Harry Walton’s Adventures

This month I’m writing about two of Horatio Alger’s novels: Bound to Rise (1873), and Risen From the Ranks (1874). Both tell us about Harry Walton, the oldest son of a farmer struggling to support his family on ten acres of poor land. Bound to Rise begins when the family cow dies, and the father makes an unfortunate deal with his wealthiest neighbor, Squire Green. He purchases a $40 cow on credit, and if he can’t pay the entire amount – plus interest – in six months, the squire will not only take back the cow, but charge a ten dollar penalty.

Though fourteen-year-old Harry often misses school due to farm work he knows the importance of a good education. His teacher promised to award a book to the best student, and after the final examinations Harry is given a book on the life of Benjamin Franklin. He begins reading, and learns that Franklin had been a poor boy, but “through industry, frugality, perseverance, and a fixed determination to rise in life, he became a distinguished man in the end”.

Harry is determined to earn the money to pay for the new cow, and gains permission to leave home and seek his fortune. Though he would have preferred to take after Benjamin Franklin and work in a print shop, he was hired by a shoemaker, who trains him to peg shoes. (I’m guessing that means he attached soles to the shoes by means of pounding in pegs.)

He earned three dollars and week, plus his room and board, and made good progress on saving up for the cow payment, even after splurging on a few weeks of evening classes, in order to improve his education.

But, alas, one day he lost his wallet, and a cad by the name of Luke Harrison found it, and used part of the money to pay what he owed to a tailor. Fortunately Harry had already told the tailor about his loss, and how he had spilled some ink on one of the bills. When Luke brought in his payment the inky bill was amongst the money. Luke returned part of what Harry had lost, then he quit his job and skipped town.

Harry was sure he could still save up the needed cow payment, but then there was a glut on the shoe market, which meant no further work for a month or more. The next day Harry saw handbills advertising a show by Professor Henderson, the celebrated magician. Despite his economic woes Harry decided to pay 25 cents to see the entertainment and, boy, was that a good decision.

The professor’s assistant had left, and one glance at Harry Walton showed he was honest, so he was hired for five dollars a week, plus traveling expenses. Duties included selling tickets and setting up the equipment needed for the show. At one of the towns they stopped at Harry was asked to go to a newspaper / print shop and order a new supply of handbills. He entered the office of the Centreville Gazette, told the editor about his interest in Benjamin Franklin, and was offered a job as a printer’s apprentice starting in April, which was when the professor ended his touring for the year. Harry readily accepted.

Professor Henderson took sick and told Harry to travel to the next town to cancel his upcoming show. Harry did as he was told, but it was dark when he was returning, and he got lost. A man offered to show him the way, but instead led him down a side road, and robbed him. The thief also took Harry’s coat, and left his raggedy one as a replacement.

If you have to be robbed, make sure it’s by a stupid thief. The old coat had a wallet in the pocket which contained more than what had been stolen from Harry. The youth was able to get back home right before Squire Green came by to collect what was owed him. The cow was paid for, Harry gave his mother money to spend on his siblings and herself, and he informed his family that he planned to follow the example of his hero, Benjamin Franklin, and go to work in a print shop. And so ends Bound to Rise.

At the beginning of Risen From the Ranks Professor Henderson asks now-sixteen-year-old Harry Walton to reconsider resigning from his magician’s assistant career. (I have no idea how Harry aged two years during the six-month cow payment time span.) But the young man is determined to learn the printing trade, and had agreed to work the first month just for his room and board, and then earn two dollars a week plus room and board during the following six months.

When Harry arrived at the Centreville Gazette the editor, Mr. Anderson, provides him with a bedroom at his house. Though the room was small, and up in the attic, it was “scrupulously clean,” and you can’t get better than that.

