Frank Imitations: Harry Castlemon’s Literary Debt to Cooper
Presented at the Cooper and Children’s/Young Adult Literature Panel of the 2015 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Mass.
Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal, Fall 2015, pp. 3-6.
Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
“Boys don’t like fine writing. What they want is adventure, and the more of it you can pack into 250 pages of manuscript, the better fellow you are” (Blanck 5-6): this was the formula for success as a boys’ author, according to the late-nineteenth-century writer Charles Austin Fosdick (1842-1915), better known as Harry Castlemon.
Although Harry Castlemon is not widely known today and relatively little is known about his life, during his own era his popularity rivaled or even exceeded that of his contemporary Horatio Alger. With Alger, Oliver Optic, and Edward S. Ellis, he ranked as one of America’s top authors for boys. Harry Castlemon gained an immediate readership upon publishing Frank the Young Naturalist at the end of 1864, when he was twenty-two years old, and he remained popular through his retirement from writing in 1902 and for a time after his death in 1915. During his nearly four-decade career, he published some sixty novels as well as a number of periodical stories. But his first works remained his best known: a series of novels known as “The Gun- Boat Series” centered on the adventures of teenager Frank Nelson and his cousin Archie Winters.
Young Charles Fosdick supposedly began drafting the first book of the series, Frank the Young Naturalist, in 1861-1862 while he was a student at Central High School in Buffalo, New York, where his father taught. Fosdick joined the U.S. Navy in 1862 and served near Cairo, Illinois, through the Civil War as a gunboat crewman, paymaster, and clerk, revising his Frank story during that time. Striking up a relationship with publisher Rickey & Carroll (later R.W. Carroll) of Cincinnati and selecting his nom de plume, he published Frank the Young Naturalist and Frank on a Gun-Boat at the end of 1864 and soon followed with other books: Frank in the Woods and Frank before Vicksburg in 1865, Frank on the Lower Mississippi in 1867, and Frank on the Prairie in 1868. A few years later he would revisit his Frank Nelson character in two more series. “The Rocky Mountain Series,” published in 1871-1872, comprised three books: Frank among the Rancheros (1871), Frank at Don Carlos’ Rancho (1871), and Frank in the Mountains (1872). “The Frank Nelson Series” of 1876-1877 comprised three more books: Snowed Up (1876), Frank Nelson in the Forecastle (1876), and The Boy Traders (1877). In all of these books, Frank Nelson and his cousin Archie Winters — both well-to-do, independent, resourceful, respectful, and spirited young lads — attach themselves to all kinds of exciting adventures, often thanks to family friends who take them along on their excursions. In the first book of the series, Frank the Young Naturalist, Castlemon provides this brief sketch of Frank’s character:
His father had been a wealthy merchant in the city of Boston; and, after his death, Mrs. Nelson had removed into the country with her children, and bought the place of which we are speaking. Frank was a handsome, high-spirited boy, about sixteen years of age. He was kind, open-hearted, and generous; and no one in the village had more friends than he. But his most prominent characteristic was perseverance. He was a slow thinker, and some, perhaps, at first sight, would have pronounced him “dull;” but the unyielding application with which he devoted himself to his studies, or to any thing else he undertook, overcame all obstacles; and he was further advanced, and his knowledge was more thorough than that of any other boy of the same age in the village. He never gave up any thing he undertook because he found it more difficult than he had expected, or hurried over it in a “slipshod” manner, for his motto was, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” (13)
Castlemon made plot-centered entertainment his main concern (Frank and Archie are relatively flat characters who experience little in the way of development), yet as the above passage shows, he took pains to promote values of honor, bravery, industry, and love of country. As he noted in a 1906 interview for The American Boy magazine, “In my work ... I have tried to help boys be men. Patriotism has been my keynote. ... If I have any message for the boy of today, it is this: success lies in application, and in doing what you can well, and with tenacity of purpose” (Blanck 13-14). He was also careful to avoid the kinds of lurid and gory detail that some writers employed; in one of his letters to his publishers, he wrote, “I don’t believe in this blood and thunder business. I can make the story interesting without any of that” (Castlemon to Porter & Coates, 18 Dec. 1882; Blanck 135).
Harry Castlemon’s formula for boys’ books — to pack as much adventure as possible into his pages — might just as well have applied to many other popular works for young people during his era. By the end of the Civil War, for instance, dime novels, such as those produced by the firm of Beadle & Adams, had become a staple of cheap massmarket literature, building upon the traditions of story papers, magazines, and the cheap paperback literature of the 1840s. The basic recipe: distilling the adventure from familiar story genres by stripping out the “fine writing,” such as detailed description or lengthy philosophical meditations. Stories were brief; chapters ended suspensefully; paragraphs were short; action and dialogue predominated. Although detective stories, domestic melodramas, and urban adventures would become popular genres, many of these works built upon formulas of frontier and nautical romances first made popular by James Fenimore Cooper. The expansion of the country pushed the frontier farther west, and steamboats displaced sailing ships, but rugged frontiersmen and romantic sailors carried on the tradition of novels like The Prairie or The Red Rover.
