The books that charmed us in our youth recall the delight ever afterwards.
A. B. ALCOTT: Table Talk, Book I
William Taylor Adams, better known by his pen name "Oliver Optic," was born in Medway, Massachusetts, July 30, 1822. His father, Laban Adams, was at that time the proprietor of a tavern in Boston, but in 18 38 he moved to a farm in West Roxbury. William received his schooling first in Boston and later obtained what he could while doing farm work. He then traveled for a year in the South and upon his return assisted his father
in the management of the "Adams House," built on the site of the former tavern. After a short time, however, he obtained the principalship of the grammar school at Dorchester, at that time a village but now a suburb of Boston, and while there was married, in 1846, to Sarah Jenkins, by whom he had two daughters. He continued to teach in various Boston schools for twenty years, and at the same time wrote many short stories and books. In 1865 he resigned to devote his entire time to literature, although he retained his interest in the public schools. He was a member of the Massachusetts State Legislature for one year but declined a renomination. He died March 27, 1897, at his home in Dorchester.
His first book was written in 1853 under the pen name "Warren T. Ashton."1 It was called "Hatchie, the Guardian Slave; or, The Heiress of Bellevue. A Tale of the Mississippi and the South-West," and for it he received $37.50[!] from a Boston publisher. Most of his short stories and books were written for boys. His style was so pleasing, his plots so interesting, and the action so lively, that he was very successful and had a very large following of youthful readers. He had the ability of writing stories that were so natural and everyday in their setting that his boy readers unconsciously became in imagination the heroes themselves. Adams' style is, in some cases, rather
careless, but he was a natural story teller, and while his heroes performed wonders, the action was at least possible if not probable. Above all things, his books are clean and moral, and the reader's sympathy is never with the villain of the story.
All in all, Adams wrote perhaps a thousand short stories and over 125 books. Having a reading knowledge of German, Italian, Spanish, and French, and having traveled some twenty times to Europe as well as to the Mediterranean coasts of Africa and Asia, he had firsthand information available for his stories. He always carefully outlined his plots before beginning to write, then filled in the details from the voluminous notes which he had made on his travels or which he had entered in his note books from many sources. Five hours of writing was his regular day's work. He was one of the best-paid authors of his time. For two stories in 1873 the Fireside Companion paid him $5,000.(2)
Many of Optic's books, like his Boat Club series, Lake Shore series, Great Western series, Army and Navy series, Onward and Upward series, Yacht Club series, etc., were written in sets of six volumes—companion rather than continued stories. Besides writing short stories and novels, he also was successively editor of Student and Schoolmate, Our Little Ones, and Oliver Optic's Magazine (Our Boys and Girls), and in these magazines many of his stories, which were later issued in book form, first appeared. Two volumes for older readers fell flat: "The Way of the World" and "Living Too Fast."
The pen name "Oliver Optic" was first used in 1851. It was taken from the principal character, "Doctor Optic," in a burlesque being played in Boston at that time. The name Oliver was added for euphony. In a few cases it was written "Oliver Optic, M.D."(3) Besides "Oliver Optic" and "Warren T. Ashton," he also used the names "Irving Brown,"(4) "Clingham Hunter, M.D."(5) "Gale Winterton,"(6) "Brooks McCormick,"(7) and "Old Stager."(8) The only story that I have found under his own name was a short story, "The Whaleman's Daughter; or, The Mysterious Pilot," which appeared in the Yankee Privateer, volume VI, September 19, 1857.
REFERENCES: Allibone, Supplement, I; Scribner's Dict. Amer. Biog., I, 102-3; Nat. Cyc. Amer. Biog., I, 1898, 203, with portrait; Kunitz and Haycraft, Amer. Authors, 1938, 12-13, with portrait; Young New Yorker, March 3, 1879, with a good woodcut; Munsey's Magazine, VIII, Oct., 1892, 58-59, with a good woodcut; American Bookseller, XXIII, 1888, 289-90, XXIV, 1888, 8-11, with a fine steel engraving; Book News (Philadelphia), XV, 1897, 465; Midland Monthly, December, 1897; Critic, XXX, 242-43, April 3, 1897, with portrait; Literary Digest, XIV, April 10, 1897, 700; Golden Days, XVIII, 1897, 376; New York Evening Post, March 27, 1897; New York Herald, March 28, 1897; New Press, March 28, 1897. †"Roy B. Van Devier: 'Oliver Optic,' Dime Novel Round-Up, XXV, No. 298, July, 1957, 51—54. With a portrait of an older man than shown above."
† Correction made as per Volume 3.
|1||Allibone, Supplement, I, 1891, 14.|
|2||Publishers' Weekly, III, March 1, 1873, 220.|
|3||For example, in Waverley Magazine, Boston, II, April 19, 1854, 260.|
|3||Given in Scribner's Dict. Amer. Biog., I, 1928, 102.|
|6||"Gale Winterton" is credited to Adams in the Library of Congress index.|
|7||Gustav Davidson, Publishers' Weekly, CXXXVH, June 15, 1940, 2293.|
|8||Scribner's Dict. Amer. Biog., loc. cit.|