Who was Oliver Optic?
William T. Adams, who lived a large part of his life in Dorchester, was the author of 126 books and over 1000 stories, issued mostly under the pseudonym of Oliver Optic and a few under other pseudonyms including Warren T. Ashton, Gayle Wintertown, Brooks McCormick, Irving Brown and Clingham Hunter, M.D.
Born in 1822 in Medway, Massachusetts, he and his family moved in 1838 to a farm in West Roxbury. His father, Laban Adams, built the Adams House at 553 Washington Street in Boston in 1846. It was an average priced hotel that served politicians from western Massachusetts with one room for their exclusive use. After William finished school, his parents hired a tutor for him for a further two years. He then traveled throughout the United States, north and south. He taught school in Dorchester for 3 years but resigned to assist his father Captain Laban Adams for a short time in managing the Adams House tavern in Boston. He returned to the schoolhouse in 1847 and taught in the Boston Public Schools for the next seventeen years. He published Hatchie, the Guardian Slave, his first book, in 1853 and turned to writing full-time in 1865. He always wrote under a pseudonym although he did not disguise his real name which sometimes appeared on the title page or at the end of a preface. His real success began with the publication of The Boat Club in 1855. It was so popular that he wrote five more related books in The Boat Club series. This established a pattern that he followed for the rest of his life — writing books in series of about 6 volumes each.
Optic’s early works were published by Philips, Sampson in Boston and later by Crosby, Nichols, Lee and Co. Then when William Lee and Charles Shepard teamed up as Lee and Shepard in 1862, they purchased the stereotype plates for Optic’s Boat Club series in six volumes and his Riverdale Story Books in twelve volumes. Lee and Shepard advertised the two sets of Oliver Optic’s stories in the American Publishers’ Circular for December 1, 1862. Although these were re-issues, the stories were presented for the first time in uniform bindings in set form. The Riverdale Story Books for Young Folks came out in twelve volumes illustrated by Hammatt Billings and were priced at $3.00 for the set. They were advertised as the stories of live children and fit for live children to read. The other set was the called the Oliver Optic series although it was the Boat Club series.
Before Adams began writing, the books available to American children were books in the Sunday School library or the Rollo books by Jacob Abbott. These were not very appealing to boys with lots of energy who responded with enthusiasm to Oliver Optic’s tales of adventure about real boys. In the 20th century Adams has been applauded as the pioneer story-teller of American juvenile fiction. He had no models. He went to boys themselves and their activities for his stories.
In the 1860s he edited The Student and Schoolmate, a monthly magazine and in 1867 he became editor of Oliver Optic’s Magazine, Our Boys and Girls, which became the most popular juvenile monthly in the United States. Adams was soon followed by other writers including Elijah Kellog (1813-1902) and Horatio Alger, Jr. (1822-1899). Their careers began in the 1860s at about the same time as William Taylor Adams.
Adams’ books were critically well received. Today they may seem too moralistic, but they contain plenty of adventure. T.W. Higginson said that the Boat Club books are the best, but he objected to some of the language and to some of the unreal episodes. Optic’s smart young heroes are given to cheap declamations, but his books were clean and appealing to young boys.
The first book in the Army and Navy series, The Soldier Boy, came out in 1864. Tom Somers, the hero, has boyish adventures at home near Boston, and goes through military training, participates in the Battle of Bull Run, makes a daring escape through Confederate territory, fights at Williamsburg and earns promotion. He is a good boy who reads the Bible and does not gamble. The story has adventure, good humor, patriotism, carnage and brutality. Boys and girls loved the story, and the critics admired all the stories in the series. In 1871 the Literary World mentioned that more of Oliver Optic’s books were borrowed from the Boston Public Library than books by any other author.
Louisa May Alcott at times seemed jealous of Adams’s success, and she covertly attacked his work in her story Eight Cousins in 1875. Alcott’s character Mrs. Jessie disapproved of the books her sons were reading. She deplored the slang, and she couldn’t understand why anyone would write about bootblacks and newsboys. In these books boys would read about police courts, counterfeiters’ dens, drinking saloons and other kinds of low life. When her sons objected that some of the books were about first-rate boys who go to sea and study and sail around the world, she responded “I have read about them … I am not satisfied with these optical delusions, as I call them now.”
Professional critics felt that her attack was unjustified. Adams was quick to respond. He refuted Alcott line by line; then he went on to attack her own books. He proved that her story Eight Cousins has its own share of slang and some improbabilities. He showed that she mixed quotes from one book with criticism of another. He rebuked her for her own sensational criticism, especially within a story for children.
Alcott wasn’t the only one whose views were critical. Adams endured the ill will of librarians at the First Annual Conference of the American Library Association in 1876 and again when the conference was held in 1879 in Boston. Adams, along with other “sensational” writers became the focus of a controversy about the desirability and value of fiction in the public libraries. His books were not allowed in some public libraries although his work received favorable reviews in leading literary magazines and continued to sell in very high figures. He wrote series after series of children’s books that were reprinted time and again.
The following is from:
One of a Thousand. A Series of Biographical Sketches of One Thousand Representative Men Resident in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, A.D. 1888-89. Compiled under the editorial supervision of John C. Rand. Boston: First National Publishing Company, 1890.
Adams, William T., son of Laban and Catharine (Johnson) Adams, was born in Medway, Norfolk County, July 30, 1822.
He was educated in the public and private schools of Boston and vicinity, and when a mere lad displayed a talent for writing, his first article being published in the “Social Monitor.”
For three years Mr. Adams was the master of the “Lower Road” school in Dorchester. In 1846 he resigned his position to assist his father and brother in the management of the Adams House, Boston. Mr. Adams resumed teaching in 1848, in the Boylston School, Boston, becoming the master in 1860, and on the establishment of the Bowditch School, he was transferred and held the post of master of that school till he resigned in 1865. He then went abroad and traveled throughout Europe, dating his career as an author from this period.
