Of all the bold Americans who have appeared on the sporting scene, none ever aroused the admiration or left so enduring an impression as one who never really existed: Frank Merriwell of Fardale Academy, Yale College and the world at large. The hero of the most widely read juvenile saga ever published, his very name is synonymous with the spectacular in sports. From 1896 to 1914 he performed unmatchable feats of derring-do in Tip Top Weekly. He was a whiz at boxing, baseball (his "double shoot," which curved in both directions, was always good in the clutch), football, hockey, lacrosse, crew, track, shooting, bicycle racing, billiards, golf—in fact, any sport he deigned to play. No matter what plots the villains hatched, Frank always emerged triumphant. The schemers—sneaky Roland Ditson, swaggering Herbert Hammerswell, the son of "a pompous, vain, conceited, narrow-minded, back-number politician," and the rest of their ilk—were routed.
Frank Merriwell, in the words of his creator, Gilbert Patten, stood for truth, faith, justice, the triumph of right, mother, home, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, the love of alma mater, duty, sacrifice, retribution and strength of soul as well as body. Frank was manly; he had "sand." He was tolerant. Although he neither smoked nor drank—"Frank had proven that it was not necessary for a man to drink at Yale in order to be esteemed a good fellow"—he gladly "blew off" his chums to fizz at Morey's while he quaffed ginger ale. He was honest. When some prankish classmates stole a turkey from a farmer's coop, Frank risked capture by staying behind to nail a $5 bill to the roost. "Have all the sport you like over it," he told his laughing friends, "but I feel easy in my mind."
Above all, Frank was modest. As a freshman in a boarding house on York Street, he tolerated Spartan furnishings, but as a sophomore in South Middle he did up his rooms with souvenirs of his adventures in South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. On the floor were grizzly bear and tiger skin rugs; on the walls, bows and arrows, pistols and "a heavy ax, the blade of which was rusty and stained with blood"; and, as a final touch, away up near the ceiling, "safely out of reach." a strange knife, tipped with green, in a glass case with the sign, THE SNAKE KNIFE OF THE PAMPAS, POISON! Frank's friends—Bart Hodge, Jack Diamond, Bruce Browning and the rest of the crowd—were wont to meet there once or twice a week for "jolly gatherings," but whenever anyone asked about the unusual decor, which "elicited no small amount of surprise." Frank would sigh, "What's the use of talking about what one has done? It's not that which counts here."
Such a hero could dazzle any generation. Among his admirers were Stanley Ketchel, Franklin P. Adams, Jess Willard, Floyd Gibbons, Jack Dempsey, Jerry Giesler, Fredric March, Christy Mathewson, Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, Al Smith and Wendell Willkie. George Jean Nathan was so moved by Merriwell that he laid aside his acerbic pen to plead for a biography of Patten, and Westbrook Pegler recently lamented that Patten had never received the Pulitzer prize. "When I read Hemingway, Jack London and Skinny Caldwell of Tobacco Road, all fellows with scant respect for womanhood, nor reticence in matters which never should be mentioned in mixed company," Pegler wrote, "I pine for the fresh clear nobility which walked in gleaming armor even though dens of infamy flourished in all big cities and unwary daughters of our farmers vanished into Kansas City with straw suitcases."
There is no counting the number of youngsters Merriwell inspired. Clarence E. Mulford, the author of the Hop-along Cassidy stories, read Merriwell, and so did Dan Parker, the vigilant sports editor of the New York Mirror. "Every kid that would look at TV now read Merriwell," Parker says. "A lot of us thought he was real. He certainly couldn't have helped but give people the idea it was good to have clean sports. I got the idea Yale wouldn't be caught doing anything not true blue, but I couldn't say the same for Harvard."
Even today the nostalgic demand for Merriwell is so strong that Charles Bragin, a Brooklyn bookseller who specializes in dime novels, asks $3,500 for a complete run of Tip Top, 986 copies all told. Dime Novel Round-up, a monthly magazine devoted to oldtime popular literature, gives over column after column to Merriwell minutiae, and its editor, Edward T. LeBlanc of Fall River, Mass., is such an enthusiast that he currently is compiling a plot synopsis of each issue of Tip Top. So far, he has read his way through the first 375. Another contributor, J. P. Guinon of Little Rock, Ark., has analyzed the letters column that ran in Tip Top for almost 20 years. In New York, the Friends of Frank Merriwell, an informal society, meets over the luncheon table in the name of fair play. Started by Joseph Graham, an insurance executive who is fond of introducing himself as "the president and beloved founder," the society has the motto, "No bullies or toadies allowed." One member, a reporter on The New York Times, was banished not long ago after a daily-double notation was found on the back of his membership card.
