Robert Merry’s Museum and the Lure of the Sensational,
by Pat Pflieger

[Presented at the American Culture Association meeting, New Orleans, LA, 1988.]

Robert Merry’s Museum was a popular—though now forgotten—American children’s periodical. Founded in 1841, it offered entertainment and information to readers of all ages during the antebellum years, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, finally merging with the Youth’s Companion after the Boston Fire in 1872. Though the magazine never reached an audience of more than 20 or 30,000 subscribers, it was one of the premiere children’s periodicals of its day, and the ideas it promoted about the uses of literature and about “sensational” literature can be important to an understanding of the place of popular literature in nineteenth-century America. It is, perhaps, not surprising that the magazine found it necessary to warn its young readers against the siren song of sensational literature. Though the Museum was not above spicing its stories with action and adventure, or above advertising the occasional Oliver Optic, its editorial emphasis on moderation in all aspects of life was extended to literature; and the magazine taught that good books, rightly read, could nurture the spirit, while “yellow” books and tales of excitement could harm the morals, the character, and the mind.

The Museum, itself, represented the model of propriety. Its founder was Samuel Griswold Goodrich, author of many resoundingly educational books, some of which were serialized in the Museum’s pages. Goodrich gave up editorship of the magazine to John N. Stearns, already prominent in the temperance movement, who eventually left the Museum to devote himself entirely to the temperance cause. The last editor of the Museum—that is, the last editor who was named—was one Louisa May Alcott, whose respectability and proper ideals need little introduction, and the Museum featured several of her works. During much of the magazine’s history, it published works by such prominent—and respectable—authors as Jacob Abbott—author of the educational Rollo series—Mary Mapes Dodge—who later founded St. Nicholas—and Sophie May—whose many works featuring Little Prudy and her ilk were touted by reviewers as wholesome entertainment; also published were works by many, many minor authors—whose names are now forgotten, but whose works for other audiences were in the temperance, religious, or educational mode. Throughout much of its life, the Museum could be characterized as rational, respectable, and educational, with contents that taught everything from the right principles of a capitalistic republic to the proper method of holding a pen. The magazine offered its readers a blend of fiction and non-fiction, mixed with poetry and music. Serialized stories—especially in the early years of the magazine—alternated adventure and excitement with educational interludes. Non-fiction predominated in its earlier years, but, by the end of the Museum’s life, the focus had shifted almost entirely to fiction, and the magazine almost abandoned its role as educator in favor of that of entertainer.

Under different editors, the magazine had different educational goals, but one thing did not change. The magazine always emphasized—overtly and implicitly—a value system built around the idea of moderation in everything from government to word choice. Moderation was important, for the Museum taught that each person controlled his or her destiny, and that any and all actions or beliefs could be important in shaping what the individual would become.

In the Museum, moderation was linked with success in several ways. The successful individual was self-critical and temperate in appetites, temperament, religion, and worldly ambitions. As gluttony and alcoholism were to be avoided, so were excessive emotions, religious fervor, pride, and high ambitions. In early years, those of the Museum’s heroes who learned to temper their desires and ambitions were rewarded not just with personal or family happiness, but also with money, having earned these rewards not by sweat, but by moral: Billy Bump, by proving that he has learned to avoid both avarice and gambling, gets back the $10,000 he lost to both vices, and gets the girl; Jacob Karl, who moderates his selfishness, inherits $11,000 and gets the girl; and Gilbert Go-Ahead, who learns to temper his shrewd, Yankee double-dealing and his yearning for adventure, gets more than enough money to set himself up for life—though whether he also gets the girl remains to be seen at the end of the story. Moderation was equally important for the wider world. A good form of government was a moderate form of government, for the extremes of anarchy and of totalitarianism neither encouraged nor allowed the people to develop to their fullest capabilities. Moderation in climate was what leads a civilization to be successful, for “true civilization” could develop only where there was a temperate climate: people living in a harsh climate were forced to concentrate on survival at the expense of all else, while those living where the climate was mild were encouraged to be lazy and unprogressive.