Harry liked his new employer, plus the eldest journeyman printer, Mr. Ferguson, but didn’t like the younger journeyman, John Clapp. That sallow young man not only smoked, but he spent his evenings hanging out in a barroom with his friend, Luke Harrison – the cad who’d refused to return all of the money when he found Harry’s wallet. Those two were the book’s main bad examples and – spoiler alert – when they teamed up with a con-man who ended up conning them no one shed any tears over their misfortune.

Harry met a student by the name of Oscar Vincent, who attended the local Prescott Academy. Oscar offered to teach French to Harry, plus loan him books to read, so our hero was able to further his education. Getting an education even if a young person needs to work is the main “moral of the story” in these books.

Soon Harry had an established routine of working in the newspaper print shop by day, and then spending his nights either studying in his room, or visiting with Oscar. On occasion his coworker, Mr. Ferguson, invited him to have supper with his family. Mr. Ferguson believed in saving money, though he did subscribe to a weekly literary newspaper so that his family could have quality reading material. He offered to lend Harry some of the back issues.

Harry was so inspired by the paper that he began writing essays and sending them the editor, and after a few rejections his essay on Ambition was published under the pen name of Franklin, in honor of that famous printer he admired. Over time Harry had other small pieces published, and some were reprinted in other papers, including the Centreville Gazette.

Mr. Ferguson’s ambition was to save up enough money to purchase a small-town newspaper and become both a printer and publisher. Harry began to dream of someday becoming a newspaper editor, though he knew it would be many years before he could obtain that lofty goal. Normally it would take at least a decade to become an editor, but fortunately for Harry Walton, he was the hero of a Horatio Alger novel.

After Harry had worked in the print shop for three years, and had reached the age of nineteen, Mr. Anderson became ill and was invited to go out of state and visit his brother. Arrangements were made for Harry and Mr. Ferguson to temporarily run the Centreville Gazette on their own, for John Clapp had left without notice to pursue a get-rich-quick scheme.

Harry took on the duties of editor, and though this was in addition to his work as a printer, he put in long hours improving the quality of the newspaper’s content, and there was an increase in the number of subscribers.

Mr. Anderson received an offer to become a partner in a printing business near his brother’s home, and he planned to accept the offer if he could find someone to purchase his newspaper for two thousand dollars cash. (Alas, he couldn’t wait around to accept payments.)

The asking price was a great bargain, and Harry and Mr. Ferguson wanted to become partners in the deal, but their combined savings was not enough, and every local person who might loan them money had just invested their excess funds in other ventures.

Were the two friends doomed to turn down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If only a traveling magician would stop by, hoping that his former assistant would give him some free publicity in the newspaper he worked at. Professor Henderson made a good income, and might be willing to help out …

The two novels about young Harry Walton were an entertaining read, and while many of the events were unlikely to have happened in the real world, nothing was completely impossible.

Plus, it was a fascinating reminder that running a weekly rural newspaper had once been a profitable endeavor. It’s hard to believe it these days, but for most of our country’s history reading was the major way that people learned about what was happening in the world.

Bound to Rise
can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5977

Risen From the Ranks can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12741

