Review of Frank Merriwell and the Fiction of All-American Boyhood

Anderson, Ryan K. Frank Merriwell and the Fiction of All-American Boyhood: The Progressive Era Creation of the Schoolboy Sports Story. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2015. Pp. xxiv+220. Notes, photos, images, appendix, and index. $27.95 paper.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

Merriwell Cover

The University of Arkansas Press, 2015.

My first review for Sport in American History was of a book about the career of Clair Bee, the coach and author who wrote stories about Chip Hilton, the last of the fictional schoolboy athletes. In Frank Merriwell and the Fiction of All-American Boyhood, historian Ryan Anderson turns the clock back to explore the literary life of Frank Merriwell, the fictional model upon which characters such as Hilton were constructed. Merriwell was a physical and moral exemplar who used sport to successfully negotiate the transition between boyhood and manly adulthood. Gilbert Patten, who used the name Burt L. Standish, wrote more than one hundred and forty Merriwell stories for Street and Smith, his publishers, between 1896 and 1912. Even after he relinquished primary authorship, Street and Smith, with occasional input from Patten, kept Merriwell alive in various forms until the 1930s. Along the way, the writer and publisher created a new genre in boy’s fiction that sought to teach their readers how to develop willpower in order to become “manly” men.

In contemporary times, the term “manly” is more likely to be used ironically, but in turn-of-the-century America, with concerns emanating from Muscular Christianity that American boys were growing up soft, the word and concept carried a great deal of social importance. In addition, many feared that industrialization was robbing men of their individuality. As Anderson points out, Americans were concerned with raising boys to be men who could exercise their willpower, which could help boys overcome humble beginnings to become significant adults (p. 3-4). “Boyologists,” a contemporary term for men such as Patten, who could teach boys to exercise willpower and how to demonstrate that they had “sand,” were much in demand during the time. According to Anderson, the idea of sand was an analogy that came from the railroad world – when a train was stuck on ice, applying sand would give it the traction to move in the desired direction. The term can also be a substitute for having guts, grit, cojones, or the like. However the terms might be translated, social thinkers were vitally concerned that the youth of America grow up with the ability to keep themselves and their nation strong.

Given the title, the reader might be surprised that Merriwell is not the primary focus of the work. Indeed, Anderson spends relatively little time considering the adventures of the hero. Instead he intertwines his story, along with a biography of Patten, within a history of Street and Smith, and the history of the dime novel publishing around the turn of the century, within the general background of the Progressive Era.

We do meet Merriwell in the introduction, and learn that he was a young man that generally lived the straight and narrow life, but was not above pulling pranks if the spirit moved him. He was an athlete without rival, along with being a moral exemplar who lived by a strict ethical code. This was precisely the example that boyologists wanted youth to emulate, and what Ormond Smith, the head of Patten’s publishing firm, wanted from his author.

Patten

William G. Patten, Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press.

The first chapter introduces Patten, the author, and places him in the context of the late nineteenth century publishing world. Patten himself was a difficult adolescent, and ran away from home as a teenager to find work. When he returned home, he began his writing career while working for newspapers, and began selling a few Western novels, despite never having been to the West. Unlike most of his peers, he married young, to what turned out to be the first of three wives. With a family, including his parents, to support, Patten began to alternate between New Jersey and New York City, where the writing jobs were located. He started making some money as a free-lance writer, and ironically decided that he wanted to avoid writing for the youth market. Fate intervened, of course, and he entered into a contractual relationship with Street and Smith to write stories aimed at adolescents. A talented writer, who could turn out 12,000 words per week on a regular basis, Patten was a poor businessman. He never negotiated significant raises, even after he became a star for the publishing house, and also failed to secure any royalties for his voluminous body of work. He made Street and Smith one of the top publishing houses in the country, and Merriwell one of the most widely read youth characters of the time, but eventually he died nearly penniless.

Street and Smith was a publishing Colossus at the time, and their rise under Ormond Smith and his brother George is the focus of the second chapter. Anderson devotes the bulk of the chapter to describing the state of the dime novel business in the late nineteenth century, and to Street and Smith’s place in that world. The house made good use of U.S. postal law, which, at the time, treated dime novels the same as pulp fiction for mailing rates. The Smith brothers worked well together, with Ormond handling the creative side and George running the business side. Ormond was the motivating force behind the creation of Frank Merriwell, and in Patten, he found the man who could bring the hero to life. He hired Patten to create a character who would be a “distinctly American” boy who could move copies of Tip Top Weekly, and along the way, maybe teach boys to be men (p. 25).

Merriwell Pic

Frank Merriwell at Yale, Courtesy of Wikia.

The various story arcs are the subject of chapter three, and finally the reader who is looking for an in-depth discussion of Merriwell is rewarded. When read in succession, the various adventures that the hero undertook, in addition to his college escapades, makes one wonder how the serial publication could remain so popular for so long. There is suspension of belief for fictional purposes, but Merriwell pushed that envelop so far as to render it unrecognizable as a letter conveyance. When he wasn’t scoring runs or touchdowns, he was finding lost mines, or saving damsels in distress from wild animals, or sometimes wilder men. Quite rightly, readers often doubted if they could live up to his example, at least athletically. What everyone hoped they could do, of course, was live up to the moral example that the plucky hero set.

