Monday, March 12, 2012

“Accept No Imitations;” or, the Price of Success

by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

If the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, then Gilbert Patten’s Frank Merriwell series in Street and Smith’s Tip Top Library was nearly flattered to death by imitators. (A post on the Merriwells may be read HERE:)

As a consumer product, American popular culture has always been market driven. During the early and middle nineteenth century, Americans were obsessed with the expanding western frontier, from the Adirondacks to the Mississippi to California. Explorers, trappers, Native Americans and soldiers populated the story papers and early paperback novels, joined occasionally by nautical adventurers and pirates. Detectives and outlaws would augment these stock casts in the 1870s and ‘80s. Romantic melodramas, set in both exotic and homespun surroundings, were likewise staples of the family-oriented periodicals. “Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl” and the weepy characters of “East Lynne” and other “three-hanky” potboilers defended their virtue against leering villains in thousands of pages of pulp fiction.

In April 1896, however, a new wind breathed life into popular light fiction when Frank Merriwell, the schoolboy ubermensch, first stepped off the train to Fardale Academy. Although the frontier types would stagger along for another decade or so, they were soon elbowed off newsstand shelves by a host of clean-cut, square-jawed academy and college youths who could excel at any sport, succeed in business, rescue virtuous young women, drive automobiles, pilot planes and overcome a wide range of “heavies.” The new breed of popular hero spurned the rum- and tobacco-soaked habits of the wild westerners or Bowery detectives and fitted into the earnest spirit of reform that came to characterize the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Much as the Beatles would ride and manipulate the crest of a new wave of youth-oriented entertainment sixty-five years later, the fictional prep-school superhero shaped a new cultural paradigm from 1896 through the First World War.

A few months before launching Tip Top, Street and Smith had introduced a schoolboy prankster, created by Henry Harrison Lewis, named “Gay Dashleigh.” This character starred in five serials in Street and Smith’s Good News story paper in 1896 and 1897, and he too later found a home in hardcover and “thick book” formats. Young Dashleigh belonged to the older style of school story, which consisted of crude practical jokes and slapstick mayhem, while Merriwell was the first of an entirely new model of heroic ideals. Frank, a true North American product, was not the first schoolboy hero of pop culture: that was Jack Harkaway, an English creation of Samuel Bracebridge Heming, who appeared in E.J. Brett’s Boys of England late in 1871. Harkaway in turn echoed the highly respectable Tom Brown’s School Days, an 1857 novel of “muscular Christianity” by Thomas Hughes. Although the soul of honor, Harkaway smoked, drank, experimented with opium, was a racist, conducted his affairs with ultra violence and was a dubious role model for youth. (Naturally, teenagers couldn’t get enough of him.) Frank Merriwell, on the other hand, espoused Harkaway’s virtues but cleaned up his act nearly to the point of priggishness.

Because the United States had no strong boarding school tradition, these stories were nearly all set in military academies. (Indeed, a very young Upton Sinclair carried one set of characters through West Point and another through Annapolis in Street and Smith’s Army and Navy Weekly. Sinclair wrote these under the pen names “Lt. Frederick Garrison, U.S.A.” and “Ensign Clarke Fitch, U.S.N.”)

Tip Top, the first colored-cover nickel “library,” soon gained a large and loyal following of boys, girls and adults. Many parents who had examined the weekly (to assure themselves that their offspring were not wasting time on cheap dime thrillers) became hooked on the continuing story line and the strong moral messages. Whereas most five-cent weeklies were episodic, the Merriwell saga was constructed like a long-running soap opera, its characters aging in real time.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 and the resultant Philippine counterinsurgency war, lasting into the early twentieth century, created a market among young servicemen. Bales of novels were shipped to the dreary army hospitals in the Philippines and grateful convalescents wrote to the Tip Top correspondence column to express their thanks.

Rival publishers envied Street and Smith’s hot property and soon issued their own knock-offs. The first nickel weekly publisher to imitate Frank Merriwell was the Frank Tousey house. In 1898, Tousey hired star author Harvey King Shackleford, writing as “Hal Standish,” to pen a new series about “Fred Fearnot.” Fred attended Avon Academy, and like Frank, Yale College. He dabbled in Wall Street, engaged in ranching, mining and numerous globetrotting adventures like his model at Street and Smith. Tip Top fans sneered at poor Fred in Tip Top’s correspondence columns, but the stories were well written and hold up quite well. Unlike Merriwell, who stayed out of international warfare (except for private wars against South American villains who threatened his mines) Fred Fearnot became embroiled in the Spanish-American War and fought on the Boer side in the Boer War. At least one Canadian Tip Top reader took umbrage at this while his countrymen were dying in South Africa for the British cause.