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Adrift In New York

When reading Horatio Alger’s Adrift In New York, or Tom and Florence Braving the World I can imagine the story being performed on stage by a Victorian-era touring company, with the actor playing the villain twirling the end of his mustache as he speaks his caddish thoughts out loud.
Here is the reader’s introduction to Curtis Waring: “He was a tall, dark-complexioned man, of perhaps thirty-five, with shifty, black eyes and thin lips, shaded by a dark mustache. It was not a face to trust.” There was nothing subtle about Alger’s character descriptions.
In the first chapter wealthy-but-ailing John Linden speaks to his niece, Florence, about the loss of his son, who was “abducted at the age of four by a revengeful servant whom I had discharged from my employment.” If the son was still alive he would be eighteen years old.
When Curtis Waring (Florence’s cousin and John Linden’s nephew) comes into the room Linden tells his relatives that he has two wills locked in a desk. One will leaves his estate to his son, and the other leaves everything to Florence and Curtis if they marry each other. Curtis is agreeable to the marriage for “so far as he was capable of loving anyone, he loved his fair young cousin.” However Florence informs the cad that she’d rather live in poverty “then become the wife of one I loathe.”
In the next chapter we learn that Tim Bolton, the former revengeful servant, had been paid by Curtis to abduct Uncle John’s son and take him out of the country, but Bolton and the boy have now returned from Australia and are running a saloon in the Bowery. Curtis hires Bolton to break into the house and steal the wills from the locked desk.
Soon after that Florence’s Uncle John informs her she has twenty-four hours to agree to marry Curtis, or else he’d send her away penniless. She then sits at a table writing her uncle a good-bye letter until sobbing herself to sleep. While she slept a young man wearing tattered clothes comes through the window and opens the locked desk. When Florence wakes up and asks the youth what he was doing, he apologizes and says he came to steal something because the man who claimed to be his father told him to, but he didn’t want to be a thief.
Florence tells the young man, whose name is Tom Dodger, that he should give up bad company and live an honest life, and informs him she will soon be homeless. Tom promises to obtain honest work, find a respectable rented room for her to stay in, and look after her as though she were his sister. Florence is sure the young house-breaker is trustworthy, and agrees to let Tom take care of her.
Tom and Florence both rent separate rooms at the run-down lodging house run by Mrs. O’Keefe, a widow who has an apple stand. Florence is able to find work as a part-time governess, teaching a wealthy girl each morning. Tom begins selling newspapers by the North River piers, and sometimes finding addition work carrying luggage for passengers getting off the boats. During the evenings Florence gives lessons to Tom, who’d only had a few years of schooling.
All goes well for a few weeks, but then villainous Curtis Waring kidnaps and drugs Tom, and has him driven to a ship which will take four to six months to travel to San Francisco. Tom’s passage has been paid for, and a satchel of clothes provided. (A few chapters later readers are informed that railroads allow travelers to cross the country in no time at all, so I’m not sure if there would be much call for ships to take on passengers during a half-a-year voyage to California. Perhaps ship staterooms were mostly occupied by rightful heirs who had to be kept out of the way for long periods of time.)
The good news is that once Tom arrives in San Francisco he obtains a well-paying job. The bad news is that Florence sends him a letter stating she had lost her teaching job and is reduced to sewing all day long for just a few cents a day.
One evening after work Tom meets a poor woman with a little boy, who are about to be evicted from their rented room. He buys the forlorn mother and child a restaurant meal, and learns the woman is Mrs. Curtis Waring. Well now, if that stubborn John Linden could learn that there is an excellent reason why he mustn’t insist that Florence marry her cousin Curtis, surely he would take Florence back into his home, so she doesn’t have to be working herself to death. But it would take many month’s salary to purchase three cross-country railroad tickets for himself and Curtis Waring’s abandoned family.
Poor Tom seems to be faced with an insurmountable problem. Fortunately his story was written by an author who never hesitated to hurry the plot along with outlandish coincidences…
Adrift in New York was first published in 1900, one year after Horatio Alger’s death, so it is possible that the book was partially written by Edward Stratemeyer, who had been chosen to complete Alger’s unfinished manuscripts. (See my October 2017 post for more on Stratemeyer.) No matter who wrote the novel there is much to keep it off my list of all-time favorite books. I suspect the author placed speed-of-writing over literary excellence, and the plot does not pass the most basic “it is reasonable to assume this might happen” test.
However the book has one important factor in it’s favor – it is an enjoyable read. I may roll my eyes and snicker over plot developments, but I keep reading because I want to know what happens next. Even during a reread, when I know what will happen, I keep reading just because I’m having a good time revisiting Florence and Tom’s troubles.
If you’d like to spend a few hours reading Adrift in New York, it can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18581

Edward Stratemeyer and His Syndicate

When Edward Stratemeyer was a boy he wanted to make his living writing stories for children, and that’s just what he did. He not only became one of the world’s most prolific writers, but he changed the landscape of the publishing world.

