The 19th Century’s J.K. Rowling – The Obscure William T. Adams

Hugely Popular Author William T. Adam’s Wrote Over 100 Children’s Books All Under Pseudonyms

william t adams portraitWhen William T. Adams of Dorchester, MA died on March 27, 1897, obituaries pointed out, “as Oliver Optic, he was known to every child in this country that reads story books.” The Kansas City Star said, “no public library is thought complete by younger readers unless it has a large number of duplicates of all his works.”

William Taylor Adams (1822-1897) was the pioneer in juvenile fiction. Unlike our modern “look at me” society, he was apparently not interested in fame, at least as William T. Adams. He wrote 126 books and over 1,000 articles and never signed his name to any of them.

Adams most commonly wrote as Oliver Optic. Some of the other names he used were Warren T. Ashton, Irving Brown and Clingham Hunter, M.D..

Adams contemporary, Horatio Alger (1832-1899) remains a remembered literary figure. Alger set his rags to riches stories in familiar form. Boy starts with nothing, faces calamities but with hard work and a twist of fate ends up a success. Many of Alger’s books are still in print today. Excepting print-on-demand, William T. Adams’ are not.

All of Adams’ books are in public domain and could be republished by a major publisher. But there is no demand for them. They are available for free online and I read parts of a few of them. Today, youth dream about wealth and fame. But I cannot imagine a child today putting down their iPhone to read A Millionaire at Sixteen.

It was Adams who paved the way for children’s authors and books in the 19th century. The books that brought Adams to national fame in 1855 were called The Boat Club Series.  Adams books were firmly rooted in adventure, morality, Godliness and patriotism for young readers. Adam’s said of his heroes, “I never made a hero whose moral character or whose lack of high aims could mislead the young reader.”

These virtues reflected who Adams really was.  He was described as “a man with unusual charm and universally liked. There was a sweetness in his nature that always made those who met him fond of him,” wrote the Chicago Tribune.

The successful formula employed by Adams was the series book, tales told in a Harry Potter-like fashion through multiple books with the same characters. Series titles include: Upward and Onward; The Yacht Series; The Great Western; and Starry Flag.

Adams’ day job as a Boston schoolmaster helped him understand what interested boys. Adams spent a great deal of time traveling the world. He took it all in and did what every writer is told to do, write about what you know. With that experience Adams fashioned a career with exciting sounding book titles.  Out West or Roughing It on the Great Lakes; Seek and Find or The Adventures of a Young Boy; The Soldier Boy or Tom Somers in the Army A Story of the Great Rebellion. All intriguing to the 19th century child who would usually in their lifetime never venture more than a few miles from home.

In the twentieth century Adam’s books fell out of fashion as new children’s authors rose to fame. When Adams died, some of the public at large were aware of Oliver Optic’s real identity. Many were not.

Based upon current writing styles Adams’ stories may not hold up to literary scrutiny today. His books have been discarded by libraries or gather dust on shelves and sit unread. Adams’ choice of writing under non-de-plumes insured one thing: William T. Adams is almost completely unknown today.

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