In later years, the Museum’s focus on moderation spread to include the individual’s spiritual success as well. The good person tempered his or her worldy expectations so as not to be disappointed in life; but, more important, the good individual moderated actions and emotions, so as not to “ruin” the body, the soul, or future prospects. Giving way to emotions could lead one to harm others—as Eddy learns when, in a flash of temper, he hits his younger brother in the eye with a stone and blinds him. [Aunt Sue, “Govern Your Temper” (February and March 1860)] Immoderate behavior could ruin one’s future prospects: one girl whose excessive practical jokes alienate those around her inevitably elopes with “a foreign swindler”, and that is the last anyone hears of her [Sophie May, “Caroline Thorpe” (March 1863): 77-9)]; the spoiled rich boy who cannot control his temper or his anger toward his stepfather is expelled from one boarding school after another, until the only solution is to apprentice him to a carpenter [J.C.F., “Step by Step” (My 1871)].

The magazine’s emphasis on moderation was important not only with regard to individual actions, but with regard to literature, which, the Museum emphasized, could be as important as behavior in molding the individual’s future and soul. Though the Museum did not mention dime novels—or any other brand of sensational literature—by name, it did mention them by implication, stating that certain types of literature were not worthwhile and, in fact, could be harmful because they fostered “wrong” ideas and sensations in their readers. In the pages of the magazine, literature was power; and, while “good” literature could soothe and educate the spirit and the mind, “bad” literature could do harm to both. In its early years, the Museum mostly emphasized the power of literary works. In the 1860s, however, the magazine began to focus primarily on the effects of bad literature—perhaps in response to the proliferation of works of sensational fiction.

The Museum’s later emphasis on the effects of bad literature was related to its early focus on the power literature could have to influence its readers for good or ill. In the Museum, the concept of moderation applied to the imagination as much as it did to the physical aspects of life; and overindulgence could lead to trouble, as Robert Merry notes in his serialized autobiography; having been frightened in the woods, that night, as he and his friends make camp, he sees animals and monstrous creatures in the shadowy forest around them, conjured there by his imagination. Merry concludes that “fancy, when indulged, has the power to change objects to suit its own wayward humor. Whoever wishes to be guided right, ought, therefore, to beware how he takes fancy for a guide.” [“My Own Life and Adventures” (March 1842): 80] The same caveat applies to literature, for, as one character points out, “we catch the language of others” and therefore must seek out only good books, for “[i]f we would exalt and refine our conversation, we must exalt and refine our minds by reading the best authors. We may consider the mind as a garden. If we would have it free from dangerous plants and poisonous weeds; if we would have our garden of the soul blooming with fresh and healthful flowers, we must sow it ever with the seeds of beautiful and pure thoughts, derived from good books.” [“Balloon Travels” (O 1851): 110] Thus, the boy who has read a humorous parody of Scott’s “Lady of the Lake” has learned to read it “with a distorted and debased taste”, for the parody’s author has changed “one pure fountain of pleasure into a disturbed and muddy pool of coarse associations.” He is warned that indulgence in this type of literature can “extinguish altogether [his] sense of the true and the beautiful”, and the reader is treated to a little sermon against “travesties”, as these parodies are called. [“Balloon Travels” (February 1852): 38] Reading Homer’s Iliad, the Museum assures its readers, may have driven Alexander the Great to conquer his world: Homer “encourages too much a warlike spirit”, and “if he had not written the Iliad, Alexander very likely had been a good king, staying at home to bless his people, instead of bursting forth with his armies, like a torrent, to conquer and desolate the world.” [“Balloon Travels” (February 1854): 49]

