© Copyright 2014 Kira Metcalfe, Ryerson University
By 1917 America dissolved any illusions of neutrality, and joined World War One (1914-1917) (Knock). Alice B. Emerson’s Ruth Fielding At College (1917) was published in the United States that same year. The subject matter and plot have no relation to the war. However, the ways in which the early 20th century was shaped by the Great War are mirrored in the text. The novel entertains many ideological parallels between its narrative content and its historical context. Ruth Fielding at College‘s production history displays this well. As the product of the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate, the text shows that relationships such as author/ reader, institution/ student, and even nation/ soldier were shifting at an increasing rate.
Throughout the text one sees gender, ideology, and power come together in the socio-economic structures experienced by the characters. This is notable considering that the Ruth Fielding series as a whole is marketed for young girls. Confoundingly, the concepts present in both content, and the history, all appear to not only be in transition, but rest upon a threshold. With this in mind the text could be easily seen as a potential response to the war efforts. However, if one is speaking of the actual impact of Ruth Fielding at College current gleanings need to be set aside.
Ruth Fielding At College
The 11th volume in the Ruth Fielding series, Ruth Fielding At College, or, The Missing Examination Papers continues the tale of orphaned filmmaker Ruth Fielding. Before arriving at Ardmore college for her freshman year, a lost girl named “Maggie” washes ashore at Ruth’s home. Little does Ruth know this is the same girl, Margaret Altoff, who went missing from Ardmore the year before—along with an Egyptian vase containing examination papers. After a hazing ritual “Maggie” had run away, causing the school’s sorority to close its doors.
The copy of the text located in Ryerson University’s Children’s Literature Archive is presented in Hardcover with a printed illustration on its front (fig. 1). Preceding the narrative is an illustrated page by R. Emmett Owen (Johnson “Alice B. Emerson” 119) (fig. 2). The illustration depicts a poignant moment in the text, where Ruth is caught in a storm. This eventually leads to the revelation of Maggie’s identity and discovery of the missing exam papers. Although the next page states that the novel is illustrated it is otherwise not; nor is the artist credited other than his signature on the illustration itself. A list of the Ruth Fielding volumes to date follows the title page. Several pages at the end of the book are dedicated to various advertisements for series books published by the publisher responsible for most of the Ruth Fielding series, Cupples & Leon.
The Literary Syndicate and The Single Author
A literary syndicate produces books through a group of writers, usually under a pseudonym. Those writers are paid a flat rate for each series/ book they write (Herbert 189-190). The establishment of the literary syndicate coincides with other “efficiency” seekers of the early 20th century, such as Henry T. Ford and his factory assembly line (Stoneley 91). The Edward Stratemeyer literary syndicate produced the Ruth Fielding series under the pseudonym Alice B. Emerson. Between 1913 and 1934 a total of thirty volumes were commissioned for the series (Johnson “Alice B. Emerson” 119).
Edward Stratemeyer has become synonymous with children’s series literature (Johnson “Introduction: The People Behind the Books” xiii). He operated under at least eight pseudonyms at a time, quickly producing staggering amounts of written work (xvi). After ghostwriting for the late Horatio Alger, Stratemeyer officially established his Literary Syndicate in 1905 (xviii, xx). For Stratemeyer’s syndicate he would develop the concept of a series, along with chapter outlines for the syndicate writers to complete (xxviii). The completed chapters would be reviewed to see if they were up to Stratemeyer’s high standards (xxviii). Once a writer became part of the syndicate they would usually go on to write many Stratemeyer series books (xxi, xxviii). However, contracts signed by authors forced them to not only use pseudonyms, but also remain completely anonymous (xxviii).
The presumption of a single author remains largely unquestioned in spite of producers like the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate. It is obvious that, simply from the system of the syndicate, many more “authors” are involved. Also, the person most responsible for the content is often left unacknowledged. Fan mail was addressed to “Alice B. Emerson,” while the “real” author W.B. Foster is only attributed to the series as a result of Stratemeyer’s records (Stratemeyer Syndicate; Johnson “Appendix D – Series Contributors” 307). Little to no other information is available about Foster himself.
Series Books and Advertising Literature
Throughout his long career Stratemeyer did not go without his detractors. Notably the Chief Scout Librarian of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), Franklin K. Mathiews expressed caution. There was great concern about what was produced by the syndicate. Primarily the works were not in line with what children should be reading (Johnson “Introduction: The People Behind the Books” xxiv). In other words, series books were essentially frivolous and fruitless (xxiv-xxv). Other adults, and parents alike, questioned the effect of series fiction on adolescents. This barely dented the influence Stratemeyer, and other series fiction producers, had already established (Baxter Introduction 10).
