But even the editors would have been surprised at just how many St. Nicholas Leaguers the world would hear from. Dozens of major poets, novelists, essayists, critics, artists, journalists, and scholars first saw their work in print in the pages of the St. Nicholas League.
But although the adult achievements of many St. Nicholas Leaguers would win them great honor, the best some of them could do as youngsters was to win honorable mention. On the honor rolls for drawings in the November 1911 issue appears the name of William Falkner; a few years later, the young man added a u to his family name. The honor roll for photographs in the issue of October 1910 includes Scott Fitzgerald. In April 1900 Ringgold Lardner won honorable mention for verse, Edward Estlin Cummings made the honor roll for drawings in August 1905, and Theodore Roethke received special mention for prose in February 1924. At the top of the honor roll for verse in August 1903 was Conrad Aiken, and it turned out to be a busy year for the young poet: he was honorably mentioned for verse in September and December, and got on the honor roll for prose in November. Leading the honor roll for prose in February 1919 was Harrison Salisbury, who recalls that his aunt considered the style of his St. Nicholas League entry “not so developed as that of most children his age.”
In February 1901 the name of thirteen-year-old S. Eliot Morison appeared on the honor roll for photographs. The young man abandoned his camera to compose a work of prose that earned him a place on the honor roll for April. Some years later Samuel Eliot Morison decided to stick with prose; it proved a good choice.
The St. Nicholas League shows that another Harvard historian, Frank Freidel, was exercising his historical imagination at an early age. In 1928 the League published an essay by the young Freidel about driving through Wyoming and seeing ruts in the sandstone worn by pioneers’ wagon wheels. The sight made him think about the emigrants who took that route and had to choose between the trail to Oregon and the one to California. The future historian was a frequent contributor to the St. Nicholas League; in 1929, another essay, about the Philippine Insurrection, won him a cash prize. Meanwhile, over in the department of philosophy, Mortimer J. Adler was hard at work as early as 1915, when his name appeared on the honor roll for prose.
In November 1902 St. Nicholas received a letter from a little English girl named Vita V. Sackville-West, who wrote the League: “This story about my home is quite true, and it may amuse you.… There are 365 rooms in Knole, 52 staircases, and 7 courts. A priest’s cell was found this year. The altar in the chapel was given by Mary of Scotland just before she was executed.… We have here the second organ that was made in England. There are 21 show-rooms in the house.”
Miss Sackville-West must have been disappointed a few months later when she entered a prose competition and had to be content with a place on the honor roll.
Honorable mention was a pleasant distinction, but the true desire of the children who entered the League contests was to see their work in print. The pages of the League contain early examples of the work of many members whose names are now familiar to us. In the August 1920 issue a drawing of a shore scene won a silver badge for a ten-year-old Mississippian named Eudora Alice Welty. In August 1902 nine-year-old Katharine Sergeant of Marion, Massachusetts, won a silver badge for “A Discovery,” her essay about a spider’s nest that a friend had shown her. A few decades later, Katharine Sergeant White was one of the editors working to shape The New Yorker.
A young photographer who later turned to writing was twelve-year-old Anne Morrow; in 1919 the St. Nicholas League published her picture of what appears to be an island, under the title “A Quiet Scene.” Another photographer, sixteen-year-old Montgomery Clift of New York City, won the gold badge in June 1937 for “Old Pals,” his striking picture of two horses. Six months later, Montgomery won a cash prize for his photo “Child Crying.”