December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
When many of our greatest authors were children, they were first published in the pages of St. Nicholas
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:
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.”
As a poet, no St. Nicholas Leaguer was more prolific than Edna St. Vincent Millay. Between 1904 and 1910, the League published seven of her poems and listed her on the honor roll no fewer than a dozen times. The first poem that saw print in the St. Nicholas League was “Forest Trees,” published in the October 1906 issue. “The Land of Romance” not only won the gold badge in March 1907 but was reprinted in Current Literature, with the comment “The poem that follows seems to us phenomenal.… Its author (whether boy or girl, we do not know) is but fourteen years of age.” Miss Millay caused the editor’s doubt about her gender by signing the work “E. Vincent Millay.”
In the first two stanzas of the poem that so impressed the editors of St. Nicholas and Current Literature, the speaker asks two people she comes upon, “Show me the road to Romance!” The first person, a man, replies, “I trod it once with one whom I loved,—with one who is long since dead./ But now—I forget.” The second person, a woman hunched over a spinning wheel, tells the speaker, “Little care I for your fancies …get you to work instead.” It continues:
Two years later, E. Vincent Millay showed the St. Nicholas League another side to her talent with “Young Mother Hubbard,” a sassy parody of the nursery rhyme.
Miss Millay’s final poem for the League, “Friends,” appeared in 1910 and earned her the cash prize of five dollars. The editors called this work “a little gem in the smoothness and perfection of its rhythm, in its deft use of contrast, and in its naturalness of expression from first to last.”
A pair of poets who also caught the attention of the League were brothers named Benét. In 1901 William Rose Benét won a silver badge for his poem “The Harvest”; eleven years later his thirteen-year-old brother, S. V. Benét, won his silver badge for “A Song of the Woods.” In February 1914, having unfurled his first and middle initials, Stephen Vincent Benêt won the gold badge for “Mystery.” Like the League contributions of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Benét’s work would be accomplished for any age.
A fifteen-year-old boy named Bennett Cerf found the city less menacing in his 1914 “After Vacation.” “And as we make a dive for the news-stand for an ‘extra’ (which, by the way, is the first evening paper we have seen in ages), our hearts throb; instinctively, we throw out our chests. After all, there was something missing in the country, an indefinable something that seemed somewhat to spoil our pleasure. Perhaps it was the air of loneliness and quiet; we were born in the city and brought up in the city—brought up to be one of a great multitude, brought up to dodge autos and the like, to rush and hustle—and we can’t do without it!”
An eleven-year-old boy from Mount Vernon, New York, gave a hint that he would come to prefer country pleasures in his silver-badge essay of June 1911, “A Winter Walk.” A passage from this work suggests the grace, warmth, and ear for language that inform the better-known works of its author, E. B. White: “All the trees wore a new fur coat, pure white, and the pines and evergreens were laden with pearl. Every living creature seemed happy. Squirrels frisked among the branches, chattering because we trespassed on their property. Once in a while we caught an occasional glimpse of a little ball of fur among the fern, which meant that br’er rabbit was out on this cold morning. A few straggling quails were heard piping their shrill little notes as they flew overhead.
“All these harmless little wood creatures were noticed by Don [the boy’s pointer] and he wanted to be after them, but I objected to harming God’s innocent little folk when He had given the world such a bright, cheery morning to enjoy.”
Another account of a walk in the woods appeared in the July 1922 issue under the title “My Favorite Recreation.” The writer, fourteen-year-old Rachel Carson, told the League about a day of birdwatching that ended with a resounding sunset: “The cool of approaching night settled. The wood thrushes trilled their golden melody. The setting sun transformed the sky into a sea of blue and gold. A vesper sparrow sung his evening lullaby. We turned homeward, gloriously tired, gloriously happy!”
The St. Nicholas League’s members were on hand to report on the marvels of the twentieth century as they appeared. In the March 1912 issue, Mary Dendy of England wrote: “I was having a music-lesson in the drawing room at home, when suddenly we heard one of the maids crying out that there was an aeroplane in the air! We rushed out into the road, just in time to see it… it was traveling very fast, and it looked graceful and natural in the air, just as though it was meant to live there, like a bird.”
In 1925 Virginia Starck told what it was like to be a twelve-year-old in Hollywood during the silent era: “Just a block from my home is a studio which makes comedies and uses the houses of the neighborhood. Many, many times the door-bell will ring and it will be one of the comedy directors asking if he can use the flat in a scene. About three blocks away from my house is the studio where The Courtship of Miles Standish’ was made. In one portion of the ‘lot’ is what is supposed to be an exact replica of the Mayflower. I certainly had some fun on it. One day a lot of the children in the neighborhood piled on and played pirate on anything that struck their fancy.”