Harry Castlemon certainly upheld these Cooperian traditions. Nautical stories comprise Castlemon’s “Afloat and Ashore Series” and appear as individual books in other series, such as Marcy the Blockade-Runner in “Castlemon’s War Series.” But frontier and forest predominate, as can be seen from many of his series titles: “The Boy Trapper Series,” “The Rod and Gun Series,” “The Forest and Stream Series,” “The Hunter Series,” “The Rocky Mountain Series,” and “The Roughing It Series.”
Castlemon certainly knew of Cooper’s works, and he gives the nod to Cooper’s influence early in his first novel, Frank the Young Naturalist (1864), which introduces Frank Nelson’s character. In describing Frank’s room, which contains Revolutionary War relics, models of sailing ships, preserved specimens of wildlife, sporting equipment, and busts of politicians, Castlemon makes note of Frank’s bookshelf:
A bookcase stands beside one of the windows, and if you were to judge from the books it contained, you would pronounce Frank quite a literary character. The two upper shelves are occupied by miscellaneous books, such as Cooper’s novels, Shakspeare’s works, and the like. On the next two shelves stand Frank’s choicest books — natural histories; there are sixteen large volumes, and he knows them almost by heart. (16)
In a later novel, Frank among the Rancheros (1871), Castlemon makes his familiarity with Cooper’s works even more explicit, although like Mark Twain he quibbles with Cooper’s woodsmanship:
As Frank said this, he pulled his chair into the room, and selecting Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans” from the numerous volumes in the library, he dismissed all thoughts of the Ranchero, and sat down to read until he should become sleepy. He soon grew so deeply interested in his book, that he did not hear the light step that sounded on the porch, nor did he see the dark, glittering eyes which looked steadily at him through the open window. He saw them a moment afterward, however, for, while he was absorbed in that particular part of the fight at Glen’s Falls, where Hawk-Eye snapped his unloaded rifle at the Indian who was making off with the canoe in which the scout had left his ammunition, a figure glided quickly but noiselessly into the room, and stopped behind the boy’s chair.
“Now, my opinion is that Hawk-Eye was not much of a backwoodsman, after all,” said Frank, who was in the habit of commenting upon and criticising every thing he read. “Why did he leave his extra powderhorn in his canoe, when he knew that the Hurons were all around him? You wouldn’t catch Dick or old Bob Kelly in any such scrape, nor me either, for that matter, for I would” —
Frank’s soliloquy was brought to a close very suddenly, and what he was about to say must forever remain a secret. His throat was seized with an iron grasp, and he was lifted bodily out of his chair, and thrown upon the floor. (43-44)
This same sort of mixed reception characterizes Castlemon’s most fascinating echoes of Cooper in the Frank Nelson “Gun-Boat Series.” Castlemon creates two frontier characters that essentially “reboot” Cooper’s Leather-Stocking. Their portrayals are part homage, part parody. The lesser of these characters, Bob Kelly, “the oldest an’ best trapper on the prairy!” resembles Natty Bumppo as the aged Trapper in The Prairie. Like Natty, Bob has thin white hair — although unlike Natty, Bob has a long, full beard. Bob’s dress and manner, as described in Frank on the Prairie, also strike familiar notes:
He was dressed in a complete suit of buckskin, which, although well worn, was nevertheless very neat, and, in spite of his years, his step was firm, and he walked as erect as an Indian. He carried a long heavy rifle on his shoulder, and from his belt peeped the head of a small hatchet of peculiar shape, and the buck-horn handle of a hunting-knife. (38)
Like Cooper’s aged trapper, Bob Kelly provides last-survivor- like lamentations about the decline of the world:
“Things aint as they used to be. ... We’re both without our chums now,” answered the old man, sorrowfully. “Jack an’ ole Bill Lawson are both gone, an’ their scalps are in a Comanche wigwam.” (39)
Although Bob’s role in the stories is limited, Castlemon gives a more extensive treatment to another crusty old trapper, Dick Lewis. In Frank in the Woods (1865), Frank Nelson and cousin Archie Winters encounter Dick for the first time:
He was a fine specimen of a North American trapper; fully six feet in height, with a frame that seemed capable of enduring any amount of fatigue. Thirty years among savage beasts, and still more savage men, had brought him in contact with almost every variety of danger. He had hunted and trapped on every little stream between the Rio Grande and the Great Bear Lake; had taken more than one rough-and-tumble fight with Rocky Mountain grizzlies; was very expert with the rifle; could throw the tomahawk with all the skill of an Indian; and could lasso and ride the wildest horse that ever roamed the prairie. (29-30)
Undoubtedly, Cooper’s character is not much of a horseman, but much of the remainder of the description could well apply to him. Dick, too, like Natty, feels most at home in the outdoors; at one point in Frank on the Prairie, Frank and Archie lodge him in an elegant house, but he feels “sadly out of place ... he would much rather have been assigned quarters among the trees in the yard” (16). Several of Dick’s adventures parallel Natty’s, including a scene in Frank in the Mountains wherein Dick is captured by Indians and tied to a post, much like Natty in The Deerslayer.
