Stratemeyer, Edward (1862-1930)
Stratemeyer, Edward (1862-1930)
It seems ironic that America's most prolific creator of juvenile popular fiction is a man whose name is hardly known. Edward Stratemeyer revolutionized the world of children's writing by adapting it to the methods of mass production. His Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded at the turn of the twentieth century, hired ghostwriters to develop hundreds of stories based on Stratemeyer's outlines. From this "fiction factory," as some have called it, came such durable American heroes as the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew.
Born in New Jersey in 1862, the son of German immigrants, Stratemeyer grew up admiring the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger and aspired to write similar books. The progress of Edward Stratemeyer's career is reminiscent of an Alger plot as well. Although he did not quite start in rags, Stratemeyer eventually obtained riches by steadily climbing the ranks of the professional fiction-writer's business. As a child, he had a small printing press which he used to print and distribute copies of his own stories. As a young adult he sold several small pieces, for small sums, to various papers. But his first important sale came in 1889 when the popular Golden Days story paper bought "Victor Horton's Idea" for the substantial sum of $75.
Encouraged by this success, Stratemeyer spent the following years publishing widely, using both his own name and several pseudonyms. In addition to selling serials to story papers, he branched out to writing dime novels, and became a regular contributor to the various publications owned by Street and Smith, the premier publisher of popular fiction in its day. In 1893 Stratemeyer became an editor at Good News, a Street and Smith publication, while also supplying it with original material. During his years as a writer and editor of dime novels and story papers, Stratemeyer learned principles he would later apply to his own syndicate. He saw, for example, the value of establishing "house names" as pseudonyms, for this allowed several authors to work interchangeably on a series without disrupting the public's relationship with the "author." He also saw that copyright holders earned the greatest financial rewards: an author could be hired at a flat rate to produce a story, but the copyright holder could print and reprint that story at will and reap the benefits indefinitely.
Stratemeyer steadily steered his career toward the more respectable world of hardcover fiction. In 1894 he began recycling some of his former story-paper serials as complete books, shaping the volumes into series. The thrifty system of recycling, renaming, and reworking would become a hallmark of the Stratemeyer's operations, influencing his own work and that of the Syndicate for years after his death. In 1898 Stratemeyer enjoyed his first great success with hardcover fiction. He had been circulating a war-themed manuscript just as the Spanish-American war broke out. The publishers reviewing the manuscript asked Stratemeyer to revise it, incorporating the news of Dewey's naval victory in the Philippines. Under Dewey at Manila became an immediate bestseller, initiating one of Stratemeyer's many series on historical and military themes.
In 1899 Stratemeyer launched his watershed series, The Rover Boys, under the name Arthur M. Winfield. Stratemeyer later claimed to have chosen this pseudonym for its cryptic symbolism: Arthur stood for "author," and Winfield represented his desire to win in his field. The initial "M" stood for the number of books he hoped to sell--first "a thousand " (as the Roman numeral for one thousand), and then "a million," depending on when he was asked. The Rover Boys series was an enormous success and was the first series to exemplify what later became the Stratemeyer Syndicate formula: average teenage heroes having extraordinary adventures, with lots of action and excitement driving the plot. Despite his early training in the blood-and-thunder milieu of dime novels, Stratemeyer kept his hardcover fiction for youngsters clean and wholesome. After 1900 Stratemeyer's work for story papers and dime novel houses diminished, as he focused more attention on his own series books. Within a few years he had several series going at once, and decided that an assembly-line approach would be a more efficient method for producing the quantity of material he had in mind.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate, begun in 1905, employed the methods Stratemeyer had learned earlier in his career. He devised plots and titles for stories, then hired ghostwriters to flesh out the skeletons, making them sign agreements not to reveal their identities. His hired hands were other dime novel authors like himself, some of whom he had known at Street and Smith, as well as journalists and other professionals skilled in turning out high quantity on tight deadlines. His most important employee was his friend Howard Garis, who would later become famous in his own right as the author of the Uncle Wiggily stories. For Stratemeyer he wrote several series, most famously Tom Swift. Howard's wife, Lilian Garis, also a children's writer, contributed volumes to the Syndicate's Bobbsey Twins series and others.
Not all of Stratemeyer's properties were for children. He repackaged dime novels from his early career as fare for young adult readers. Moreover, he also functioned as a literary agent who purchased manuscripts from other writers and had them published under various house pseudonyms. A handful of his properties were written for the adult fiction market, such as a series of mysteries written by "Chester K. Steele." But children's series were the backbone of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and their themes were wide-ranging, covering school stories, westerns, mysteries, sports, career stories, and other genres. The popularity of these books was enormous. The catalogs of Cupples & Leon and Grosset & Dunlap, two of his main publishers, were laden with Syndicate fare—although, thanks to the pseudonyms, young readers were unaware that all of the books they were devouring came from the same source.