Parodies were not the only form of “immoderate” literature which the Museum warned its readers against. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes also were suspect. Nursery rhymes were to be avoided not only because they “teach meanness” [“Balloon Travels” (February 1854): 49], but because they could affect the mind, as a mother learns after she gives a book of nursery rhymes to her son. Wishing only to encourage his love of reading, she is appalled to find that this one book has taught him a love of nonsense and “vulgarity”; encouraged by her to memorize “good, and sensible things” like Watt’s poems, the child replies, “Do you call them sensible things? I hate ’em”, and finally is packed off to bed, shouting nonsense rhymes. [“Nursery Rhymes” (August 1846): 52-54] Certain fairy tales—nonviolent ones which contained a moral—could be “a source of interest and innocent pleasure”, with the moral itself “the great beauty of the story, and the chief thing to be cared for in it.” [“Fairy Stories” (My 1846): 142-43] Most, however, were to be shunned for reasons which would later be familiar to those who preached against dime novels. One character in a serial points out that “Jack [the Giant-Killer] was a lying, brutal, bloody knave, without one good quality” and goes on to explain that “it is very bad for anybody to read such stories, and especially for children. It fills their minds with terrors; it makes them familiar with falsehood, fraud and murder. The early introduction of such ideas into the mind, has no doubt caused many a child to turn out a liar, or perhaps a murderer, in after life.” [“Balloon Travels” (February 1854): 48]

In the early 1860s, the Museum’s warnings against “improper” literature increased dramatically, and, although fairy tales were the focus of at least one story, the magazine concentrated its efforts mostly against stories of excitement and adventure which seemed to fascinate their readers and lead them astray. Dime novels and story papers, of course, were growing in popularity at this time, but it is impossible to determine exactly what specific works the Museum had in mind, beyond the mention of “yellow” books and “second-class juveniles”. [“Elva Seeking Her Fortune” (My 1865); 132] The Museum divided literature into two amorphous groups—“worthless” and “worthwhile” books—and lectured against the one while lecturing for the other. Many articles encouraged the Museum’s audience to use leisure time “wisely” by reading “worthwhile” books, instead of idly whiling away their time. “Frivolous” activities of any kind were verboten. When one character teaches a kitten tricks, his uncle warns against this bad use of his time, citing the story of another boy who taught a poodle to dance, while his friend studied, invented useful machines, and thereby earned a fortune; as a boy, the uncle points out, the lazy local handyman had learned sleight-of-hand instead of a “useful” trade, and now is a bad worker [“Hawthorn Blossoms” (S 1866): 65-7]. On the other hand, those who study “worthwile” books in their leisure time are sure to make a success of themselves. By devoting an hour a day to reading, the Museum points out, one eventually will have read 91 duodecimo, 400-page books, which, if these books are “worthwhile”, will leave their reader with a lot of useful knowledge. In one piece, those who adopt this plan in their youth are successful in later years, while those who don’t “to a man, became bankrupt in after life, not only in fortune, but in reputation...” [“Chat” (February 1870): 96; italics original] The category of “worthwhile” books seems to have been made up exclusively of non-fiction. The 91, 400-page books are assumed to be biographies or histories; for, one author assures the reader, pick up a novel, and “your improvement will come to a dead stand-still. Once acquire a taste for novel-reading, and you have shut the door in the face of all substantial reading.” [“An Hour a Day” (My 1865): 142] In one of Alcott’s serials, the young character who longs for another tale as interesting as Gulliver’s Travels is gently nudged by his grandmother into the realm of natural history, which is “more profitable”. [Louisa May Alcott, “Will’s Wonder Book” (Ap 1868); 148]

The category of “worthless” books, on the other hand, is made up wholly of fiction. Novel-reading, as already has been established, was considered both foolish and fool-hardy, for it discouraged “useful” and “ennobling” reading, distracted its readers, and encouraged them to act in an inappropriate manner. Fairy-tales again came under fire, but, for the first time, the Museum also turned its attention to stories of adventure. The magazine spent much time cautioning its readers against these types of stories, to the extent that it may be said that, in the Museum, the only good book is a dull one.