For the past two years, Harry Felsenstein, a New York label manufacturer, has been seeing one publisher after another in an effort to get the Merriwell stories republished. "They teach a sense of values that is missing today," Felsenstein says. "Whenever I went out to play baseball or football, I thought of myself as Frank Merriwell, and I found myself performing stunts I didn't think I was capable of, like making sensational catches, one-handed sensational catches. I always came through, advancing the runner. I never struck out. On the track team, in the last few yards, I always seemed to surge forward. Fantastic!"
The flame burns brightest at Yale, where Merriwell's legend has hung over the campus for more than half a century. Any number of students have gone to Yale because of him, ranging from the athletic to the intellectual, from Eddie Eagan, class of '21, Olympic light heavyweight champion and onetime chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, to Jan Deutsch, '55, now law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. One of the most brilliant students ever to enroll at Yale, Deutsch entered when he was only 16 on a Ford Foundation scholarship. After graduating with a 94 average, he got an M.A. from Cambridge and in June of 1962 became the first student in Yale history to receive, simultaneously, an LL.B. from the law school and a Ph.D. in political science from the graduate school. "As a small boy, I loved to listen to the radio series about Frank Merriwell at Yale," Deutsch says. "There was never any doubt about where I wanted to go." Merriwell was the boyhood hero of Jordan Olivar, the Yale football coach. In fact, at the start of the 1962 season, Olivar had two Merriwell novels in his desk. "If I had him today, he'd be quarterback," Olivar says.
Edwin Foster Blair, a New York lawyer and Yale fellow, recalls that when he was a tackle on the undefeated, untied team of 1923, a player who did something spectacular was asked, "Who do you think you are, Frank Merriwell?" The closest any real-life Yale athlete has come to Merriwell was Albie Booth, who won eight varsity letters and captained the football and basketball teams. (He turned down the baseball captaincy "to give someone else a chance.") As a sophomore, Booth almost singlehandedly defeated Army and Chris Cagle in a football game Army was winning 13-0. Booth went in and scored three touchdowns, the last on a 65-yard punt return through the entire Cadet team. He kicked all the extra points as Yale won 21-13. In 1932 Booth made his sporting farewell by hitting a bases-loaded homer in the ninth to beat Harvard 4-3. Sportswriters invariably called him Frank Merriwell.
It is ironic that Gilbert Patten not only never attended Yale (or any college, for that matter) but had his play hissed off the stage by Yale students during its New Haven tryout. For 17 years Patten, under the pen name of "Burt L. Standish," ground out 20,000 words a week on Merriwell. It was mentally taxing and physically arduous. He bruised his typing fingers so badly that he had to hire a secretary. He walked furiously as he dictated. When he walked slowly, the narrative came hard. The faster he walked, the better it flowed. One morning he attached a pedometer to his leg and clocked four and a quarter miles in three hours.
In practically every way, Patten was unlike his fictional hero. Patten was a spindly small-town boy with a sense of inferiority. His pacifist parents constantly warned him against the shamefulness of fisticuffs. When he created Merriwell, he simply turned himself inside out. "It was natural for me to wish to make Frank a fellow such as I would like to have been myself," he said.
Patten was born in Corinna, Maine on October 25, 1866, the son of a carpenter, "a good, solid, honest Maine man of no distinctive talents." His mother was "simply and merely a good housewife and a loving, almost adoring mother." From the start, he was a storyteller. "I was trying to write stories even before I knew how to spell some of the simplest words," he later recalled. "My thirst for reading was fed at first upon Sabbath-school literature and such worn and tattered books as I found in my home." He started smoking at 14, when he indulged in 2¢ cheroots. He also got drunk on hard cider, but the experience, while "interesting, even exciting," helped make him into a Prohibitionist. When he was 15, he shocked his parents by running away. For six months he worked in a machine shop in Biddeford, Maine, and when he returned home, unrepentant, he announced he was going to be an author. He promptly wrote two stories, A Bad Man and The Pride of Sandy Flat, which he sent to Beadle & Adams, the leading dime novel publishers. He received a total of $6 for both stories. "That," he said, "settled my career."
