Juvenile adventures have Seacoast settings

Was there a golden age of youth stories?

Jim Cerny, story and images

Thomas Bailey Aldrich published The Story of a Bad Boy in 1869, the archetype of Seacoast adventure stories and a classic in the larger genre of "boy books," from an era when the Seacoast was much more important in literary circles.

"Sailing Away," p. 155 in "The Story of a Bad Boy", 1891 edition, artist unknown. Boys with boats were popular to illustrate these stories this shows Pepper Whitcomb drifting away to his death as his friends watch helplessly.

Dennis Robinson traces the history of the American "boy book" in New Hampshire, a genre distinct from the dime novels of the nineteenth century and a precursor to the series of syndicated adventure stories that appeared in the twentieth century.

Portsmouth-born Benjamin Penhallow (BP) Shillaber created the boy Ike Partington for his stories as early as the 1840s, an influence Robinson sees on Thomas Bailey Aldrich and his Story of a Bad Boy. Robinson then describes Aldrich's friendship with Mark Twain, who took the genre to another level with Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The woodsman character of Seth Jones, who appears in 1860 in Beadle's Dime Novels, is supposedly from New Hampshire, a link to the much larger category of dime novel adventures that were produced by the thousands in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Here we highlight three little-known juvenile adventure stories set in the immediate Seacoast, ranging in date from 1888 to 1978.

"Kelp: A Story of the Isles of Shoals" by Willis Boyd Allen.

Book cover.

Frontispiece. "Boat Adrift." Artist unknown.

Book Summary: Willis Allen Boyd, Kelp: A Story of the Isles of Shoals, D. Lothrop Company, 1888, 242pp. A wealthy Bostonian, Mr. Percival, arranges to take a group of kids (Tom, Susie, Bert, Bess, Randolph, and their dog Solomon) to camp on Duck Island at the Isles of Shoals. Their adventures take them to all the islands and include several close calls with getting swept away by wind and waves. The title "Kelp" is both the name for their camp and a metaphor for life, whether to drift like kelp with the tide, or to take more control. The original owner of my copy was a Rufus Neff of Jenera, Ohio, some 685 miles inland from the New Hampshire Seacoast!

Author Bio: Willis Boyd Allen (1855-1938) was born in Kittery Point, Maine. He was educated at Harvard and completed a law degree at Boston University, practicing for a few years before retiring to Kittery Point to spend his time writing. He published more than two dozen children's books and his last was in 1905, The North Pacific: A Story of the Russo-Japanese War.

"The Island of Appledore" by Adair Aldon.

Book cover.

Facing page 68. "Why," gasped Billy, "it must have been the Flying Dutchman." By W.B. King.

Book Summary: Adair Aldon, The Island of Appledore, MacMillan Company, 1917, 211pp. We don't know why the author chose Appledore as the title, since in the foreword she acknowledges that the island is not really the setting of the book, which is more mainland-like. The protagonists are two kids, Billy Wentworth and Sally Shute, who befriend old Captain Ned Saulsby. This is during World War I and there are naval ships about and the kids keep watch for suspicious strangers. At one point Billy and Ned capsize in a small boat and are rescued by a destroyer. Time goes by and at the end Billy is patriotically enlisting in the Navy.

Author Bio: Adair Aldon was actually the pseudonym for Carolyn Meigs (1884-1973). Meigs grew up in Illinois and Iowa and for most of her career she taught English at Bryn Mawr College. She wrote over two dozen books, including a prize-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott. She evidently wrote with her nieces and nephews in mind and this book was one of her first.

"Mystery of the Lobster Thieves" by Elaine Macmann Willoughby.

Book cover.

Page 15. "The tall stringy man behind the counter looked dirty and not very pleasant." By Raymond Keane.

Book Summary: Elaine Macmann Willoughby, Mystery of the Lobster Thieves, Xerox Education Publishers, 1978, 56pp. The book is short and reads very quickly. The story is told by a girl named Annie, about the adventure she has with her brother Wallace and their friend Dave, in trying to solve the mystery of who is stealing lobsters from traps. They track the thieves at night, get caught by the thieves, get rescued, and the thieves are finally caught by local police.

Author Bio: The author wrote a handful of children's books and this one is set right in New Castle where she lives in retirement and where the center of action, a cottage called Blue Shutters, actually exists today.

Evolution of adventure stories.

As literacy increased and printing technology improved in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was an explosion of adventure stories aimed at the youth market, in the form of dime novels (not always a dime). These continued into the twentieth century, becoming superseded by syndicated stories, pulp magazines, and comics. The stories were often lurid and melodramatic, as a few of these covers show.

"Crack Skull Bob," Orum & Co., 1872. (Library of Congress).

"Stella's Bout with the Rival Ranchers," Smith Publishing, 1907 (Library of Congress).

The Steam Man, cover graphic

Because of the requirement to deposit a copy of a publication as a former part of the copyright process, the Library of Congress amassed a collection of nearly 40,000 dime novel titles from 280 different series! In Britain such stories were often called penny dreadfuls or shilling shockers. The Hess Collection at the University of Minnesota has 65,000 American and British examples.

Edward Stratemeyer. (Wikipedia)
In the nineteenth century the dime novel was replaced by pulp magazines and syndicated series of books and eventually by comics. The dominant publisher of children's books became Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930), who developed the technique of using teams of freelance ghostwriters to produce popular series. This was done with great secrecy so few readers at the time knew that there was no such author as Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keene. Some of the best known series were the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. But there were dozens of others, such as Bomba the Jungle Boy, Motor Boys, and the Dana Girls. Another successful syndicate was created by Howard Garis, who wrote the Uncle Wiggily series, in addition to writing many books for Stratemeyer.

There were periodic reactions against these publications, of course. Anthony Comstock crusaded against dime novels, founding the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, in the belief dime novels bred juvenile delinquents. Such beliefs and efforts at suppression would recur with comic books in the 1950s.

After World War II comic books became more and more popular and also more and more gruesome and lurid. This produced major efforts at censorship, a history that David Hajdu documents in his 2008 book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. For an extended online exercept of Hajdu, see this. Mad Magazine and similar titles survived as acceptable, despite many parents looking askance, or perhaps because they were beneath parental notice.

What about today?

Compare these adventure stories to the media that children are immersed in today and the advertising aimed at children. There is television, movies, radio, the Internet, and video games. It is easy to ask questions and more difficult to provide answers based on research rather than emotion. Are movies such as "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings" just the same old kinds of stories in a different medium? What about video games, are they significantly different because any violence and sexuality is explicit rather than implied or imagined? What is the impact on kids (mostly boys) of spending hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours in violent role playing games such as Duke Nukem and Grand Theft Auto and their many successors?


June, 2010