Stratemeyer, born in New Jersey in 1862, grew up reading “rags to riches” novels by Horatio Alger. He began writing his own stories, and even self-published his work using a small printing press he set up in the basement of his father’s tobacco shop. Stratemeyer’s father didn’t approve of his literary ambitions so Edward also worked for his father, but wrote whenever he wasn’t waiting on customers.

In 1888, when he was 26, he sold his first story for $75, which at the time was more than an average month’s wage. In 1893 he went to work for Street & Smith, a publisher of magazines and cheap novels. A few years later he was asked to finish a novel Horatio Alger was too ill to complete. Stratemeyer would write several novels published under Horatio Alger’s name.

He was both a writer and a businessman. Most novelists wrote in longhand until at least the early 1900s, but in 1891 Stratemeyer taught himself to use a typewriter. And he came up with new publishing ideas.

During the 1890s major book publishers printed illustrated hardback novels that sold for $1.25, a price too steep for most families to purchase except as Christmas presents. Low-end publishers, such as Street & Smith, printed paperbacks known as dime or pulp novels, which used cheap wood-pulp paper that yellowed and became brittle with age. There were also mid-priced hardback books, but they were closer in quality to pulp novels than to the offerings of major publishers.

Edward Stratemeyer wanted to create a line of 50 cent hardback novels that rivaled the appearance of $1.25 books. His plan was to create numerous children’s book series that were affordable enough for families to buy volumes throughout the year. Plus, the books’ attractive appearance would make them popular gift choices. Profits would be made from a high volume of sales.

Two publishing firms, including Grosset & Dunlap, agreed to print the numerous book series he created, and he began pounding out novels. Bound to Win, Working Upwards, Minute Boys, and Dave Porter were some of the series that were written entirely by Stratemeyer – either under his own name or under pseudonyms.

But he kept thinking up new book series. Books that would appeal to beginner readers, books about an inventor, and about young folks that rode around in motor cars, and about adolescent girls who did more than attend school and help with household chores. Too many books for even a fast typer to write all on his own. And so the Stratemeyer Syndicate came into being.

Edward Stratemeyer would create a new series, name the characters, then assign them vague physical descriptions and a fictional hometown in an unnamed state. He came up with an author’s pseudonym, decided on the length of the books, and typed out a five to six page synopsis of each adventure. Writers were hired to produce publishable manuscripts for a set fee, and each signed a contract agreeing not to reveal that he or she wrote for the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In a 1976 American Heritage article Arthur Prager proposed this scenario: “Imagine a starving ex-police reporter, suffering from the grandfather of all hangovers, staggering to his typewriter to begin an episode of Honey Bunch, Her First Day of School.” I can only hope that nothing that incongruous took place, but not all of the Syndicate writers were fans of the series they worked on. For some their sole reason for taking on assignments was to pay bills.

Stratemeyer read over each submitted manuscript, made minor edits on acceptable ones, and sent some back for partial rewrites. Writers whose first attempts didn’t come close to Stratemeyer’s standards were unlikely to be assigned another novel to complete.

Decades after his death stories were told about Edward Stratemeyer being a cruel taskmaster who paid miniscule wages. Since I never worked for the Syndicate I’m no expert on him as an employer, but it is known that many writers created dozens of manuscripts for Stratemeyer, so working conditions must not have been too dire.

His writers didn’t sit around pondering the exact phrase to describe a particular scene, they produced an acceptable novel in about four weeks, and in the early 1900s a payment of $75 would have been a good wage for a month of work. In later decades the price to write a Stratemeyer Syndicate manuscript was always based on the assumption that the work wouldn’t take up much of the writer’s time.