Tousey also created “Dick Daresome” in Wide Awake Weekly and “Frank Manley” in Frank Manley’s Weekly to assist Fred in luring nickels away from Street and Smith’s till. The unusual Three Chums Weekly chronicled the adventures of two Merriwell clones and a female chum from prep school, to college, to the stage and around the world. Lastly, the Arthur Westbrook Company came up with “Jack Standfast” in The Boy’s Best Weekly, a late entry in the nickel weekly field.

Oddly enough, Street and Smith soon began to compete with its own product! The firm introduced “Jack Lightfoot,” as the athletic star of All Sports Library, and “Link Rover, the American Harkaway” in Rover Boy/Young Rover Library. This series came out in 1904, at the same time that Street and Smith reprinted the old Jack Harkaway series in uniform “thick books.” Eventually, the Harkaway and Merriwell reprints became almost indistinguishable in format and cover art.

During the late 1890s another publishing phenomenon began – the relatively inexpensive hardcover “series book.” Although juvenile series books had existed since Jacob Abbott’s “Little Rollo” in the 1850s, their price was prohibitive. A child would be fortunate to obtain more than one volume a year as a birthday or holiday gift. (By the time a doting relative had purchased a twelve-volume set at that rate, the child might be too old to enjoy it.) Series books by “Oliver Optic” (William T. Adams). “Harry Castlemon” (Charles Austin Fosdick), C.A. Stephens, Horatio Alger, Jr., J.T. Trowbridge and Louisa May Alcott, among others, were quite popular, but cost more than the average child could afford. Only the very wealthy could afford imported editions of G.A. Henty’s historical fiction. This changed when around 1897 the firm of Lee and Sheppard in Boston began publishing juvenile series at 75 cents per volume, rather than the usual $1.50.

The editor who had hired Gilbert Patten when he began the Merriwell series was a shrewd businessman and former author of dime novels named Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) who left Street and Smith to enter the hardcover juvenile book market in 1898. He scored a hit for Lee and Shepard with Under Dewey at Manila, the first of his “Old Glory” series, and never looked back. By 1906, he had created the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which dominated the market for series books until the late 1980s. Among the products of his fertile imagination were several quasi-historical series, but his best-remembered creations are the “Bobbsey Twins,” the “Hardy Boys,” “Nancy Drew,” “Tom Swift,”  “Don Sturdy,” “Bomba the Jungle Boy,” the “Motor Boys,” “Dave Porter” and the “Rover Boys.” The last two series bore more than a passing resemblance to Jack Harkaway and Frank Merriwell.

The syndicate owned all manuscripts, stereotype printing plates, illustrations and copyrights. Like the dime novel publishers, Stratemeyer adopted the practice of  “house names” for most of his later series, the majority published by Grossett and Dunlap. Except for the books written under his own name or his pseudonyms “Arthur M. Winfield” and “Capt. Ralph Bonehill,” and the books penned by his assistant, Howard R. Garis, under Garis’ own name, the remainder of the 800 or so Syndicate books were by anonymous authors. The catchy names “Franklin W. Dixon,” “Victor Appleton,” “Carolyn Keene,” “Clarence Young,” “Roy Rockwood,” “Frank V. Webster” and “Laura Lee Hope” covered many interchangeable writers, working to detailed outlines by Stratemeyer, and later by his daughter Harriet. He was proudest of the “Dave Porter” series, which faintly echoed Jack Harkaway in its early volumes, and of the “Rover Boys” books. His tombstone resembles a bookshelf, with a row of stylized “Dave Porter” spines.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate succeeded by controlling all facets of production, cutting frills and fixing prices at 50 cents. To compete, other publishers had to lower their prices. Some, like M.A. Donohue of Chicago, issued books at various grades of cheapness, ranging from solidly bound books on good paper at $1.00, down to flimsily bound volumes on cheap paper at 15 cents each. The same stereotyped printing plates sufficed for both editions. Older books with expired copyrights were up for grabs, and deceased author Horatio Alger, Jr. attained the sales volume that had eluded him during his lifetime as 10-cent reprints flooded the market.

Street and Smith countered by issuing pulp paperbacks at ten cents each, containing the contents of three or four nickel weeklies per “thick book.” The Merriwell stories first appeared as regular reprints in the Medal Library, a variety series which included books by Alger, G.A. Henty, Oliver Optic and others. Soon, the Merriwell saga was long enough to merit its own series of thick paperbacks, which remained in print until the early 1930s. A number of them were published as hardcover editions, first by Street and Smith and later by the Federal Publishing Co. and the David McKay Co. of Philadelphia. Frank Merriwell’s creator, Gilbert Patten, produced several series of hardcover sports-themed adventures, but these were never as popular as his Tip Tops. Some of these were later reissued as paperbacks as well.

Continue to "Accept No Imitations" Part II HERE

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