- Boys’ Books, Boys’ Dreams and the Mystique of Flight
Having grown up on Tom Swift and the boys' series books I salvaged from our basement and flea markets, I leapt at the opportunity to review Erisman's detailed study of aviation series books from 1905 to 1958. Erisman's project is an important one since all history is also a history of technology, whether it was the stirrup that altered warfare and medieval society (White 38) or the airplane that similarly radically changed warfare and our society. Technological changes that contribute to changes in social relations are related to values and symbols that are incorporated in a relatively unmediated manner in popular literature. As Erisman points out, the series books "lead their young readers into and through a time of awesome change" (26). Therefore, the study of often neglected "marginal" literature such as the aviation series books plays an important role in articulating the conceptual sinews of a culture.
Erisman attempts to demonstrate that aviation series books had a significant historic role in promoting an interest in aviation and the values of aviation to young boys. He argues that "In book after book the series writers spelled out the history, the expectations, and the possibilities of flight, linking it with adventure, with commerce, and with romance, and communicating it to the young in the most positive and appealing of manners" (298). To make his case, he provides a detailed history of the series book to indicate how these books often offer an authentic account of aircraft, the vocabulary and techniques of aviation, the procedure for flight, the growing assimilation of aviation into American society, and "the evolving image of 'the aviator' as a paragon of American integrity and manhood" (291). Erisman's study is giddily optimistic in its vision and defined by an almost anachronistic master narrative that aviation and aviation values incorporated in the series books are a driving force for a better world. "Progressive America will lead the way, but, through the agency of popularly accessible aviation as it spreads throughout the world, all mankind will ascend to a new and higher level of human capability. It is an admirable, worthy vision, and its tragedy is that the reality of world events and the accelerating course of technology worked to frustrate its realization" (299). This is a vision that I cannot share because it seems both naïvely technocratic and dangerously colonial; and it offers a constrained narrative that limits Erisman's scholarship.
Erisman's first chapter "Setting the Stage: Technology and the Series Book" places the aviation series within a useful and concise history of boys' series books, though I would recommend the collection of essays American Boys' Series Books 1900–1980 edited by Barbara Bishop to [End Page 192] anyone doing research in this area. Erisman traces the history of the aviation series chronologically from the "Airship Boys" of 1909 through both world wars to Isaac Asimov's "Lucky Starr Adventures" that ended in 1958, comprehensively considering a very large number of texts. He places these texts within the context of a concise and detailed history of aviation, one so abbreviated that it sometimes loses the drama of the struggle, including the failures, of a developing technology and becomes a cavalcade of advances, which could be daunting for those lacking any technical enthusiasm for aviation. He provides brief biographies of a number of the authors and summaries of a substantial numbers of books, summaries that were nostalgically satisfying for me, could provide a useful overview for potential researchers, but could be tedious for those less invested in this literature.
In discussing the works, Erisman seemed most in his element applying painstaking research in showing how the works included accurate details of aviation development. "Steve's Waco E is a modern private plane, introduced in 1940 and supporting impressive speed and a 23,000 feet service ceiling" (234). Most chapters end with a clear statement of Erisman's analysis of the contribution these books make to the development of aviation whether it is...