Mr. Adams’s nom de plume, “Oliver Optic,” originated from his having written a poem in 1851 which was published under the heading of “A Poem Delivered Before the Mutual Admiration Society, by Oliver Optic, M.D.” The name “Optic” was suggested by a character in a drama at the Boston Museum, called “Dr. Optic.” To this Mr. Adams prefixed “Oliver,” with no thought of ever using it again. But soon after two essays appeared in the “Waverly Magazine,” “by Oliver Optic,” which were so well received that he continued to write under this pseudonym until it became impracticable to abandon it. His books, numbering over a hundred volumes, are widely and deservedly known.
Mr. Adams was married October 7, 1846, to Sarah, daughter of Edward and Martha (Reed) Jenkins. Mrs. Adams died in 1885. Their children are: Alice Marie, wife of Sol. Smith Russell, and Emma Louise, wife of George W. White, a member of the Suffolk bar. Mrs. White died in 1884.
In 1867, Mr. Adams was unanimously elected a member of the school committee of Dorchester. He served until the town was annexed to Boston, and was elected a member of the Boston school committee and served for ten years. In 1869 he was elected a member of the House of Representatives and served one year, and declined a re-nomination.
In 1870, he went to Europe a second time, and three times recently, traveling through the countries not previously visited, and the books which he has since published show the result of his observations.
William T. Adams
The following is from :
Brayley, Arthur Wellington. Schools and Schoolboys of Old Boston. (Boston, 1894), 392-393.
William Taylor Adams, who will be far better known to the majority of our readers by his non de plume of “Oliver Optic,” was born on the thirtieth day of July, 1822, in Medway, Mass., at the home of his maternal grandparent. His father, Laban Adams, who was born in Medway, Mass., Feb. 27, 1785, was a famous hotel keeper of “Old Boston,” where he kept the “Washington Coffee House,” and afterwards the “Lamb Tavern,” upon the site of the Adams House. It was he who built and kept the original Adams House, which was torn down for the erection of the present hotel. He died in Boston in 1849. Mrs. Adams, whose maiden name was Catharine Johnson, was born in Chester, Vt., in 1787, and bore her husband eight children, namely: Charles, Phebe, Elmira, Catharine, Esther, Laban, Sarah, and William Taylor Adams, of which family the subject of this sketch is to-day the only survivor. Three of his sisters were medal scholars of Boston’s public schools; Mrs. Adams died in 1868.
William’s education commenced while he lived at the Washington Coffee House, Boston, he being sent to a private infant school on Washington street, near Bromfield street. Afterwards attended the Adams School on Mason street, entering in 1830, and receiving instruction from Masters Jonathan Snelling, Samuel Barrett, David B. Tower, and Josiah Fairbank. He next entered Abel Whitney’s private school, at the head of Harvard Place, and remained there under Master Whitney and his successor, Amos Baker. Living upon Spring street, West Roxbury, a few years after, in 1838 he attended the public school there, which was situated opposite Theodore Parker’s church. He left school in 1840.
In 1842 he commenced teaching, and the following year was permanently appointed principal of what is now the Harris School of Dorchester, where he remained for several years. In 1847 and 1848, in company with his father and brother, he was one of the proprietors of the Adams House, Boston. In September, 1848, returning to teaching, he became usher of the Boylston School on Fort Hill, Boston. where he was afterward made sub-master, and in 1860 master. In 1862 he was transferred to the Bowditch School for girls. While teaching, Mr. Adams wrote about a dozen books for children, and in 1865 he resigned his mastership to devote his entire time to literature, which has since then been his life work. He has published one hundred and twenty-five volumes, and travelled widely to gather material for his books. He has crossed the Atlantic sixteen times, been twice to Cuba and Nassau, has visited Bermuda and over thirty of the United States, besides travelling through Canada from St. Johns, N. B., to the head of Lake Superior, and has sailed from one end to the other of all the Great Lakes. Mr. Adams has also been engaged for thirty-one years as an editor,—for nine years of The Student and Schoolmate, and an equal tine of Our Boys and Girls, and for thirteen years of Our Little Ones, and The Nursery. His first hook was published in 1853. and was called “Hatchie, the Guardian Slave; or, The Heir of Bellevue.” This was followed by “Indoors and Out,” a collection of stories; and by stories of travel and adventure, mainly in series of several volumes each, prominent among which are the “Riverdale Series,” “Boat Club,” ” Woodville,” ” Young America Abroad,” ” The Starry Flag,” “Onward and Upward,” “The Yacht Club,” etc. He has also published two novels for older readers, “The Way of the World,” and “Living Too Fast.”
Mr. Adam., married Miss Sarah Jenkins of Dorchester, the daughter of an old “North Ender,” a shipsmith said bellows-maker. They have had three daughters, — Ellen Frances, who died at the age of eighteen months; Alice Marie, who married Sol Smith Russell, the comedian, and who lives in Minneapolis, Minn.; and Emma Louise. who married George W. White, Esq , and who died in 1884.
He is a member or the “Old Dorchester” Club, Boston Press Club, and an honorary member of the Massachusetts Yacht Club. In politics he is a Republican with “Mugwump” tendencies, and has been connected with the Unitarian church all his life and with its Sunday-.drool for twenty years. twelve of which he served is superintendent. He has been a Free Marion for thirty-four years. and was for three years Master of Union Lodge in Dorchester.
Jones, Dolores Blythe. An “Oliver Optic” Checklist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Kilgour, Raymond L. Lee and Shepard, Publishers for the People. The Shoe String Press, 1965.