From the 1890s up to his death in 1930 Edward Stratemeyer created over 60 children’s book series. Some of his most popular were Rover Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Motor Boys, Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, Honey Bunch, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. Two of the last series he created achieved the Grand Slam in popularity – Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

In his early series some plots centered around actual events – such as World War I – that established the stories as taking place in a specific time period, and with each book the characters grew older until they “aged out” of their role as a hero or heroine of children’s books.

In later series the characters lived in what I’ll call a Book Series Time Bubble, where current events were never mentioned and characters had decades of adventures without growing a day older. That way individual titles could stay in print long enough for a second generation of readers to buy the book and imagine that the plot was unfolding in the present time period.

After Edward Stratemeyer’s death his two daughters took over the Syndicate. Daughter Edna oversaw business matters until she married, but Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was in charge of her father’s legacy for 52 years – from 1930 until her death in 1982.

During the 1930s the financial depression cut into book sales just as other publishing companies started printing competing book series about young people solving mysteries. Many of the older Stratemeyer series went out of print, and fees to writers were reduced.

During daughter Harriet’s management of the Syndicate a few new series were introduced, and three of them had more than 30 titles published. Dana Girls began in 1934, and during the 1950s Happy Hollisters and Tom Swift, Jr. became popular.

In the 1950s three of the Syndicate’s perennial favorites – Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew – received rewrite makeovers. The books were shortened, and outdated belongings and attitudes were changed. Plus the character of Nancy Drew aged from 16 to 18 to make her independent lifestyle more plausible.

For many years Grosset & Dunlap had published all of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books, but in 1979 Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had a falling out with them. The publisher had insisted on the earlier rewrites, and their ideas on how the Syndicate should be run often differed from Harriet’s vision. She switched publishers and began working with Simon & Schuster. But Grosset & Dunlap sued over “breach of contract, copyright infringement, and unfair competition.”

The Stratemeyer Syndicate’s secretive world of author pseudonyms and ghost writers was dragged into court over who really owned what. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had been claiming she’d written all Nancy Drew books, but hired writers testified under oath, and brought documents proving Harriet’s claims were false.

When the dust settled the court decided that Grosset & Dunlap had the right to continue publishing all books in print up through 1979, but they could not update them, or publish any new books using characters created by the Syndicate. And a different publisher would be free to bring out new book titles.

When Harriet Stratemeyer Adams died in 1982 her heirs sold the Syndicate to Simon & Schuster, who began publishing new versions of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew adventures. In one of the series-within-a-series Joe and Frank Hardy worked for a government agency and carried guns. In The Nancy Drew Files romance was added to the plots, and the series Nancy Drew on Campus had the heroine attending college.

Grosset & Dunlap continued to publish pre-1980 books, and many consider these to be the only “real” Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. The company has been purchased by Penguin Random House, and Penguin Books still publish a selection of the older volumes in both print and audio versions. (They are also keeping a few of the Bobbsey Twins books in print.)

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, with dozens of book series, is no more, and the never-ending new versions of the last of Edward Stratemeyer’s creations may seem far removed from what he had envisioned. But Mr. Stratemeyer had come up with the idea of publishing attractive low-cost books that would appeal to young people – and he wanted to make money. Books featuring makeovers of Frank Hardy, Joe Hardy, and Nancy Drew continue to entertain and earn profits, and I suspect that would meet with Edward Stratemeyer’s approval.

Reading Horatio Alger, Jr. as History

A few years ago, when lowering government spending became a popular rallying cry, I kept waiting for someone to claim Horatio Alger as the patron of small government.

Horatio Alger, Jr. was a prolific writer who published about 100 books between 1868 and his death in 1899. Most were novels about poor boys who improved their lives through hard work, education, and lucky breaks. His earliest books often told of young orphans who lived on the streets of New York City and supported themselves by blacking boots or selling newspapers. The only time an authority figure paid any mind to the ragged urchins was when a policeman broke up a fight, or someone woke a boy to order him out of a doorway or wagon where he’d been sleeping.