There were two damsels in particular that Merriwell spent a great deal of time rescuing. Though he met and briefly pursued, or was pursued by other young ladies, Inza Burrage and Elsie Bellwood were the primary objects of his affection. When Ormond Smith proposed the series, he indicated that the hero might have love interests, but that was not essential to the storyline. Chapter four argues that Merriwell’s search for a mate worthy of him began to become a primary concern of the series’ readers. In an innovation for the industry, the publishing house actively sought reader’s opinions, through the “Applause” section at the back of the book, and often acted upon their suggestions. Anderson indicates that fan interest in the love triangle Patten created foreshadowed the more contemporary debates over Team Edward or Team Jacob spawned by the Twilight movies. Burrage was written as a “new woman,” who exercised her own willpower, while Bellwood was described as being more of the traditional style of woman. Patten and Smith milked the storyline for all it was worth, seemingly indicating that Bellwood would win the hero, then switching to Burrage, and even throwing wildcards into the mix every now and again. Anderson indicates that some of the indecision might have been a consequence of Patten’s own romantic tribulations. In the end, however, (spoiler alert) Merriwell chose the more modern Burrage as his wife. According to Patten, the impetus for Merriwell’s choice of Burrage came largely from reader opinion voiced on the Applause page. “I got so many letter from readers favoring Inza that I had to have him marry her . . . [T]hey seemed to like a girl who went out and did things . . . rather than the clinging vine type” (p. 133). Here might have been a place where Anderson could have speculated on how this preference for modern women played into the flapper and new woman era of the 1920s, when the readers of the turn of the century became adults.

The final two chapters deal with the effort to keep the story fresh by introducing Frank Merriwell’s long lost brother, Dick, and finally his son Frank, Jr., who was often known as Chip. These additions were not completely successful, but the straw that broke Merriwell’s back was not reader, nor author fatigue, rather U.S. Postal policy that reclassified dime novels as being subject to more expensive postage rates. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the court in Smith v. Hitchcock (1912), declared that dime novels did not qualify to be considered the same as pulp magazines for postage purposes, and the decision spelled the end for the business model that had made Street and Smith so successful for decades. Patten himself was reaching a crisis. Even before the court decided against his publisher, he was having health problems and was withdrawing from the stories. For the remainder of his career, before his death in 1945, he tried his hand at more adult fiction, but returned to Merriwell when he needed money. While attempting to star his own publishing house late in life, he was taken in by a confidence man and was destitute during his final years.

In various places, Anderson explores Merriwell’s interaction with not only the opposite sex, but also with those on the outside of white middle class culture. Toots, an African American was written as a caricature of what white Americans expected of blacks at the time. Faring only slightly better was the Native American character John Swiftwing, who was written more sympathetically, but Patten’s story lines involving him made it clear that none of his race could ever measure up to the majority culture. Nonwhite characters primarily served as comic relief or to accentuate the superiority of the story’s star. One area where Anderson might have dug deeper in his analysis of the treatment of those who exhibited differences from the majority culture, was when he discussed an oppositional group at Yale known as the “Chickering set.” They were described as “sissies,” and in general, Patten wrote that “Nature made a mistake in giving them a chance to wear trousers” (p. 95). The author was careful to always describe Merriwell as firmly heterosexual, and brushing lightly over the Pickering set’s hinted-at orientations could have been explored more fully.

Another question that would have been interesting to hear about from Anderson is what the actual Yale thought about their fictional favorite son. Anderson does discuss the college story genre, which Patten and Merriwell democratized, but has nothing on the relationship between the university and the character, if there was one. A search of the current Yale website turns up several links to pages with Merriwell mentions, but one wonders if there was a Merriwell effect similar to the Flutie effect of more modern times. Of course, in those times, a university education was largely for the children of the affluent, so recruiting likely wasn’t the concern that it is now. Anderson does, however, make the point that the series had a side effect of convincing more youth that a college education was a worthwhile goal.

Frank Merriwell and the Fiction of All-American Boyhood is a good read. Well researched, and illustrated with images of many of the covers from the original dime novels, and it also contains an appendix with the various works, aside from his Merriwell stories, that Patten wrote for Street and Smith. Part of the fun of reading this, in common with many histories, is that one learns that there is not much new under the sun. In addition to readers splitting into team Inza and team Elsie, we also learn that readers of the Merriwell series also wrote their own fan fiction, including alternative novels, and even plays and musicals featuring the hero. Anderson’s description of the late nineteenth century should also give those concerned with contemporary political affairs some relief, since those times raised many of the same concerns that we read about today. For instance, his contention that in the late nineteenth century “The older generation seemed incapable of assuring that good leaders would emerge as people thought they had in the past,” seems to be ripped from today’s headlines (p. 31).

Where the work succeeds best is in describing the popular publishing industry at the turn of the century and beyond. This makes it a great read for those who are interested in the publishing business in general. One fault in the work is that he needed to have included more temporal context. It is often uncertain when a story arc began or ended, or how some events in Patten’ life fit into what was occurring in his character’s evolution. More dates would have been helpful.

Still, even though the reader is not immersed in the titular character until the third chapter, Anderson does a good job of placing him in context of schoolboy heroes, staring with Horatio Alger’s various subjects, and ending with Chip Hilton. Those interested in Frank Merriwell, the fictional athlete, might be somewhat disappointed, as there is very little discussion of his athletic exploits, other than as background, so the sport historian might need to look elsewhere for a more focused treatment. It does, however, serve as a nice background work for anyone interested in sport fiction and it growth.

Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.

 

 

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