For the next 13 years Patten wrote westerns for Beadle & Adams. To get local color for such epics as Hurricane Hal, The Cowboy Hotspur and Nobby Nat, The Tenderfoot Detective, he once took a train as far west as Omaha, where he spent a day before returning east. For a brief spell he also ran a weekly newspaper and managed a semipro baseball team. In 1886 he married the first of his three wives, Alice Gardner, who corrected the grammar in his copy. In 1891 they moved to New York.
After several years of routine success, Patten quit Beadle when the firm deducted $10 from a $100 payment because he asked for the money 10 days before publication of a story. To get by, he wrote boiler-plate pages for small country newspapers, 60,000-word juveniles for Golden Hours and, after much persistence, a series of boys' stories for Good News, a Street & Smith weekly. He also wrote a play, Men of Millions, which opened in New Haven. The leading lady, who played a social-climbing wife, so overacted that she was hissed from the stage and refused to return. The comedian got drunk. Patten decided it would be best to return to Maine. He was 29, the father of a 3-year-old son and close to broke. His big chance came a couple of months later, in December of 1895.
Shortly before Christmas, Ormond Smith, senior partner in Street & Smith, wrote to say that the firm was interested in putting out a weekly series, "something in the line of the Jack Harkaway stories, Gay Dashleigh series which we are running in Good News and the Island School series...the idea being to issue a library containing a series of stories covering this class of incident, in all of which will appear one prominent character surrounded by suitable satellites. It would be an advantage to the series to have introduced the Dutchman, the Negro, the Irishman, and any other dialect that you are familiar with.
"It is important that the main character in the series should have a catchy name, such as Dick Lightheart, Jack Harkaway, Gay Dashleigh, Don Kirk, as upon this name will depend the title for the library.
"The essential idea of this series is to interest young readers in the career of a young man at a boarding school, preferably a military or a naval academy. The stories should differ from the Jack Harkaways in being American and thoroughly up to date. Our idea is to issue, say, twelve stories, each complete in itself, but like the links in a chain, all dealing with life at the academy. By this time the readers will have become sufficiently well acquainted with the hero, and the author will also no doubt have exhausted most of the pranks and escapades that might naturally occur.
"After the first twelve numbers, the hero is obliged to leave the academy, or takes it upon himself to leave. It is essential that he should come into a considerable amount of money at this period. When he leaves the academy he takes with him one of the professor's servants, a chum. In fact any of the characters you have introduced and made prominent in the story. A little love element would also not be amiss, though this is not particularly important.
"When the hero is once projected on his travels there is an infinite variety of incident to choose from. In the Island School series, published by one of our London connections, you will find scenes of foreign travel with color. This material you are at liberty to use freely.
"After we run through twenty or thirty numbers of this, we would bring the hero back and have him go to college—say, Yale University; thence we could take him on his travels again to the South Seas or anywhere...."
Patten was enthusiastic. He knew next to nothing about military schools, so he read a number of brochures and books about them. Having made notes, he thereupon wrote the first story in four days. He christened his hero Frank Merriwell, explaining, "The given name of Frank was taken to express one of the hero's characteristics—open, on the level, aboveboard, frank. Merriwell was formed by a combination of two words: 'merry'—expressive of a jolly, high-spirited nature—and 'well'—suggesting abounding physical health."
Patten adopted the pseudonym "Burt L. Standish" because of his love for Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. Street & Smith accepted the story and offered Patten a contract to write Merriwell stories for three years, each story to be 20,000 words long, the salary a flat $50 a week with no royalties. Patten signed for several reasons. "One," he said, "was that I was married and wanted a steady weekly income. Secondly, my father had been crippled by a fall and it had become necessary for me to support my parents. A third reason was that I believed I'd always be able to turn off my weekly Merriwell yarn in four days, which would leave me two extra working days a week in which to labor at the great American novel, which I still dreamed of writing."
The first story, Frank Merriwell; or, First Days at Far dale, Volume I, Number 1, appeared on April 18, 1896, and it began:
Thump! A shrill howl of pain.
"Stop it! That's my dog!"
"Oh, it is? Then you ought to be kicked, too! Take that for your impudence!"
Cuff! A blow from an open hand sent the boyish owner of the whimpering poodle staggering to the ground, while paper bags of popcorn flew from his basket and scattered their snowy contents around.
"That was a cowardly blow!"
The haughty, over-dressed lad who had knocked the little popcorn vendor down, after kicking the barefooted boy's dog, turned sharply as he heard the words, and found himself face to face with a youth of an age not far from his own.
