Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Birthday: A.P. Terhune combined puppies and purple prose to make a fortune


Albert Payson Terhune (1872-1942)
Journalist, author

It is hard to imagine, a hundred years on, how H.L. Mencken came to have such sway as he did, training a gimlet eye, and an inexhaustible supply of scorn, upon American ways and values for half a century.

Truth be told, Mencken lived in what we now call “a target-rich environment.” For a large portion of America up to 1929 or so, in the real America it was always 1902, in a small town in Indiana, where every husband was a born tinkerer, building an auto, or an autogyro, in his garden shed; all the women were pure of heart and practiced temperance, and all the children were well-behaved- and when they weren’t, they were just being scamps, like that loveable Penrod in the Booth Tarkington stories.

Of the many odd writers who capitalized on the Age of Schmalz, few did so with such success- and cynicism- as Albert Payson Terhune, who transformed himself from a hack journalist into a country gentleman dog breeder, snob, and hack novelist.


His father was a Presbyterian theologian; his mother wrote home ec books and antebellum romances under a pseudonym. He grew up in a towering, wisteria-choked manse in New Jersey called, with WASP understatement, The Place; the homestead anchored a twelve-acre estate called Sunnybank.  After graduating Columbia University, Bert, as his mates knew him, spent twenty years toiling as a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

Handsome and sqaure-jawed, Terhune was an accomplished amateur boxer who gave good value to the crowds flocking to see the like of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and James J. Jeffries in exhibition matches. He joined The Adventurers’ Club in Manhattan.

Bert supported his lifestyle with both war correspondent and adventure books, a la Richard Halliburton (Syria By Saddle (1896), How to Box to Win (1900), Dr. Dale: A Story Without A Moral - co-written with his mother the same year; Caleb Conover, Railroader (1907); and a steady stream of articles published in the better magazines of the day: The Red Book, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Atlantic Monthly.

Before the moving picture industry decamped to Los Angeles, Terhune wrote twenty screenplays, thrillers and melodramas all. He even co-wrote a 1914 novel, Dad, with Sinclair Lewis. Lewis went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature; among Terhune’s later works were Superwomen (1916; republished as Famous Hussies of History, 1943) and Wonder Women in History (1918).

In 1915 his editor at Red Book suggested an article about Terhune’s father’s collie, Lad, who’d enjoyed the run of Sunnybank since 1902. Bert bit. The story was a hit. He wrote some more, and they, too, were well-received.

When his publisher, Doubleday, pressed him for the next novel due under his contract, Terhune recast the stories into a book, which Doubleday promptly turned down.

Terhune couldn’t see why stories that sold well in magazines wouldn’t sell well as a novel.

Anthropomorphized animals were an ancient literary form, from African trickster stories to LaFontaine’s parables, and on through best sellers of Terhune’s day like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), Kipling’s Jungle Book (1894), and Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). Like science fiction in later decades, it offered a frame for social commentary- radical or reactionary- through the eyes of animals.

Terhune shopped the book around and found a home at Dutton; after a slow start, the book took off. There were sequels. The AKC was happy to oblige Lad, who woofed his last in 1918, with a pedigree that, like Donald Trump’s family coat of arms, was a dazzling work of fiction in its own right. Terhune used that to launch himself as the laird of Sunnybank Kennels and Lad into history.

Terhune reinvented himself in the stories as well. He cast himself as a sort of Gentleman’s Martha Stewart, an avatar of gracious, but manly, living.

In the stories Lad lived on an estate called Sunnybank, in a big house called The Place. It was owned by The Master, his Mistress, and The Boy (embroideries abound in Terhune’s alternate reality; he married twice, and had only one child- a daughter).

Lad had a bitch called Lady, who was constantly  being tempted by newer collies- like Knave- who had to be put in their places. There were toddlers to be rescued (after taking a snake bite for one, Lad lay in marsh mud for four days as the poison leached out), loyalties to be demonstrated, bathing and grooming to be endured when the Mistress took it in mind to enter him in the Westminster Dog Show (of course, Lad won: in two categories).

Lad was a canine adonis, even in his youth:

His fluffy puppy-coat of wavy mahogany-and-white-caught a million sunbeams, reflecting them back in tawny-orange glints and in a dazzle as of snow. His forepaws were absurdly small, even for a puppy's. Above them the ridging of the stocky leg-bones gave as clear a promise of mighty size and strength as did the amazingly deep little chest and square shoulders.

Here one day would stand a giant among dogs, powerful as a timber-wolf, lithe as a cat, as dangerous to foes as an angry tiger; a dog without fear or treachery; a dog of uncanny brain and great lovingly loyal heart and, withal, a dancing sense of fun. A dog with a soul.

All this, any canine physiologist might have read from the compact frame, the proud head-carriage, the smolder in the deep-set sorrowful dark eyes. To the casual observer, he was but a beautiful and appealing and wonderfully cuddleable bunch of puppyhood.

After Lad died came stories of his son, Wolf, to stay the tears of fans. Even by his standards, Terhune considered the stories hackwork, and could not, for the life of him, understand why they sold so well. But they allowed him to quit The World, buy Sunnybank from his mother, and set up as the country gentleman of his imagination.

He turned out thirty more dog books featuring collies of noble Scottish nomenclature-Bruce, Lochinvar, Black Caesar- as well as the more downmarket His Dog (1922).


By 1935, when the twentieth anniversary edition of Lad came out, the book had gone through seventy reprints. Literary critics panned Terhune’s overheated, overstuffed style. Breeders criticized Terhune’s dogs as too perfect by half, and unrealistic, to boot, but that- and precisely that- was the secret of their success. Terhune offered readers an idealized life with an idealized dog, and, through the dogs, confirmation of all sorts of life lessons.

Terhune’s Master was a walking card catalogue of World War I-era noxious notions. Sunnybank was, for Lad and his owners, a refuge from the modern world and all its horrors, which included foreigners, thieves, Negroes, poachers, the homeless, hillbillies, half-breeds of any mix; and the nouveaux-riche (The Master’s bete noire was a rich, crass industrialist called Hamilcar P. Glure).

There were lessons on discipline without cruelty, perfect obedience without force, nature, and the rights of the well-bred- biped and quadruped alike (one can feel a little sympathy for the author: once the book took off, Sunnybank was besieged by tourists).

The Master died in 1942, with 66 books on the shelf (most of his post-Lad life, he wrote eleven hours a day, six days a week). To the end, collies were his bread and butter:

I wonder if it is heretical to believe that when at last my tired feet shall tread the Other Shore, a madly welcoming swirl of exultant collies—the splendid Sunnybank dogs that have been my chums here—will bound forward, circling and barking around me, to lead me Home!

The advent of television sparked a new Terhune book via the 19-season run of Lassie. Lad was turned into a movie in 1962, with hopes for a TV series, but it tanked to the box office. Grosset & Dunlap edited out the eugenics and repositioned the dog stories as young adult titles in the 1960s and 70s; they remain in print to this day.

Terhune’s widow, Anice, lived on, in increasingly Grey Gables antisplendor, until she died, at 90, in 1964. In the 1950s she gave up the royalties to the dog stories to get Dutton to publish her book of conversations with Bert in the next life. It was a deal so one-sided even the publisher felt guilty eventually, and settled a $100-a-month pension on her.

After Anice gained the ability to speak again with Bert in the afterlife, Sunnybank became- and remains- a New Jersey state park. The Place was torn down ahead of collapsing, but Lad’s grave, and monuments to a couple of dozen of Terhune’s other dogs, remain part of the landscape.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #AlbertTerhune #DogStories #Charlotte

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