The distracting qualities of these works is constantly emphasized; and the excitement the stories engender in their readers is of primary concern. After reading fairy tales with a friend, one character comes home “lost in the mazes of the bewildering stories.” [“Daisy Lee’s New Year” (Ja 1865): 2] Another character is less concerned with her school-work than she is with the heroine “of a story she had been reading, who had passed through all sorts of dangers, overcome every kind of difficulties, fought and conquered desperate men, with revolver in hand rescued her lover from prison, and married him, of course, or was just going to”. [“Lucy’s Victory” (S 1865): 81-2] A boy who loves “nonsensical romances” often finds that “many a time, while at work, wild scenes from the idle tales he had perused so eagerly would come into his mind and make him absent or careless.” [“A Quiet Study” (My 1872): 217] In the pages of the Museum, these exciting tales are a “slow, sweet poison”, and “the excessive reading of fairy stories and second-class juveniles [fosters] a listless, dreamy state of mind.” [Sophie May, “Elva Seeking Her Fortune” (My 1865): 132]

The effect of this “slow, sweet poison” often is to inspire emulation in its young readers—emulation which, in the pages of the Museum, shows how foolish those who prefer this sort of literature really are. Those characters who indulge their tastes for fairy tales and sensational fiction find that the line between fiction and daily life blurs, and, as a result, they make fools of themselves by applying what they have read to their daily lives. The orphan who reads stories “horrid enough ... to make your your hair stand on end” begins to imagine that—like the heroines of the tales—she actually is the daughter of wealthy parents, and she goes to the city to find them [“Elva” (August 1865): 35]; Myrta, feeling ill-used by her family, remembers the tender care that shivering, ill-clothed, pathetic orphans receive in the stories she reads, and attempts to emulate them by huddling barefoot in the drafty hall, wrapped in the doormat. [“Miss Myrta’s Troubles” (O 1862): 116-19] In Charles Barnard’s “The Voyage of the Salt Mackerel”—written in a dead-pan style which reminds one of dime novels—two boys inspired by the tales they have read in the “Youth’s Banner” go to sea on a raft, with humorously disastrous results.

In the Museum, the only antidote for the “sweet, slow poison” of sensational fiction is to go cold turkey and concentrate on “worthwhile” books and activities. The orphan who goes to the city to find her parents gets a job that leaves her no time for dreaming or for reading “improper” books, and she becomes again the quiet, self-denying child she was before she began to dream. [“Elva Seeking Her Fortune” (N 1865): 144-6] Lucy, fascinated by the adventurous heroine of her book and longing to achieve victories of her own, is encouraged to “gain a victory” over herself and apply herself to her studies; and her reward is a portfolio filled with sketches. [“Lucy’s Victory” (S 1865): 82] Mark Hardy, whose excitement at the adventure books he loves distracts him from his work, reads a manual on carpentry and begins “to see the difference between the world of fiction and the world of fact, and to feel sorry for the many precious hours he had foolishly thrown away”; and he becomes again a sober young citizen who later goes into business on his own. [“A Quiet Study” (My 1872): 215-17]

Only the sailors of the “Salt Mackerel” do not repent their reading, though they do regret their quest for adventure as the sea turns rough and the raft’s sail snaps and home seems far away. Their adventure was published in 1872, and, perhaps, by this time the editors of the Museum sensed that events might not go their way. The magazine had advertised three of Oliver Optic’s novels in the early 1860s—well before Alcott’s editorship [NOTE: Alcott publicly despised Optic’s books, calling them “Optical illusions”]—and now at least one of the magazine’s subscribers also took Oliver Optic’s Magazine. The Museum itself now downplayed its role as educator in favor of a role as entertainer, offering more fiction than it did educational articles. However, it kept up its campaign against the siren song of the sensational to the very end.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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