As they stood thus, eying each other steadily, the two boys presented a strong contrast. The one who had lately been so free with foot and hand had a dark, handsome, cruel face. He was dressed in a plaid suit of a very pronounced pattern, had patent leather shoes on his feet and a crushed felt hat on his head, wore several rings on his fingers and had a heavy gold double chain strung across his vest, while the pin in his red necktie was set with a "sparkler" that might or might not be genuine.
The other lad was modestly dressed in a suit of brown, wore well-polished shoes and a stylish straw hat, but made no display of jewelry. His face was frank, open and winning, but the merry light that usually dwelt in his brown eyes was now banished by a look of scorn, and the set of his jaw told that he could be firm and dauntless.
This, of course, is Frank Merriwell, fresh off the train at Fardale, and the bully is Bart Hodge, destined to become, as most bullies were, Frank's "admiring and unwavering friend." Frank challenges Hodge to fight for cuffing the little popcorn vendor, but Hodge refuses and drives off to Snodd's boarding house, pausing only to lean out of the barouche and whip the poodle as he goes by. At Snodd's, Hodge further demonstrates his villainy by trying to kiss Belinda Snodd, the plump daughter of the proprietor. "Belinda—what a sweet name—how poetic!" exclaims Hodge. "You have the brown eyes of a fawn. The sight of those tempting lips makes me burn with a desire to taste their dewy freshness. Belinda, give me a kiss!"
Fat but frisky, she eludes him, and Hodge is further enraged at dinner when Frank makes sport of him with ventriloquism. Frank, it turns out, is a topnotch ventriloquist. When Hodge angrily leaves the table, Frank gets the other boys on his side: "Being a born diplomat, Frank decided that then was the accepted time to make himself solid at Snodd's, which he proceeded to do by keeping up a string of funny stories and witty sayings that convulsed the boys and made them decide that he must be a jolly good fellow."
Hodge arranges to have Frank slugged over the head and sprinkled with hard cider from Snodd's cellar. Despite Frank's protestations that "I do not know the taste of liquor," Snodd takes him for a thief and orders the popcorn vendor to drive Frank back to the railway station. But the little vendor refuses; as Patten put it, "The urchin was loyal." Snodd relents, and Frank and Hodge try to settle their differences with a fight. "You and I both can't attend Fardale Academy!" shouts Hodge during the melee. Though battered, Hodge refuses to give up. Frank offers to make peace, but Hodge shows himself to be "a sulker and a cad by his refusal to shake hands."
Enter Inza Burrage, who comes to picnic with Belinda and the boys. She is a dark-haired, red-lipped, jolly girl, and Frank is smitten. "For a moment Inza Burrage's dark eyes had looked straight into his brown orbs." (Later in the series, Frank would also be attracted by blonde Elsie Bell-wood. It took him years to make up his mind which one he preferred.)
Alas, Hodge gets Inza as his tennis partner in a doubles game, and Frank looks bad as he is forced to cover the territory of his partner, plump Belinda. Just as Frank is striving extra hard, the popcorn vendor runs wildly toward them screaming, "Run! run! run! Mad dog! Mad dog!"
Hodge, the cad, flees. Inza trips, but Frank gently picks her up and moves her to the side as he prepares to battle an obviously hydrophobic canine with a jackknife.
"What are you going to do?" panted Inza. "You are not going to fight the dog?"
"He will kill you!" she screamed. "Remember that one scratch from his teeth means sure death!"
"I know that!"
"And leave you and these girls to be bitten by that beast! Not much! Better that he should bite one than a dozen."
As the dog pounces, Inza stops panting. " 'What a brave, noble fellow he is!' her white lips whispered. 'How terrible that he should give his life for me! How grand!' " Snodd arrives and shoots the dog as Merriwell grapples with it. Again shown up by Frank, Hodge retaliates by locking him in a cemetery vault so he'll miss the entrance examinations for Fardale. As Frank is trying to find a way out, he hears a rustling. Rats! ("Surely the situation was one to appall the stoutest heart.") Here the scene fades, opening next at Far-dale on the day of the exams. To the astonishment of Hodge, Merriwell bursts into the room. Foiled again. Witness to the dark deed, the loyal urchin had let Frank out. Hodge agrees to mend his ways, and he and Frank enter Fardale together. There, along with Barney Mulloy ("Begobs! Oi filt that Oi had to do it. Two min were oudt, an' it samed loike th' last chance!") and Hans Dunnerwurst ("By Shimminy! dot peen der pest gatch yr efer saw my whole life in!"), he becomes one of Frank's satellites.