The acknowledgement of series fiction’s apparent place in literature could be seen in its marketing. In 1917 Ruth Fielding At College, the newest volume in the Ruth Fielding series, is announced in a New York Tribune Article (“Choice Gleanings From the Publisher’s Spring Catalogues” 9). On the same page of the article is an advertisement for an arguably different “type” of book. My Unknown Chum’s advertisement (fig. 3) mimics what Mathiews would prefer to any Stratemeyer series book (Johnson “Introduction: The People Behind the Books” xxiv). The advertisement even references soldiers, stating that the book “Should be the Chum of Every Soldier—Officer or Private” (My Unknown Chum by Henry Garrity). This reference points to the purveyance of war at the time, and how service was the measure of society. Another smaller advertisement is for a book titled Woman (fig. 4). Although the book appears to be progressive, its exampled reception maintains a downgrading of women’s abilities. The advertisement states, “No woman could have written such a book ” (Woman by Vance Thomas). This thinking falls in line with the use of female pseudonyms for series fiction, as it was a lesser form of fiction. In the process, women are solidified in their respective place; that is, until effects of World War I.
American Women during WWI
American women made themselves a part of the war effort, even during the years leading up to 1914. The demographics consisted of high school educated, lower middle class women. (Hamilton-Honey “Two Miles Forward, One Mile Back” 135-139). From the Red Cross to car factories, women made their mark (159, 150). Ruth herself went on to work for the Red Cross in subsequent volumes of the series (167). The war had women enter many other areas of the otherwise male-dominated workforce (166). The opportunities of contention from their male counterparts made women increasingly aware of their position in the world (137). A symptom of these “gender wars,” the Great War became just as politically charged on the home front as the actual battlefield (145). At the time government authority figures both helped and hindered the progress of women’s involvement in the war (144, 150). Positions of power were held both by male detractors as well as champions of women’s active role (150). The tug-of-war that ensued results in a transitional mentality within women’s rights. Women found themselves in a peculiar place; a place where there was an opportunity to hold a potential position of potential power. On the other hand, even this potential meant that women were viewed as attempting to take the place of men. Literally, “their presence became an open threat” (162).
The character Ruth Fielding shows that the early 20th century heroine is just as much in transition as the girl reading their exploits (167). Ruth and her friends have access to a level of education that was still scarce for women at the time (139). Simultaneously the same pressures, stresses, and taboos remained. Like the women of her time Ruth never attempts to take on the male role (Hamilton-Honey “Running the Gamut and the Gauntlet” 181-182). Ruth maintains a primarily passive personality. It begs the question, whether or not these attributes make Ruth simply another cog in the wheel, or a liberator. After all, despite Ruth’s passivity she is referred to as a “dynamic figure of command” (Stoneley 94). More importantly Ruth exemplifies an ability to adapt. She was not always well off and successful; rather she always rose to the occasion (Baxter “Teen Reading at the Turn of the Century” 140). As Hamilton-Honey states, “Women were not always simply ‘placeholders,’ nor did they always see their work that way” (“Two Miles Forward, One Mile Back” 162). Women were essentially forced to “pick their battles.” Therefore, through the text much of the framework of many conditional freedoms experienced by young women is constructed. Women’s roles and “place” become increasingly apparent once shifted by the war.
Gender and Authority
Much of what occurs around Ruth and her friends is a result of being stuck in this sort of transitional state. The different sides of the transition are illustrated in a variety of ways. First, in how Rebecca Franye, one of Ruth’s classmates, is positioned through Ardmore’s social and academic circles. Both girls’ assumptions or evaluations of college and college life are problematic. Ruth was enchanted by the concept of college and Ardmore prior to attending. Ardmore becomes elevated as a sort of exotic wish fulfilment for Ruth—almost a “touristic experience” (Stoneley 94). In this case Rebecca, who is more worried about how she is perceived by classmates than her studies, contrasts Ruth’s personality. Rebecca’s expectations of school as only being for the wealthy are not the case. Rather than being ostracized for being poor, her fear, she is shunned for not following the rules (95-97).
According to Ruth Fielding at College, there is no good outcome from pretending to be part of a class you are not (97). The novel perpetuates the “knowing of one’s place,” which is one side of the threshold experienced by women in the early 20th century. Ruth herself is quite aware of both the freedoms and downfalls of being a girl, a woman, in early 20th century America. She expresses disdain for those who perform to be someone other than who they are. In this respect Ruth Fielding could be the ideal transitional female adolescent (Baxter “Teen Reading at the Turn of the Century” 140). She achieves this in relation to Rebecca and Maggie; both contrastingly, but also conditionally. The relationship is conditional because, without the contrast, Ruth’s idealilty would not necessarily be as apparent (Baxter Introduction 19).
Institution and Power Structures
How the characters of this text are treated, and seen as transitional characters, is a result of the systems they are placed into. Therefore, apart from gender role’s, the text aligns itself with these other transitional sentiments of the early 20th century. This is accomplished through the framework of power plays, consequences, and the submission to a higher authority. Ruth Fielding At College employs power and authority in two ways, and displays the transition between the two. Instantly the reader is shown how power structures can operate through the consequences of corruption and displaying the extremes of authority. In the text a failed sorority hazing leads to missed opportunities. Now both new and old students are not able to become part of a sorority due to its consequential dismantling. Misunderstandings and hardships surrounding this situation, and one sees it carry over into the next school year.