Castlemon adds a humorous touch of parody to Dick’s character by giving him a canine sidekick. Just as Natty Bumppo has his Hector, Dick Lewis has his own dog — but his dog’s name is Useless. As the name suggests, Useless is not much of a watch dog, but like the aged Hector in The Prairie, Useless can still sniff out some forms of danger and howl piteously: Useless is particularly good at sniffing out Indians — and it is in his treatment of Indians that Castlemon’s most radical difference from Cooper lies.
Cooper’s portrayals of Natty Bumppo show him to be fair-minded in his dealings with different races and their “gifts,” but not without his prejudices. However, Bob Kelly and Dick Lewis display much more hostile views of Native Americans. When Useless detects the scent of Indians in the wind, Dick responds (in his Leather-Stocking-like dialect):
“Come back here, dog,” said Dick; “I don’t blame you, ‘cause they are a mean, thievin’ race. The animal understands their natur’ as well as I do,” he continued, as the dog reluctantly returned to his place. “Me an’ him war brought up to hate Injuns, an’ we believe in makin’ war on ‘em wherever we find ‘em. It’s a mighty wonder that they don’t steal Joe out o’ house an’ home.” (34)
In Frank in the Woods, when two natives visit the trading post that family friend “Uncle Joe” has established, Frank thinks “that he had never seen such fine specimens of savages before” (35). But Dick and his dog feel differently: Dick “twisted uneasily in his chair, and smoked and scowled more vigorously than ever. Useless seated himself by his master’s side, and watched them as closely as a cat ever watched a mouse, now and then uttering a low, angry growl” (35-36). In Frank on the Prairie, Dick tells of being captured by Comanches and being tied to a post, much like Natty in The Deerslayer, only here Dick is whipped with switches and then fed buffalo meat by an old squaw before being made to run the gauntlet the next day. Later, Bob shares his recollections of the bloodshed in skirmishes between natives and trappers:
“If all the red-skins we have rubbed out thar could come to life ag’in, I reckon thar would be lots of ‘em, an’ if all our poor fellers who have had thar har raised on the plains of that same river, could come back, you’d see a heap of fine trappers.” (222)
He then tells of one combat in which “we kept shootin’ at ‘em as fast as we could load up, bringin’ down an Injun at every pop” (228). That same sense of an eye for an eye motivates Dick, who notes after a brief skirmish how he scalps to avenge a lost friend: “I don’t scalp Cheyennes, ‘cause I don’t keer ‘bout ‘em. I make war on ‘em ‘cause it’s natur. But when I knock over a Comanche, I take his har jest to ‘member ole Bill by” (66-67).
Whether Castlemon himself embraced these values is not entirely clear. Castlemon later recollected that Dick Lewis and Bob Kelly were among his characters most connected with real individuals. They were based on “Union men who hid in the sunk lands near New Madrid [Missouri] to escape conscript officers,” and as they came aboard his vessel to trade garden produce for groceries and tobacco, he “pumped them most assiduously, and obtained many valuable ideas from them” (Blanck 8-9). Just what ideas belonged to fact and which to fiction is hard to tell. Whatever the case, certainly the appearance of these incidents of racial and cultural conflict creates awkwardness for the modern reader. So, too, when Bob Kelly recollects an anecdote involving an outlaw named Black Bill, who is “a’most as black as the cap’n’s darkey” (Frank on the Prairie, 180). Nothing in these portrayals makes Castlemon much different from many of his contemporaries (Mark Twain’s portrayal of Injun Joe comes to mind), but clearly some parts of Cooper’s legacy make their way into his tales more intact than others.
Critic Peter Conn, in a lecture on Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans as part of a series on “Great American Bestsellers,” has argued that Cooper is no longer considered a major American author because his language was antiquated, his incidents improbable, and his values out of touch with modern America. In short, Cooper is largely obsolete. Conn may overstate the case, but those impressions do exist. Still, perhaps a greater reason why Cooper’s reputation has declined is that he was so widely imitated as to dilute the sense of his freshness and originality. Examining writers like Harry Castlemon provides perspective on just how extensive Cooper’s legacy was in setting many of the terms for fiction in the nineteenth century and beyond. As Cooper documented American values and ideals, he was also working to create the means for Americans to perceive their national narrative. Even when he did not succeed in transmitting his values to subsequent generations of readers, he contributed national archetypes that remained vivid and set the standard for years to come.
- Blanck, Jacob. Harry Castlemon: Boys’ Own Author. Appreciation and Bibliography. New York: Bowker, 1941.
- Castlemon, Harry [Charles Austin Fosdick]. Frank among the Rancheros. Cincinnati: R.W. Carroll, 1871.
- ------. Frank in the Woods. Cincinnati: R.W. Carroll, 1866.
- ------. Frank on the Prairie. Cincinnati: R.W. Carroll, 1868.
- ------. Frank the Young Naturalist. Cincinnati: R.W. Carroll, 1865.
- Conn, Peter. ” The Last of the Mohicans.” Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America. Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2009.