Within a few months, the circulation of Tip Top Weekly was 75,000 copies. Eventually it reached 300,000. After further adventures at Fardale—Frank, of course, was the star of all the athletic teams—his uncle Asher Merriwell dies, and his will directs that Frank leave the academy "and begin a series of travels through the United States and other countries." Professor Horace Orman Tyler Scotch, nicknamed "Hot" Scotch, becomes his guardian and traveling companion. After a series of daring feats around the world, in issues 12 to 39, Frank announces he is going to try for Yale College. "Good," says Inza, "I know you will cut as much of a dash there as you did at Fardale."
And, of course, Frank does. He is no sooner in quarters on York Street with his spooneristic roommate, Harry Rattleton ("I seel filly—I mean, I feel silly"), than he gets into a hassle with Jack Diamond, a hotheaded Virginian who has been "drinking beer with the boys, and is in a mighty ugly mood." They fight, and Frank, who has the habit of laughing through a bout, wins. Diamond is so angry he keeps his roommate awake all night by grinding his teeth "at irregular intervals." At Billy's, a freshman hangout, he dashes champagne into Frank's face and challenges him to a duel with rapiers. "Merriwell smiled and wiped the champagne from his face with a white silk handkerchief." Unbeknownst to his Yale chums, he is an expert fencer. "At Fardale he had been champion of the school, and he had taken some lessons in France while traveling." Frank disarms Diamond twice, gallantly permitting him the retrieve. A faculty raid causes the lads to flee, but "from that hour there seemed to be a sort of truce between Merriwell and Diamond. It was a long time before they showed signs of friendliness, but they fought together against the sophomores and Bruce Browning."
Giant Bruce Browning is "the king of the sophomores," and he deems the freshmen impertinent. He gees into training to take care of Merriwell, but Frank can't care less. "Whenever anyone told him about it, he merely smiled." When they meet in the ring, Browning can do little. "Frank Merriwell continued to laugh, and it had been said at Yale that he was most dangerous in an encounter when he laughed." Frank gets the better of it, but the bout is sportingly declared a draw and Browning admits Merriwell "to be a comer."
Frank is busy on other fronts. He is one of "the best freshmen halfbacks ever seen at Yale." He not only strokes but coaches the freshmen crew ("something never attempted before—something said to be impossible") that defeats the sophomores. On the mound for the freshmen nine, he is a dazzler. The only way a Harvard batsman can get on is through an error. When Blossom, the Yale third baseman, fumbles a grounder, Frank says gently, "Steady, Bios, old boy! You are all right. The best of us do those things occasionally. It is nothing at all." Then he retires the side.
Frank does so well that he is invited to try out for the varsity nine by Pierson, the manager. Even Frank is surprised by this, and his heart gives a great jump. "On the regular team! Why, he had not dreamed of getting there the very first season. Was Pierson giving him a jolly?"
Pierson was not. At Yale, the Yale of Merriwell anyway, democracy rules, and athletics are at the heart of this democratic spirit:
Merriwell knew well enough that Phillips men were given preference in everything at Yale as a rule, for they had friends to pull them through, while the fellows who had been prepared by private tutors lacked such an advantage. But Frank had likewise discovered that in most cases a man was judged fairly at Yale, and he could become whatever he chose to make himself, in case he has the ability.
Frank had heard the cry which had been raised at that time that the old spirit of democracy was dying out at Yale, and that great changes had taken place there. He had heard that Yale was getting to be more like another college, where the swell set are strongly in evidence and the seniors likely to be very exclusive, having but a small circle of speaking acquaintances. In the course of time Frank came to believe that the old spirit was still powerful at Yale. There were a limited number of young gentlemen who plainly considered themselves superior beings, and who positively refused to make acquaintances outside a certain limit; but those men held no position in athletics, were seldom of prominence in the societies, and were regarded as cads by the men most worth knowing. They were to be pitied, not envied.
At Yale the old democratic spirit still prevailed. The young men were drawn from different social conditions, and in their homes they kept to their own set; but they seemed to leave this aside, and they mingled and submerged their natural differences under that one broad generalization, "the Yale man."
And Merriwell was to find that this even extended to their social life, their dances, their secret societies, where all who showed themselves to have the proper dispositions and qualifications were admitted without distinction of previous condition or rank in their own homes.