However, a second exercise of authority takes its place, that was arguably always present: the senior class. The removal of the sorority makes the presence more apparent. Throughout the remainder of the text the “regular” politics and dynamics of the college are framed as appropriate and justified. Initially one sees rejection and hostility on part of the “freshies” forced to wear specified coloured hats by the seniors (Emerson 39). Despite this initial rebellion the freshmen eventually obey the rule. The exercise of power is justified as a means of unifying each student-body class. These overarching sentiments of class distinctions can be seen as an affect of World War I, and the adjacent acceleration of industry (Hamilton-Honey “Running the Gamut and the Gauntlet” 181; Baxter Introduction 16). Ardmore, in this respect, represents a “social-industrial matrix” through the tension that arises within its hierarchy; made increasingly visible by the transition from the old “regime” (Stoneley 93). Transitional roles in Ruth Fielding at College, which consist of the positioned individual, positions the reader to make the most of their given situation (Baxter Introduction 13). It is through transitional states that the narrative of Ruth Fielding At College presents its contemporary and future readers with the ideology that became apparent with the advent of World War I.
Categories and the Growth of Industrialization
The relationship between exercises of power, agency and authority in the real world were experiencing a transition–Ruth Fielding is a product of that. These are notions that mirror themselves not only from the text itself, but through the producer, and the consumer. For one, the novel was increasingly seen as a commodity (Stoneley 104). Syndicate writing shows these changes in the book market throughout the 20th century (Baxter Introduction 13, “Teen Reading at the Turn of the Century” 142). It was “not uncommon” to work in movies at the time (Hamilton-Honey “Taking Advantage of New Markets” 205). Movies, and technology subsequently provided a “pull” for series fiction’s younger audiences (Stoneley 90). The content of material being published reflects an ever-changing world. Notions of consumerism, and nationalism meet artistic freedom, and escapism. Whether pertaining to the production of a book or the receiving of education, the goal becomes more about enabling a student body—a force—a body of work as a whole, than the work of one student or one writer. The individual soldier makes way for the nation, and the individual student does so for the institution’s hierarchy. Triumphantly the literary syndicate takes over for the single author.
Conclusion: Submission or Omission?
Another well-known girls’ series fiction brand, the American Girl series, was eventually styled into dolls that reflected different battles or moments in American history (Silvey 408). Along with Ruth Fielding one sees the establishment of series books as playing a prominent historic role in the formation of patriotism and ideology in America. The reader is not only positioned in the shift of a book’s production, but through it. The system and the person, the creator and the reader, the soldier and the country are in the process of converging–an affect exacerbated by Ruth Fielding At College in the climate of War.
In considering the power structures presented in the text, their subversive nature comes into question. When situated with the rest of the series, Ruth Fielding At College is a subversive text insofar as it represents another step closer, a transition, to gender equality (Hamilton-Honey “Taking Advantage of New Markets” 221). However, as a stand-alone novel the volume provides a snapshot for how women were still greatly operating “within patriarchal boundaries” at the turn of the 20th century (182). Therefore, the text will never become completely subversive. Series fiction was used as a means to define a problem and then provide the “possible solution” (Baxter Introduction 11). Instead it leaves readers and characters caught in a liminal space.
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—. “Teen Reading at the Turn of the Century (Part II): Edward Stratemeyer.” The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008. 136-154. Print.
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—. “Running the Gamut and the Gauntlet: World War I Series Fiction as a Catalyst for Change in the Cultural Landscape of American Girlhood.” Turning the Pages of American Girlhood : The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865-1930. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013. 168-200. ebrary eBooks. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
—. “Taking Advantage of New Markets: Ruth Fielding as a Motion Picture Screenwriter, Producer, and Executive.” Turning the Pages of American Girlhood : The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865-1930. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013. 201-222. ebrary eBooks. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
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Johnson, Deidre. “Introduction: The People Behind the Books.” Stratemeyer Pseudonyms and Series Books: An Annotated Checklist of Stratemeyer and Stratemeyer Syndicate Publications. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982. xiii-xxxvi. Print.
—. “Alice B. Emerson.” Stratemeyer Pseudonyms and Series Books: An Annotated Checklist of Stratemeyer and Stratemeyer Syndicate Publications. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982. 117-122. Print.
—. “Appendix D – Series Contributors.” Stratemeyer Pseudonyms and Series Books: An Annotated Checklist of Stratemeyer and Stratemeyer Syndicate Publications. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982. 307. Print.
Knock, Thomas J. “World War I.” The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference. 2004. Date Accessed 8 Mar. 2014
Silvey, Anita. “Series Books.” The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 407-8. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Stoneley, Peter. “Serial Pleasures” Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, 1860-1940. Ed. Ross Posnock. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 90-104. Print. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture no. 134.
Stratemeyer Syndicate. Fan mail to Alice B. Emerson. 1919-28. Box 31. Stratemeyer Syndicate Records 1832-1984. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.