Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 7. Dime Novels; Writers for Boys; Kellogg; Goulding; Oliver Optic; Alger

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VII. Books for Children

§ 7. Dime Novels; Writers for Boys; Kellogg; Goulding; Oliver Optic; Alger

When the object of juvenile writing became, in the sixties, wholesome amusement rather than instruction, a result at once evident was that far more books were written for boys than for girls. “Simple, lively books for girls are much needed,” wrote Miss Alcott in her journal; and seemed to fear that her liveliness was more suitable for the youthful male. Women apparently combated more than men the idea that mere entertainment was harmless. But the respectable of the sterner sex so shared it at first that it was seized upon only by the concoctors of lurid melodrama, shameless persons who hid under such pseudonyms as “Nick Carter.” A rage for these dime dreadfuls swept the country, and perhaps it was the tardy desire not “to leave all the good tunes to the devil” which energized the next group of writers for boys. Some of them at any rate were ministers, and the books of others were still too much under the compulsion of preaching, even if by story rather than by precept. Chief among these writers (who wrote solely for children) were Elijah Kellogg (1813–1901), William Taylor Adams (1822–97), and Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832–99). Their careers began about 1860. Kellogg’s several series of stories of Maine deal with the adventures of fishermen and farmers. Though more carefully written than were the other two, they have no merit of literary form beyond the great one of telling a straightforward story unimpeded by inessentials, but their pictures of a sturdy and rugged people are vivid and unaffected. Pictures of equal local value and interest F. R. Goulding was giving at the same time in stories of boy-life on the Southern seaboard. The Young Marooners (1852) has decided merit. Adams’s pseudonym, “Oliver Optic,” speedily became as profitable as Goodrich’s, and it also was placed at the head of a magazine. He wrote over one hundred volumes besides innumerable short stories, and their popularity has never since been equalled. Principal of a public school and Sunday School superintendent, he lived to hear his books called trashy by a more exacting age. Their style is, it is true, slovenly, and their smart heroes are given to cheap declamation; but their material is all clean, effective, and interesting. The Starry Flag, Soldier Boy, and Young America series merited the delight of two generations of boys. Horatio Alger, Jr., once a Unitarian minister, wrote seventy volumes, most of their titles summoning apt alliteration’s artful aid. They told of bootblacks and news-boys, from systematic personal observation in the streets of New York City. His simple and invariable formula scored—by pluck and perseverance his hero rose single-handed to fame and fortune. The books of all three writers aroused admiration for sterling qualities; but the more sophisticated boys of a later generation began to complain that the Optic and Alger books were all alike, and conscientious librarians began to see that in them the element of luck was over-emphasized. Two other writers grew very popular before the trend at the close of the century toward the study of adolescent psychology and adolescent citizenship discovered something pernicious in action unaccompanied by reflection and analysis. These were Harry Castlemon and Edward S. Ellis. The former revelled in exciting and incredible adventures upon unrecognizable frontiers, and the latter yarned blithely of hunting and Indians without a thought of preparing boys for social service.

Meanwhile, writers more serious in purpose had been following the historical and biographical trail of Goodrich and Abbott, bringing to it more literary nicety and greater research. An early contemporary of the two had been John Frost (1800–59), a forgotten schoolmaster whose one hundred juveniles sold by the ton in his day and were republished as late as 1890. John Abbott (Jacob’s brother), followed by James Parton, Elbridge Brooks, E. E. Hale, and Hezekiah Butterworth, made important contributions to the new department of biography for children. These and other writers, among them Edward Eggleston and George Cary Eggleston, began also to combine history and fiction so well that the reader did not know where one left off and the other began. This species they developed more successfully than did their extremely popular English rivals, Henty and his school. Their fiction was more credible and their background more accurate. Charles Carleton Coffin’s historical series from colonial times to the close of the Civil War present in story form perhaps the best short histories of the campaigns they cover; Noah Brooks’s Boy Emigrants exhibits frontier life accurately; John Bennett’s Master Skylark belongs to the highest type of historical juvenile.