- Frank Merriwell and the Fiction of All-American Boyhood: The Progressive Era Creation of the Schoolboy Sports Story by Ryan K. Anderson
By arguing that the commercial success of Frank Merriwell is the result of an accidental collaboration among dime-novel publisher Street and Smith, author William G. Patton, and their audience, Ryan K. Anderson demonstrates how in the period 1896–1912 the group—collectively called “Merry’s flock”—constructed a literary sensation that “remade American boyhood for the twentieth century” (xvi).
Industrialization and urbanization, Anderson explains, not only redefined rules for success in a society that had become more democratic, where respect was earned and opportunity not a birthright, but also raised questions about how boys become men and how college played a role in the process. Wanting to gain an advantage in a bare-knuckles industry, Street and Smith thought the circumstances right for a new and unmistakably American boys’ story, one portraying “willpower” as a vital attribute (54), that explained “how the right sort of boys refashioned college life into a meritocracy, thereby transforming student culture into a progressive force sanctioned by men” (46).
Writing as Burt L. Standish in Tip Top Weekly, Patton (who, in Anderson’s view, needed to measure his own willpower as a man, husband, and writer) introduced on April 18, 1896, Frank Merriwell—“‘Frank for frankness, merry for a happy disposition, well for health and abounding vitality’” (55). He was an athletic wonder and all-around good guy; however, Street and Smith’s innovative marketing-research tactic, encouraging 200,000 weekly readers’ participation in letters to the editor, transformed Merriwell into what they wanted: the exemplary “all-American” boy anyone could emulate.
While Anderson thoroughly explores four “story arcs” involving Merriwell’s sixteen-year saga, including a love interest, Frank’s brother Dick, and the Merriwell School of Athletic Development, the Yale stories encapsulate his argument. Yale, Anderson explains, was thought to be the Ivy League’s most democratic campus, an environment where “doers” of any socioeconomic class would be rewarded. Readers, moreover, thought participation in competitive athletics important to becoming a man, and Merriwell’s spectacular last-second feats are recognized in sports lore as “the Merriwell finish.” The Yale spirit arc, thus, “came to explain how boys participated in a student culture driven by sports that supplemented their formal educations, which constituted a manly boyhood that created civilized men” (61). Merriwell had what Yale called “sand” (93) and was not perfect, Anderson explains, but he united readers by insisting they overcome flaws in a period of development when manly boys should display the self-direction adults respected and progressive ethos expected.
No other character in American sports literature awakened such admiration as Frank Merriwell, whose impact on twentieth-century American boyhood Anderson brings to light. That he never existed is beside the point. “Even with his unbelievable nature,” Anderson writes, “Merriwell inspired a nation of readers who read about, recounted, analyzed, and commented on his ‘not really true’ life” (212). [End Page 99]