Each class associated with itself, it is true, the members making no close friendships with members of other classes, with the possible exceptions of the juniors and seniors, where class feeling did not seem to run so high. A man might know men of other classes, but he never took them for chums.
The democratic spirit at Yale came mainly from athletics, as Frank soon discovered. Every class had half a dozen teams—tennis, baseball, football, the crew and so on. Everybody, even the "greasy" grinds, seemed interested in something, and so one or more of these organizations had some sort of a claim on everybody.
Besides this, there was the general work in the gymnasium, almost every member of every class appearing there at some time or other, taking exercise as a pastime or necessity.
The 'Varsity Athletic organization drew men from every class, not excepting the professional and graduate schools, and, counting the trials and everything, brought together hundreds of men.
In athletics strength and skill win, regardless of money or family; so it happened that the poorest man in the university stood a show of becoming the lion and idol of the whole body of young men.
Unlike the Harkaway novels, which Patten was supposed to follow, there is no snobbishness in Merriwell. In Jack Harkaway at Oxford, for instance, Sir Sydney Dawson, one of the better-minded characters, shows he has a kind heart by musing, "I wonder what a poor man at Oxford is like. I should like to see him. Perhaps an hour or two with a poor man would do me good, always supposing he's a gentleman. I can't stand a cad." But to Patten, who styled himself an embryo socialist, such sentiments were unthinkable. In point of fact, the most villainous of Merriwell's enemies at Yale are well-to-do. There is Roland Ditson, who betrays the freshmen by informing the sophomores about their plan for the crew race. ("Ditson's parents were wealthy, and they furnished him with plenty of loose change, so that he could cut quite a dash.") To Frank, Ditson was a traitor, "a contemptible cur," and he gives him "a shake that caused the fellow's teeth to click together." "Tar and feather him!" shouts an outraged freshman, but Frank advises, "Let him go. He is covered with a coating of disgrace that will not come off as easily as tar and feathers." Ditson sneaks away, "the hisses of his classmates sounding in his ears."
In Merriwell's sophomore year there are tougher opponents: Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton. The Dartmouth football players are "full of sand...being mostly sons of farmers and country gentlemen." Against Princeton, Frank stops the Tigers on the one-yard line and then scores the winning touchdown with only seconds left. At New Haven he rows with such ferocity against Harvard that he swoons as the shell cuts across the finish. "Did we win?" he asks, coming to. "You bet! It's hard to beat Old Eli!" "I am satisfied!" gasps Merriwell, swooning again. A stranger hurriedly offers a flask, but Frank revives to turn it away. "I never touch liquor," he says firmly. "I do not want to start now."
To keep the series going, Patten arranged to have Merriwell leave Yale temporarily. It develops that Frank has lost his fortune because of bad investments by Professor Scotch, and he goes to work for a railroad, settles a strike and writes a hit play, John Smith of Montana. Yale is sorely pressed by his absence. Harvard, Jack Diamond writes, is "arrogantly jubilant," while the nine is "putting up the yellowest kind of ball." When Yale plays the New Yorks at the Polo Grounds "in that city," the team is "white-washed, shut out, monkeyed with." Diamond laments for Old Eli, and the very mention of Merriwell causes Bruce Browning to grind his teeth and shake "his huge fist at the empty air."
Frank is downcast. "Dear old Yale!" he writes....
I see in fancy the elm-shaded campus, the fence, the buildings, my old room and—dearer than everything else—my friends, the friends I love! I see them gathered about me at the fence; I listen to their talk, their jokes, their laughter and their songs. Oh, those dear old days! Oh, those dear old songs! In fancy I am beneath the elms; you are there, Browning is there, Jones is there, Rattleton is there, Hodge is there! We are singing Stars of the Summer Night, Bingo, Here's to Good Old Yale...
I can't write about it, Jack—I can't! My heart is too full. Oh, I long to be back there again! I long to come back in time to have you with me. I long to line up with the eleven again. I long to pull an oar with the crew! I long to go into the box for the nine! And, by heavens! I want Bart Hodge behind the plate to catch when I pitch. He can handle my pitching as no other fellow ever handled it!