Stratemeyer's near-monopoly of the children's series market brought him some unwelcome scrutiny. Franklin K. Mathiews, librarian for the Boy Scouts of America, published a scathing article in Outlook magazine in 1914, "Blowing Out the Boys' Brains." In it, Mathiews asserted that sensationalist series books, marked by rapid-fire plots, absurd coincidences, multiple cliff-hangers, and a total lack of character-development, damaged boys' imaginations by over-stimulation, thus ruining them for the subtleties of better literature. There was a degree of sense in Mathiews' complaints, and educators and librarians around the country took up the cry. Stratemeyer's success, however, was never seriously compromised because children loved his books and could afford to buy them themselves. But down through the decades there always remained a strain of protest against the vapidity and sensationalism of series books. The books, however, were not working in a vacuum; they were part of a general trend, catering to the same appetite for speed and superficiality that would later be exemplified by television. Despite disapproval from the more educated segments of the population, children craved this style of entertainment and the great demand called for an equally great supply.
Accordingly, the 1910s and 1920s were prolific decades for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. In the five year span between 1912 and 1917, the syndicate was producing nearly 50 distinct series, and a similar amount ten years later, from 1922-27. But in the spring of 1930 Edward Stratemeyer succumbed to pneumonia, and died at age 68. After attempting unsuccessfully to find a buyer for the syndicate, Stratemeyer's daughters, Harriet Adams and Edna Stratemeyer, assumed operation of the family business.
Stratemeyer left behind enough material to allow the syndicate to continue normally for another two years; after 1932, however, the material was gone and the Great Depression had damaged the book market. The sisters trimmed the business down considerably, killing off nearly their whole line of series. They kept only the proven cash-cows, including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, among a few others. A few new series were begun during the depression, but the syndicate remained a much more conservative and narrowly-focused business than it had been during Stratemeyer's tenure. The body of series was cut down even further when the advent of World War II required conservation of paper and the metal plates used for printing books. By the late 1940s, the syndicate was producing only half a dozen series.
In 1942 Edna Stratemeyer married and moved away, leaving Harriet Adams as the active partner. Adams' strategy for success involved maximizing the value of the syndicate's back-catalog. She resurrected old series in reprint editions with new publishers and signed deals to have her characters translated into foreign languages and other media. Former bestseller Bomba the Jungle Boy benefitted from this treatment, as he became the hero of a string of "B" movies, from 1949-52, and a reprint series of books, both of which were released in other countries as well as the United States. In 1954 Adams revitalized the Tom Swift legacy by launching the Tom Swift, Jr. series, based on the original hero's son. Guided by talented ghostwriter James Lawrence, this series became a major latter-day success for the syndicate. Other new series were attempted during the following years, but the only other substantial hit was The Happy Hollisters (1953-1970), written by syndicate partner Andrew Svenson.
Adams' most controversial decision came in 1959, when she launched a project to revise and rewrite all the volumes in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, as well as many of the Bobbsey Twins. Her decision was caused primarily by concerns that modern children were impatient with the now old-fashioned texts of the original books. A further motivation came from complaints the syndicate received about the insulting portrayals of ethnic characters. Not only had the syndicate historically tended to cast minorities as villains, but early ghostwriters often used ethnic stereotypes as sources of humor. Adams responded to both concerns with one remedy, gradually replacing original books with new versions that were shorter, thoroughly modern, and (relatively) stereotype-free. The revisions were mere shadows of their former glory, however, as much of the books' charm and style had been erased.
Another controversy erupted in 1979 when Adams changed publishers. Dissatisfied with the practices of Grosset and Dunlap, her primary publishers for nearly 50 years, Adams signed a contract with Simon and Schuster. Grosset sued, and the litigation put the famous syndicate series at the center of a well-publicized custody battle. The case was decided in favor of the syndicate, and Simon and Schuster brought out new versions of Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins. Harriet Adams died in 1982, and her partners sold the business to Simon and Schuster two years later. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the publishers continued to work with their properties in much the same way the syndicate had, hiring ghostwriters and swearing them to secrecy. Despite efforts to revitalize Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins, both series were discontinued in the early 1990s, but Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys continued and even expanded into a variety of spin-off series.
Simon and Schuster's greatest service to the Stratemeyer Syndicate, however, came with its donation of nearly all of the syndicate's paperwork to the New York Public Library. This collection of records, which opened to the public in September 1998, dates from the earliest years of Edward Stratemeyer's career and forms the largest single location for research into the syndicate's history. During the 1990s an increasing number of scholars noted the massive influence of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, not only as the single largest contributor to children's popular fiction in the twentieth century, but also as a model of a publishing phenomenon. Reaching several generations of American readers, the products of the Stratemeyer Syndicate have had an incalculable effect on America's consciousness.
Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York, The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.
Dizer, John T. Tom Swift & Company. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., Inc., 1982.
Garis, Roger. My Father was Uncle Wiggily. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966.
Johnson, Deidre. Stratemeyer Pseudonyms and Series Books. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1982.
——. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1993.