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William T. Adams, 1822-1897
Oliver Optic
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 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.



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Oliver Optic Magazine cover
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 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.



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William T. Adams signature
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 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.



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Oliver Optic House
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 William T. Adams served as a member of the School Committee in Dorchester until its annexation to Boston in 1870, and in 1869 he served as Dorchester's representative in the state legislature, declining to run for a second term. He traveled extensively, wrote prolifically and lived in Dorchester until his death in 1897.


Sources:

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.



Photograph of Adams's home on the west side of Dorchester Avenue next to where the T station is located today.

Related Images: showing 8 of 66 (more results)
Here are some images from the Atheneum archive related to this topic. Click on any of these images to open a slideshow of all 66 images.
All Saints' Church 1904William T. Adams signatureAll Saints sketchRalph Adams Cram
Huebener Brick no. 22 Ward Macondray King HouseHuebener Brick no. 28 John Robinson HouseHuebner Brick 53B Thomas Tolman HouseAdams Motors
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Created: August 17, 2003   Modified: April 24, 2011