Frank does return to New Haven, with a new smash hit, True Blue, the finale of which shows him on stage in a racing shell. But since he has "been away from college, winning fame and fortune," he is obliged to spend the summer abroad catching up on his studies. In the British Isles, further adventures await: he beats the Irish Gamecock in a sparring match, even though blinded, buys a horse that wins the Derby (he outrages some onlookers by shaking hands with Toots, the colored jockey) and plays golf at St. Andrews, where he ties the course record after a few lessons.
Back at Yale, he rejoins the eleven. But by the time of the Harvard game, he is a frightful mass of bruises. Although he tries to hide his injuries, he has obvious difficulty trying to stand up. "What's the good of saying anything?" he asks. He sits out a scoreless first half, then yields to the demands of the crowd. "Well, how are you going to stand it out on the field?" Jack Diamond inquires. "I'll have to stand it there," was the grim answer. With a minute to go, he pounces on a Harvard fumble.
Frank felt a fearful pain running through him. It seemed to stop his wind, but it did not stop him.
"I must do it," he thought.
He became blind, but he still managed to keep on his feet, and he ran on. Had Frank been at his best he would have crossed the Harvard line without again being touched; but he was not at his best, and Hollender came down on him. Ten yards from Harvard's line, Hollender tackled Merry.
Frank felt himself clutched, but he refused to be dragged down. He felt hands clinging to him, and, with all the fierceness he could summon, he strove to break away and go on. His lips were covered with a bloody foam, and there was a frightful glare in his eyes. He strained and strove to get a little farther, and he actually dragged Hollender along the ground till he broke the fellow's hold. Then he reeled across Harvard's line and fell.
It was a touchdown in the last seconds of the game. There was not even time to kick a goal, but Yale had won by a score of four to nothing!
He was carried from the field by his friends who took him to a hotel and put him to bed. A doctor came to see him and prescribed for him. They came round his bedside and told him what a noble fellow he was.
"Don't, boys!" he begged. "You make me tired! And I'm so happy! We won, fellows—we won the game!"
"You won it!" cried Jack Diamond fiercely. "They can't rob you of that glory! They've tried to rob you of enough!"
"No, no! We all did it. Think how the boys fought! It was splendid! And that was the best eleven Harvard ever put on the field. Oh, what a glorious Thanksgiving!"
"Is there anything that Merriwell can't do?" asks a Yale student shortly afterwards. And the answer is no. At a shooting gallery Frank shows that he is a crack marksman, not only by plinging the target head on but by firing over his shoulder using a hand mirror. Challenged to billiards, he defeats the best of the day with "one of the handsomest massé shots ever seen." And there is no need to inquire what happens after a friend suggests that they take in a game of roller polo at a New Haven rink. Frank replies, "I'm with you. Used to fool a little with roller polo myself."
When Frank was in his senior year at Yale, Street & Smith suggested that another character, closely related to Frank, appear on the scene. Since this new character had to be old enough to enter Fardale, the firm suggested a brother instead of a son. The inventive Patten solved this with little difficulty. It seemed that before dying out West, Frank's father had remarried and sired another son. This is Dick Merriwell, whom Frank discovers in the Rockies. Dick is not only a half brother to Frank but half-savage; he has risen to young manhood in the wilderness under Joe Crowfoot, Indian guide. Dick resists Frank's efforts to send him East to the civilizing influence of Fardale and Yale, but after Indian Joe tries to shoot Frank, half-blood proves thicker than water, and Dick becomes Frank's protégé. He matriculates at Fardale and eventually Yale, where he carries on in the family tradition.
Out of Yale, Frank founds the Bloomfield Home for Wayward Boys, marries Inza Burrage and takes time out from world adventures to father Frank Jr. As Dick leaves Yale, Frank Jr., to the dismay of all bullies and toadies, enrolls at Fardale. So the saga ends. Patten carried it only to the birth of Frank Jr., where other hacks took over, but it did not last much beyond that, and the old spell was gone.
To the purists, Frank is the only one of the Merriwells who counted, and the series undoubtedly began to decline after Dick entered the scene. Patten himself realized this. "The reason was that Dick was not the character that Frank was," he recalled years later for James M. Cain. "I couldn't make him a replica of Frank, you know; he had to be different. But it was Frank who really stood for every boy's dream. Dick was all right, but not many boys wanted to be like him. And then I suppose I got careless. Frank's ventriloquism was a big hit. But Dick's capacity to talk with wild animals never went over. It just didn't click. I guess I had written Merriwells too long."