It has been estimated that during the 1870s the number of homeless orphans in New York City fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000. Those who sought help went to facilities run by private charities – notably the Newsboys’ Lodging House run by the Children’s Aid Society, which remained open under various names up through the 1940s. Night classes were available to boys motivated to receive an education.

(Up until the 1930s most government assistance was limited to almshouses, where conditions were purposely kept austere to discourage use of meager funds.)

Some politicians can view the past as evidence that more government help for at-risk children is needed; others may reference huge sums spent in modern times that resulted in few tangible improvements. The second group might suggest that private charity had a better outcome.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write out a lecture on who should or shouldn’t be helping the poor. I want to remind my readers that tens of thousands of children once lived on the streets of U.S. cities, and that’s a truth worth knowing. There are many ways to learn about 19th century homeless youth, but I believe the most interesting method is by reading some of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s books. Though the details of the individual stories are fiction (and at times unlikely fiction) the streets and buildings, employment, dangers, and sources of help are real.

The author spent a great deal of time at the Newsboys’ Lodging House, meeting with the supervisor, as well as the boys who resided there. Alger investigated sources of corruption, and it is alleged that his life was endangered when he wrote of the padrone system, where Italian children were brought to this country and put to work as unpaid street musicians. That story is told in Phil the Fiddler.

Alger wrote several books a year, and all were handwritten, which made corrections difficult – at times he’d mention a detail he’d forgotten to include earlier. His writing can be wooden, and he followed the 19th century habit of occasionally stopping the action to give brief sermons on what his readers should learn from what just took place. Plus Alger wasn’t shy about tossing in coincidences to move the story along.

But despite their failings Horatio Alger, Jr.’s books are an interesting read. His main characters are likable, usually possessing a wry sense of humor. (When a tutor is looking for a good story to begin teaching a nearly-illiterate bootblack, the new student says “Find an easy one, with words of one story.”) Alger’s boys are hard-working, with a desire to improve themselves, and a willingness to break bad habits. The plots go along at a fast pace, and when an enemy reforms, and the hero steps up to offer friendship, it is a believable transition.

I recommend six books from two of Alger’s early series. Five of the books can be downloaded without cost from Project Gutenberg, at http://www.gutenberg.org; the remaining one – Mark the Match Boy, can be obtained as an inexpensive ebook from various sources. All books can also be purchased in both new and used printed copies.

Three books – Ragged Dick (1868), Fame and Fortune (1868) and Mark the Match Boy (1869) tell of Richard Hunter, who spent six years living on the streets before resolving to become respectable and improve himself. He obtains a good suit of clothes, befriends a boy who teaches him to read and write, and saves a wealthy man’s son from drowning. That rescue leads to a better job, plus a financial reward, but Richard’s adventures continue, including being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and becoming the temporary guardian of a young match seller. As Richard Hunter’s fortunes improve he remembers his former street friends, and is always willing to help those in need.

The second set of three books – Paul the Peddler (1871), Phil the Fiddler (1872), and Slow and Sure (1872) tell of Paul Hoffman, who works to support his widowed mother and lame younger brother. Paul goes from being a street peddler to the owner of a necktie stand, and then a store owner. Most of his story takes place after he literally ran into a wealthy businessman, who hires Mrs. Hoffman to sew him new shirts, and then becomes the family’s financial advisor. Paul only appears as a minor character in Phil the Fiddler, (where he helps a street musician escape his ruthless master) but in Slow and Sure Paul’s adventures continue, and the Hoffmans lives improve through hard work, bravery, and a healthy dose of the author’s coincidences.

Horatio Alger, Jr.’s early novels tell of a time when widows and orphans overcame difficulties by their own efforts, and the help of friends. They aren’t great books, but won’t bore you, and you’ll learn a side of history that’s worth knowing about.