- A Bully Bunch of Books:Boy Scout Series Books in American Youth Fiction, 1910-1930
During the first three decades of this century, hundreds of juvenile series books, often of the ten- to fifty-cent variety, poured off publishers' presses to fuel the almost insatiable reading appetites of America's young boys. Indeed, so many series were written that it was often difficult to keep them all straight. There were Airship Boys, Aeroplane Boys, and Air Service Boys. There were Motor Boat Boys, Motor Boat Club Boys, Motorcycle Chums, Motor Cycle Chums, and Motor Rangers. There were also Boy Aviators, Boy Chums, Boy Hunters, Boy Fortune Rangers, Boy Troopers, and Boy Volunteers. Despite this plethora of series stories, however, no one group, fiction or non-fictional, so dominated the field of juvenile writing as did the Boy Scouts of America.
Almost from the very moment of the chartering of the national B. S. A. in 1910, publishers, especially those specializing in cheap children's fiction, sensed a ready market for sales. Soon new books ostensibly featuring Scouting heroes began to appear at a dizzying rate. More than one hundred full-length novels dealing with the Boy Scouts were pubished between 1911 and 1914; well over three hundred different books had appeared in print by the advent of the Great Depression.1
As might be expected, much of the earliest literature that appeared on dealers' shelves was little better than the worse pulp fiction. Like the already ubiquitous Stratemeyer Syndicate's "Tom Swift," most of the boys depicted in the Boy Scout novels of the day were fantastic superheroes who were larger than life itself as they took on spies, enemy agents, thugs and murderers of all kinds, and, with relative ease, overcame them all in the name of Scouting and the American Way. Easily the most productive author of the genre was "Scoutmaster" G. Harvey Ralphson. From 1911 to 1916, Ralphson, writing under his own name and as "Major Archibald Lee Fletcher," authored thirty-two full-length Boy Scout novels, all published by M. A. Donohue and Company, one of America's largest publishers of cheap, juvenile fiction. Though Ralphson ceased writing about Scouting after 1917 and, instead, turned his attentions to the excitement of the First World War in a five-volume series of "Over There" stories, his many Boy Scout novels continued to be reprinted by the thousands throughout the 1920s.
The plots of most of the Ralphson volumes were ludicrously unbelievable except perhaps to the most gullible of adolescent readers. In the twenty volumes published under his own name, the author created a group of Boy Scouts from two separate New York City patrols. These young men, each of whom was between thirteen and seventeen years of age throughout all the volumes in the series, never go to school or work for a living. At the proverbial drop of a hat, however, five or six of them are able to take off to some exotic part of the world so they can work for the United States Secret Service. Frequently baffled by one international crisis or another, government officials called on the Bear and Wolf Patrols for help, and, as might be expected of ultra-patriotic young men, the country was saved over and over again, thanks to the bravery and ingenuity of the Boy Scouts of America.
The natural leader of the Ralphson-invented Boy Scouts was Ned Nestor, "a sturdy lad, tall and heavy for his [seventeen] years, with brown hair and eyes and a complexion like that of a young girl" (Beyond the Arctic Circle 4). All the other boys looked up to Ned, but then so did everyone else in the nation because, besides being a Boy Scout, Ned was also America's premier detective. Ned was joined in his adventures by a group of boys so untypical of the youth of the early twentieth century that it is hard to understand how most of the volumes' readers could have related to any of them. Ned's sidekick and best friend was the irrepressible Jimmie McGraw, a former Bowery [End Page 178] newsboy in the best Horatio Alger tradition...