June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
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.”
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.
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.
Certainly Patten must have known who fitted this definition like a collar model—his name was Richard Harding Davis, scion of an old Philadelphia family of early American stock. Patten’s generation was all too aware of what Davis looked like from an illustration in the young man’s sensationally popular book of short stories; he was a handsome male character called Van Bibber, drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the young Boston artist who had also invented the feminine type soon to be famous as the Gibson Girl. In the nineties, according to a perceptive if ribald old artist of that era, there were two striking characteristics that no illustrator failed to make clear when he was drawing American ladies and gentlemen: to give to the latter a strong cleft chin and to the former a prominent cleft bosom. Those, said my illustrator friend, were the veriest guarantees of bluest blood. No other symbol was needed. Go look at a Gibson Girl, if you doubt it; and look, too, at portraits of Charles Dana Gibson and Richard Harding Davis themselves. There stands Frank Merriwell, not only of Fardale Academy and Yale, but also of Cluett, Peabody & Company, shirt and collar merchants, who knew class, male or female, when they saw it.
The first number of Tip Top Weekly , price five cents, was Frank Merriwell; or, First Days at Fardale , an immediate sellout. Thereafter for many years Tip Top maintained a circulation of 135,000 copies. But this figure has little bearing on the actual number who read the tales. Tip Tops were bought, read, then sold or bartered to other boys. I recall that one Tip Top fetched two Nick Carters , or two Diamond Dicks , or two Fred Fearnots. And because Street & Smith fully appreciated the value of literary properties, every little while three Tip Top Weeklies were strung together to make a Merriwell book, price fifteen cents, in the Medal Library .
Week after week the biography of Frank Merriwell moved steadily on. He aged slowly, but excitingly. Even in Fardale Academy days, Frank seemed uncommonly prone to sprained ankles, broken hands, shattered legs, and one disaster or another, but he never failed to come through with that home run in the ninth, no matter how dreadful the injury. He kept the opposing batters helpless trying to hit his “doubleshoot” curve (of which more later). Going on to Yale, as predestined by Smith, he became the finest athlete in the annals of that institution, and there, in addition to more sprains and fractures, he had to contend with the villains of Harvard and, to a lesser degree, the scum of Princeton, Dartmouth, West Point, and other low-lived and gangster-ridden groves of Academe, all of whom were bent on getting Frank drunk, loaded with prussic acid, drugged, or kidnapped just before the Big Game. Or they might even try to bribe him. In vain. The final end was always the same: a glorious and, in any other hands, impossible victory.
When, by the nature of things, Frank had to leave Yale—taking most of the scholastic honors—his long-lost brother Dick Merriwell was just entering Fardale. This entry into the saga of a second Merriwell naturally presented certain difficulties. Consider baseball, for example. No living ballplayer had been able to do much with pitcher Frank’s uncanny double-shoot, a wicked throw that curved first one way, then the other, on its way to the plate. It made a mockery of batting practice. A man at the plate facing a double-shoot didn’t need practice. All he needed was a miracle.
Gil Patten knew in his heart he could not get his readers to accept two double-shoots in one family; but he could not afford to let Dick lose a ball game. So he gave Dick a jump-ball that merely leapt a foot above its natural trajectory just as the batter swung. More than one lad of my generation like to have thrown his arm out (as we put it in those far-off days) trying to get a baseball to curve two ways, or at least jump like a startled rabbit.
Both Merriwells performed as fullbacks on the gridiron. They stroked the varsity crew. In field or track they might enter the 100-yard dash, the mile, the pole vault, the broad and high jumps, and the weight-throwing. If at the last moment some slicker added a discus event, thus thinking to beat a Merriwell in one contest, Frank (or Dick, as the case might be) would pick up the big platter, cuddle it a moment in his arm, then toss it out of the park.
Both before and after college, Frank went around the world several times, playing ball with an All-American team. With his chums (villains had “cronies”) he did some big-game hunting on the side, was captured by natives and held for ransom, then released in haste when he affrighted the savages by his expertise as a ventriloquist. Among his friends were the required satellite characters mentioned by Ormond Smith: Harry Rattleton, who stuttered and was given to spoonerisms; Ephraim Gallup, a Vermont farm boy, or well-I-swan type; Barney Mulloy, who rejoiced in a full Hibernian brogue; Hans Dunnerwurst, who was afflicted with the accents of Weber & Fields; and a sort of part-time villain, Bart Hodge, who was at last completely charmed by Frank, as well he should have been, if only because Frank had saved his life half a dozen times.
The “love element” tentatively mentioned by Mr. Smith was cared for by blonde Elsie Bellwood and dark-haired Inza Burrage. Whatever biological urge Frank may have possessed in that pre-Freudian era, it seems in retrospect to an old reader that he played the two girls one against the other pretty expertly for most of eighteen years. But there was many a heartache for readers along the way. First Elsie, a dedicated clinger and leaner, and then Inza, self-willed, even a bit imperious, seemed to be winning. It was Inza who called the turn and demanded that Frank put it on the line; and when he selected Elsie, the incredible Inza declared she would always love both of them.
Was that the end? Not a bit of it. Indeed, it was to be another six or eight years before the romance was settled. Inza had no more than declared she would always love both Frank and Elsie than that timid soul decided she was not to be outdone; she would give up Frank. And this is how she did it: when Frank went to visit Elsie, he found her in the company of Evan Hartwick, his arch enemy at Yale:
Hiding a broken heart under a scornful laugh, Elsie cut Frank dead.
