FRANK MERRIWELL Part II
By E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
One feature of the English boys’ journals that Ormond Smith liked was the correspondence column. This was the nineteenth-century equivalent of an Internet chat room, combined with a national swap meet. Young readers, who included a large number of girls, could write in to make suggestions about upcoming story plots, put in a plug for Inza or Elsie as the suitable wife, or discuss just about anything in a remarkably open forum. Tip Top soon ran two such columns. The “Applause” column generally concerned comments on the Merriwell stories, but also included personal questions about such topics as careers, quack medicines, or parental abuse. The “Ask Prof. Fourmen” column was a forum for health and physical fitness questions.
Some teenagers opened up their innermost psyches in these columns, and the people who answered their correspondence were very tactful and sensitive in their replies. The attitude represents a quantum change from the English Boy’s Own Paper school of thought: “Nervous? Poppycock! Take a cold tub, Sir, and eat your porridge!” In the Merriwell stories, Frank is permitted to shed the occasional manly tear at appropriate moments. Judging by the correspondence columns, girls enjoyed the Merriwells as much as boys. Once Patten hit his stride, his female characters became fully as important and three-dimensional as the males, and not merely decorative creatures to be rescued from villains.
The eternal struggle of wills between parent and child figures largely in a number of episodes, particularly those dealing with Frank Merriwell's experimental school. In 1909 Patten detailed his theories of the proper form of education. In summary, he believed that education should be tailored to the individual, and not the other way round, if the system were to produce useful members of society. Forcing a child whose talents lie in manual pursuits into classical studies was little short of criminal. All useful labor is honorable, said Patten, and each citizen is a unique entity, with individual tastes and skills. The trick was to expose children to a wide variety of experiences in order to identify and develop those skills.
When it came to physical violence. Patten was trapped by a market that demanded nonstop action. He compromised by making the Merriwells invincible in a fair fight yet inserted little homilies about the senseless brutality of "scrapping." The brothers fight only when attacked, and then go at it hammer-and-tongs. Being on the receiving end of the iron fist of a Merriwell was a memorable experience. Many a tough bruiser sat up, groggily demanding, "W'at did he 'tump me wid -- a rock?" In his autobiography, Gil Patten regretted Frank’s tendency to allow the opposition to initiate hostilities:
Frank was tolerant of human failings, but in one respect he was himself a sap -- he always let his adversary strike the first blow. That was sheer stupidity, for often the first blow decided the battle. I had learned this lesson in my boyhood...but I appear to have forgotten the lesson when depicting Frank’s behavior many years later.
Patten attempted to reconcile his conflicting views in Frank Merriwell’s Nerve; or, Game to the End (Tip Top Weekly # 50, Mar. 27, 1897):
“My mother was one of the gentlest women in the world,” continued Merriwell. “Thoughts of strife and contention distressed her. To her a personal encounter was brutal and vulgar, and she instructed me never to fight unless absolutely compelled to do so. As far as possible I have tried to remember her teachings. I have not found it possible to do so at all times, as my enemies would ride over me if I did. When I see that a foe is determined to force me into an encounter then I become the aggressor. In another thing my mother was at fault. Many times she told me never to strike the first blow. She was wrong. Often the first blow wins the battle.
The evils of gambling provided a recurring object lesson throughout the series. Professional athletics, popularized by the National Police Gazette, attracted smarmy "sporting" types who enjoyed the cheesecake "girlie" pictures provided by Richard K. Fox as much as the graphic accounts of bare-knuckle prize fights and mayhem on the gridiron. Football was played without helmets in those days and could be as bloody as boxing. Early professional baseball teams acquired unsavory reputations as well, culminating in the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919. Many of the Merriwell plots involve gamblers who attempt to drug or cripple the star athlete, or drag his friends into ruin. Other stories deal with the problem of professionalism intruding into amateur athletics.
Because the series ground on, week after week, for two decades, totaling about twenty million words, there is a fair amount of repetitiveness, and critics can find many lapses in continuity. Compared with the Tip Top universe, the average Dickens novel is downright underpopulated, so these minor slips were easily forgiven. Some of the errors originated with other authors who briefly filled in for Patten during the few periods in which he could not pen his weekly novel. These were John H. Whitson, Frederick M. Dey, Almon Wolff and Frederick R. Burton.
After Dick Merriwell starred in the 1912 Olympic games, Tip Top Weekly ended with issue 850. Frank and Inza’s son, Frank Jr. (“Chip”), took center stage in the New Tip Top Weekly from 1912 to 1915, but the old magic had departed. Patten, William Wallace Cook and John H. Whitson authored the 136 final adventures.
Unlike some of his fellow dime novelists, who successfully entered the motion picture industry as screenwriters, Gilbert Patten stubbornly clung to pulp magazines. Top-Notch magazine, started in 1910 as a pulp intended for adults, became the successor to New Tip Top Weekly in 1916. Patten edited the early issues under the pseudonym “Frank Merriwell.” After writing sports fiction and occasional Merriwell stories for later Street & Smith publications during the 1920s and ‘30s, Patten produced a hardcover novel called Mr. Frank Merriwell (1941) concerning the efforts of his middle-aged hero to drum up preparedness in his community. The book was a critical and actual failure. Without the hairsbreadth escapes and nonstop action, Merriwell wasn’t Merriwell. The classic dime novel was truly dead.
Throughout the twentieth century various attempts to revive the Merriwells met with only moderate success. There was a “Big Little Book” version of Frank Merriwell at Yale, two newspaper comic strips, a radio serial, a B-movie serial and a couple of sports paperbacks by “Mike Frederic” in the early 1960s. Gil Patten’s approximately 20 million words of fictional Merriwell biography remain an incredible accomplishment. They form a time capsule of early twentieth century life and a “corking good read.”