Often the St. Nicholas Leaguers sent dispatches from places even more exotic than Hollywood. In 1919 a reader named Phyllis A. Whitney wrote: “I am going to school up in Kuling. It is way up in the mountains and very cold. When we go up the mountain, we are carried up in chairs, which are very queer-looking, uncomfortable things. The sides of the mountains are so steep and the path is so narrow that you think all the time that the men who are carrying you are going to slip and fall.” Before she became a prolific and popular novelist, Phyllis Whitney appeared again in the pages of the League, winning the silver badge for her essay “A Red-Letter Day.”
In July 1908 St. Nicholas published a letter from a reader who would carry into adulthood an interest in both China and magazines.
MY DEAR ST. NICHOLAS: I am a boy born in China. I live in the country near Wei Skein (Way Shen) City, in an inclosed compound or big yard about two blocks large. There are eight dwelling-houses, a boys’ and girls’ school, a college, a big church, and two hospitals.
A new house is being built (the house we are to live in) by Chinese carpenters and masons.
It will take about eight months to build it. What a long time! The Chinese have no saw-mills, but every log has to be cut and sawed by hand.
I think you are fine.
Your true friend and reader, HENRY R. LUCE.
The St. Nicholas League’s correspondents provided glimpses of unusual people as well as places. In 1909 twelve-year-old Eric Marks of New York wrote about meeting Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. On their second day in Washington, Eric’s group “had a special audience with President Roosevelt. He was ‘dee-lighted’ to see us. He gave the ladies of the party roses, and he told us boys about his boys, and then sent me through the White House with a friend of his. He certainly was kind to us.” Eric was not the only St. Nicholas Leaguer to bump into President Roosevelt. About a decade later, fourteen-year-old Katharine Matthies met the former President on a train bound for Florida. “That evening we were in the dining-car when he came in and sat at the table across the aisle from us. That was the first we knew of his being on the train.
“The next morning I was first as we went through the cars on our way to breakfast. I opened the door and stepped into the dining-car. A sudden lurch threw me against a man who was coming towards me. I drew back and saw ex-President Roosevelt smiling at me. He said, ‘Good morning,’ and shook hands with me, making some remark that I do not remember. He was on our train all day long, and I saw him several times. The next morning I heard that he had left the train during the night and gone across country to the Gulf Coast.”
Another fourteen-year-old, Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakoff, wrote from the far side of the world about his meeting with another world figure, the Empress of Russia. Published at the start of the World War, Vladimir’s letter tells of a royal way of life that was in its last days: “The Emperor has a palace called Livadia, about two versts from Yalta; almost every day we see some of the imperial family driving about.… The Empress and the four Grand Duchesses, her daughters, presided at different stalls. I went to buy at the stall of the Empress, and had the honor of receiving something from her own hands, of which I was very proud. The bazaar was held in front of the imperial yacht, the Standard.”
Louise K. Paine, a thirteen-year-old student at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, New York, won a silver badge in June 1908 for her sketch of a visit to a figure as well known as any world leader: Mark Twain. “He was a dear old man with snow white hair and twinkling gray eyes. He was very entertaining and I soon forgot all else listening to him talk. While we were waiting to be served ‘Mark Twain’s’ secretary played on the orchestrelle. The music was very beautiful.
“A little later dinner was announced and ‘Mark Twain’ led me out to the table on his arm. During the meal he would get up and walk around. This is a queer habit of his and he rarely sits still through a whole meal. Returning to the table one time he brought with him a volume of Kipling’s poems and read aloud to us from them. … After dinner we went up-stairs to the billiard room. It was quite a large room lined with shelves filled with books, in the center was a large billiard table, a present to Mr. Clemens from Mr. H. H. Rogers.
“It was very interesting watching Mr. Clemens play, for he is considered an expert at the game.
“Soon after the carriage was announced and I went away after having probably one of the pleasantest and most interesting experiences of my life.”
On at least one occasion, a St. Nicholas Leaguer’s piece about a famous person prompted a response from the subject. When, in 1929, fourteen-year-old Thoreau E. Raymond of Taunton, Massachusetts, won a cash prize for a panegyric called “Our Calvin Coolidge,” the former President sent the poet this note:
21 MASSASOIT STREET NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS
MY DEAR YOUNG LADY: Permit me to thank you for the poem in ST. NICHOLAS not because it is about me or because I feel worthy of it but because it is good. It shows you can work and think. I hope you will study hard and keep on working and thinking.
Sincerely, CALVIN COOLIDGE.
The St. Nicholas of the early 1930s gives the impression of shielding itself from the worst effects of the Great Depression. For a while it looked as though the magazine could keep chugging along forever, powered by high purpose and energy. But though its readership in 1930 was a healthy 150,000, St. Nicholas was hit hard: advertisers disappeared, and the number of pages declined. In a final attempt to hold off disaster, the sophisticated magazine for young people that had counted Tennyson and Twain among its contributors became a magazine for little children. Even this did not forestall the end for long, and the final issue appeared in 1943.
By the time it perished, the magazine was undoubtedly an anachronism. Still, it is hard not to regret the absence of a St. Nicholas League to offer children in this age of television and video games “a great help and a great encouragement,” as it did to Edna St. Vincent Millay and so many other boys and girls.