In 1914, after 20 million words of Merriwell, Patten asked for relief. He complained that he felt "like a horse in an old country treadmill." Once, when he wanted to get away on a trip, he did 50,000 words, two and a half stories, in a week, but that was his "best record." Merriwell took all his time. In the morning he would plot two or three chapters, before his secretary arrived at 9. Then he would dictate until noon or one o'clock. "At the end of the stretch I was often worn out and compelled to lie down for ten minutes or so before I could eat lunch," he later wrote in a biographical memoir. "After lunch I had a nap of thirty or forty minutes. Then I got out into the open air for a while. Persons who saw me walking about or loafing in the afternoon occasionally said: "Well, you have a snap. Don't you ever work?' "
Street & Smith assigned a fresh team to Merriwell, but the series lasted for only three more years, devoted, for the most part, to the exploits of Frank Jr. Patten attributed its demise to the rise of the movies. "Instead of buying a book with it, the boy who had a nickel spent it on a motion picture," he said.
After giving up Merriwell, Patten continued to write at a furious pace through most of the 1920s. He finished more than two dozen novels for boys (Lefty Locke is probably the most memorable of his later characters) and worked briefly in Hollywood. He found he could command only $60 a script, so he returned to New York. The going was difficult. He tried his hand at a few Merriwell stories, but he had a hard time convincing editors that he could write other stories besides Merriwells. In desperation, he began grinding out stuff for Bernarr Macfadden's Snappy Stories, Saucy Stories and True Story. "It made me pretty sick," he said, "but the editors were convinced. It won me a market for adult adventure stuff." Patten drifted farther into the anonymous reaches of hackdom. In 1930 a feature writer for the World interviewed him and reported that Patten's favorite writers were Zola and Proust.
In 1934 Frank Merriwell became a radio program, but if Patten shared in the profits they must have been small. Several years later he was threatened with eviction from his apartment. In 1939 he was in the news again when he wrote a radio script for the Council Against Intolerance in America. The central figure was Dick, not Frank, and the role was played by Richard Merriwell Erickson, a pitcher for the then Boston Bees. According to the script, the pitcher for Fardale leaves the school to enroll at rival Eton. On the day of the Fardale-Eton game, the pitcher beans Sam, a Jewish player for Fardale, and then hits Dick. There is a rumpus, but Dick stands up for the pitcher, saying he is sure the pitcher would not hit a batter on purpose. Later the pitcher admits to Dick, "I did do it on purpose," and Dick says, "Yes, I know you did." And thus the pitcher sees that Dick saved him, and he apologizes to all concerned.
In 1941 Patten wrote his final Merriwell story. It was called Mr. Frank Merriwell, and it was published as a hard-cover novel. The scene is Elmsport, a town not far from New York. Frank is 50 and lives with Inza and daughter Bart (named for Bart Hodge) in a house called "The Nest." Frank Jr. is a war correspondent "over there, somewhere close to the blazing, blasting battlefront in stricken Holland." (He is later reported missing in action, but Frank p√®re discovers him by chance as an amnesiac panhandler in Madison Square Park: "Suddenly, like the rending of a black cloud by a flash of lightning, recognition and remembrance came. He leaped to his feet, his eyes shining with a great joy. 'Father!' ") Merriwell is looked upon as a warmonger by old Harry Willwin, the villain and local millionaire. Frank, who is anti-Communist and antifascist, wants America to prepare, and to that end he starts the Young Defenders of Liberty. He keeps track of the organization's growth on a huge map of the United States in his office: "Daily the map was becoming increasingly bespattered with pin-anchored tags."
The two high points in the novel come when Frank thrashes four ruffians with a cane and when Gladys, the town floozy, tells him, "If there were more men in the world like you there'd be less women like me." There is no reference to athletics, except for a brief note that Frank coaches the high school football and baseball teams on the side. The novel sold only 4,000 copies, and Patten blamed the publisher for poor distribution. Not long afterward, Patten moved to Vista, California, near San Diego, where he lived with his son, Harvan Barr Patten. On January 16, 1945 he died in his sleep. He was 78 years old.
"Did I love Merriwell?" Patten once answered an interviewer. "Not at first. Those early stories were more of a joke to me than anything else. But when it go so that half a million kids were reading him every week—and I think there were that many when you stop to think how the stories were lent from hand to hand—I began to realize that I had about the biggest chance to influence the youth of this country that any man ever had. And when you get the messiah complex you are lost. Yes, I loved him. And I loved him most because no boy, if he followed in his tracks, ever did anything that he need be ashamed of."