14 December 2007

The Pseudonymous Bugle

In 1906, the Reilly & Britton Company, a publisher founded only two years before, announced a list of fiction by Laura Bancroft, Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald, Suzanne Metcalf, Schuyler Staunton, and Edith Van Dyne, as well as John Dough and the Cherub by the firm's star, L. Frank Baum.

The secret behind that output? All those authors actually were Baum, writing under pseudonyms so as to attract different audiences and avoid competing with himself. "Bancroft" wrote fantasy fiction for young children. "Fitzgerald" and "Staunton" wrote foreign adventures for teenaged boys and men. "Metcalf" and "Van Dyne" wrote novels for teenaged girls.

Of the batch, the books credited to Edith Van Dyne were the most successful. The Aunt Jane's Nieces series reportedly came second only to Baum's Oz books in sales during his lifetime. The later Mary Louise series from Van Dyne was strong enough for the publisher to commission more titles from Emma Speed Sampson after Baum's death.

The latest issue of the International Wizard of Oz Club's Baum Bugle examines that pseudonymous work with three thorough and well-illustrated dissections of three series that began in 1906, plus period reviews and bibliographical examinations. The articles are:

  • Angelica Carpenter's comparison of Baum's Aunt Jane's Nieces with Carolyn Well's competing Patty books for girls. One observation: Baum never offered the elaborate detail on clothing usually found in this genre.
  • H. Alan Pickrell's discussion of the series published as both Sam Steele's Adventures and The Boy Fortune Hunters. In a 1999 review, I wrote, "These books show us how special Baum’s fairylands are. Sam Steele’s sagas were cooked up from many of the same ingredients as the Oz books, but stewed in greed, suspicion, and insistence on white American male superiority." And precisely because of that contrast, I find them valuable for Oz fans to read.
  • Sean P. Duffley's analysis of Annabel, the worst performer of the bunch. Apparently that novel was supposed to appeal to teenagers of both sexes, but it appears to have never quite come together. The story, which Sean notes closely follows the model created by Horatio Alger, focused on a hard-working young man. But the packaging and marketing emphasized the bland title character.
As the issue notes, for a long time children's books weren't seen as worthwhile objects of study. Then the academy began to accept that sort of literature, but still saw series books as beneath regard. Then enduringly popular series like the Oz books gained some respect. As these articles show, we can also learn a lot from forgotten popular literature, even unsuccessful examples of it.

This issue of the Bugle also contains reviews of new Oz books and DVDs.

TOMORROW: Baum's funniest writing from 1905-06.

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