Think nothing of it. Elsie may have been all washed up emotionally, but she got another chance at bat half a dozen numbers of Tip Top later. This time she appeared again in the clutches of Hartwick (how did he ever get into Yale?), who had so far forgotten himself as to attempt an assault on her virtue. And then, while Hartwick was dying, properly enough from a stroke of apoplexy (at age twenty-three), Frank “was holding Elsie in his arms.”
And now back to the Other Woman. Here, a few numbers later, we find Frank and his pal, Barney Mulloy, (in Frank Merriwell Down South ) searching desperately for Inza. (The principals in Merriwell stories get lost with dismaying frequency.) Frank cries aloud, “from his heart” according to Patten:
“Oh, I can’t think of anything but Inza, Inza, Inza! She—” “Frank!” Out of a dark shadow timidly came a female figure. With a cry of joy, Frank sprang forward, and clasped her in his arms, lifting her off her feet and covering her face, eyes, and mouth with kisses, while he cried: “Inza, girl! At last! At last! We fought like fiends to save you, and we thought we had failed.”
Was Patten exceeding his publisher’s suggestion about “a little love element?” Between the covers of this same Tip Top , he reports the following goings-on:
The sun was shining into the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp and Elsie Bellwood was at the door to greet Frank Merriwell. She held out both hands. There was a welcome in her eyes. It seemed to Frank that she was far prettier than when he had last seen her in Fardale. “Frank, I am so glad to see you!” He caught her hands and held them, looking into her eyes. The color came into her cheeks … She was looking straight into his eyes now, and the temptation was too great for his impulsive nature to resist. In a moment his arm was about her neck, and he had kissed her.
Although I read this book and those two passages many years ago, they strike me even now as pretty fast work for the All-American Boy. Was Frank at heart the Don Juan type? Or was Patten bored with a monogamous attitude? In any event, much later Patten permitted Frank to “perceive” that Bart Hodge and Elsie loved each other, and they were soon married; then Frank “took mental stock of himself” to find that his true love all along was Inza. They, too, were married, and for a while readers of Tip Top had to get along with Dick Merriwell.
In my Tip Top days, I knew well enough that the Merriwell stories were fiction and that fiction somehow or other was not really true; yet I could not quite disbelieve that somewhere there must be a Frank Merriwell, complete with keen gray eyes, strong cleft chin, muscles of steel, and heart of gold. Frank became the nearest to “real” of any fictional character in all my reading, youthful or adult. Although I did not follow him to the end, which came in 1914 with the last number of Tip Top , I seem to have put him into a special Valhalla, along with Fardale Academy, to leave them drenched with the nostalgic blur of my boyhood, when the world was young, all things were possible, and one needed only to walk over to the other side of the mountain to find the great shining moment of achievement.
Tip Top Weekly made no delinquents. Though Frank never used tobacco in any form, this uncomfortable fact did not prevent me—or Patten—from smoking Sweet Caps, but it did add to my guilty conscience. Yet Patten did not permit Frank to preach to his readers. All of his warnings about rum, tobacco, coffee, and helling around nights had to do not with morals, but with health:
“I do not use liquor.” Frank’s voice had an edge to it as he addressed the caddish fellow, “and I will thank you to put away that flask. Don’t you know you can’t drink that stuff and play good baseball?”
Patten himself had urged Street & Smith to drop Tip Top and start a new magazine, Top Notch , for which he now began to write and where he kept up his onslaught on rum and tobacco. He invented Lefty Locke, a big-league baseball player who lasted several years. Patten and Lefty did a great deal to make Top Notch successful from the start. Its readers were slightly older than the Tip Top crowd, but hardly over-mature.
In the late 1920’s, Patten came to think he had run completely out of sports fiction, and shifted to a new art form described in the trade as “love story westerns.” It was an appalling experience, and he told his biographer, John L. Cutler, that he “cordially detested” them. Grind them out he did, however. By now—indeed, long before the last Merriwell story—Patten realized what he had done; he had “sold himself into virtual slavery.” He had thought, at first, that Merriwell would occupy him at most five days a week, leaving two days “for more serious literary effort.” This was, of course, the delusion harbored by every penny-a-liner since movable type was invented.
At least twice Patten wrote novels “the way, I wanted to.” Neither was published. He wrote two plays, one the unfortunate Men of Millions , the other not produced. Patten’s first wife, the good speller, was granted a divorce on grounds of incompatibility. (Their only child, a son named Harvan Barr Patten, died in 1951.) Patten was married twice more. Most of his active life he lived in Camden, where he was well liked, and where with the passing years he became something of a local institution, regarded almost as a native son. Little more could be added to the status of a resident of a Maine village who was born in another Maine village.
In his age, when I came to know him, Gil Patten was a tall, animated, and white-maned old gentleman of striking appearance and genial personality, devoted to lake fishing and the essays of Montaigne. He had lived, he said, a full life. For all his unbounded imagination, he was something of a realist; he knew well enough that the Merriwell stories were absurdities. He was proud that he had received over the years more than 50,000 letters from young people; and he felt that Frank Merriwell had come to embody traits that could do harm to no lad—”courage, honor, and loyalty.” He was pleased that Frank’s fame had outlasted the dime-novel era. Above all, the old gentleman said, he cherished the many letters from young men who had written to say they were inspired to go to college by Tip Top Weekly . Many of them did go to college, too, and no few of these chose Yale.
Although I never got to Yale myself, my heart was long set on going there, and the reason, I fear, was neither William Graham Sumner nor William Lyon Phelps nor yet Ted Coy. It was because of the peerless Yale athlete and scholar, Frank Merriwell. You’d think they could have given him some sort of a degree, perhaps just an honorary B.A., posthumously, so to speak. But they haven’t.