NEXT MONTH, Pocket Books (the mass-market paperback arm of Simon and Schuster) will issue The Secret of Jungle Park, the first volume in a series called "The New Bobbsey Twins." Of the panoply of children's adventure stories available when I was in elementary school in the 1940s, the Bobbsey Twins books were my favorites. I am chagrined to discover from the publicity material issued by Pocket Books about the new project that the original Bobbsey Twins books were aimed at an audience of second- and third-graders. I distinctly remember devouring them as late as the seventh grade, just before moving on to Ulysses and The Waste Land.
The stories took place in an archetypal American town called Lakeport. One enormous attraction -- at a time when the Depression was still a reality in many people's lives -- was the economic situation of the Bobbsey family. Richard Bobbsey, the father, owned a lumberyard. He lived in the real world of work, but money troubles never darkened the Bobbseys' world. Carefree, happy and charming, they were forever heading off in the family car to a vacation in the North Woods or someplace, where the twins would be able to unravel some mild but titillating mystery.
The new Bobbsey Twins series follows on the heels of two other revivals within the last 12 months by Pocket Books. A year ago the updated "Nancy Drew Files" began to appear. In April "The Hardy Boys Casefiles" were reopened. Books from both series make regular appearances on the Young Adult Bestseller list of B. Dalton, the barometer of sales in this segment of book marketing. The Bobbsey Twins revival is aimed at an audience of 7- to 12-year-olds, somewhat younger than the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys crowd.
There were four Bobbsey children -- two sets of boy-and-girl twins. Nan and Bert were 8 years old and inquisitive, Flossie and Freddie were 4 and full of mischief. (In the new series, the older twins will be 12 and the younger 8.) The twins were the invention of the amazing Edmund Stratemeyer, who during his lifetime wrote or supervised more than 1000 children's books under 58 pseudonyms. The Bobbsey Twins books were issued under the wonderfully upbeat, all-American name of Laura Lee Hope.
Born in New Jersey in 1862, Stratemeyer published his first children's story in 1889. In 1903, Stratemeyer organized his famous syndicate, a fiction factory for children's stories. He introduced the Bobbsey Twins in 1904, the young mechanical genius Tom Swift in 1910, the Hardy Boys in 1927 and in 1930 (the year he died), Nancy Drew.
Altogether, Stratemeyer started 70 different juvenile series, tailored to children but reflecting the larger interests of American adult society. For car and motorcycle enthusiasts, there were the Motor Boys, the Motor Girls, the Speedwell Boys and the Motorcycle Chums. For sports nuts, there were Baseball Joe, Mel Martin and the Garry Grayson football stories. There was a tiny Tarzan called Bomba the Jungle Boy. There were the Motion Picture Boys & Girls and the Radio Boys & Girls.
The Bobbsey Twins books have sold more than 50 million copies since they first appeared (Nancy Drew has sold 60 million). In the new series, the lovable, warm-hearted Mrs. Bobbsey has finally gotten out of the kitchen and found a job -- she is a part-time reporter for The Lakeport News. Sam Johnson, a black man who once was the Bobbsey gardener, is now foreman of the Bobbsey lumberyard. The older twins -- shades of the Partridge family -- are members of a rock band. Events are seen through the eyes of the twins, rather than of an adult narrator.
The stories are also shorter and snappier. The old novels were about 200 pages -- the Secret of Jungle Park is only 87. The action remains, but the depiction of small town and family life has largely gone by the boards. One Pocket Books press release points out that this is after all the age of music videos, implying that children's attention spans are not what they were. The Bobbsey Twins volumes I used to buy for a nickel at used-book shops often dated back to the 1920s or before. One reason I liked them was their leisurely pace. They depicted an age of pre-industrial small towns that I knew was past, but that I realized even at age 11 was the stuff of American myth. Sometime later, I would think of fictional places like Lakeport as a lingering vestige of Jeffersonian hopes for the Republic. In that way, the Bobbsey Twins books, as vapid as they were, taught. I wonder if the rat-a-tat pace of the new series will teach anything similar?
BASED IN Frederick, Md., University Publications of America has since 1974 specialized in microform publishing of documentary and archival materials aimed mainly at the academic and library markets. (Microform is a term that encompasses both microfilm and microfiche.) Nine months ago, the firm established a new publishing arm called Twenty-First Century Books to bring similar documentary and archival materials to the general trade book and classroom markets.
Twenty-First Century Books has just released information about its first projects, due to see the light of day next spring. Two prominent academics are currently at work on oral histories of different aspects of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The volumes will be the first in a series to be drawn from oral histories of important figures compiled by the various presidential libraries.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow of the City University of New York, author of Bearing the Cross; The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Protest at Selma, will edit a volume called The LBJ Years: An Oral History, Civil Rights. Larry Berman of the University of California at Davis, who wrote The New American Presidency and Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam, will edit The LBJ Years: An Oral History, Vietnam. Volumes on the drawing board include similar oral histories of administrations from Dwight D. Eisenhower's to Jimmy Carter's, as well as other reference books. The president of Twenty-First Century Books is Jeffrey Shulman, who had been a book editor with University Publications.
THE CURRENT issue of The Yale Review features a series called "Encounters," in which various writers recall their meetings with well-known people. Jerome Bruner writes about Jean Piaget, Nat Hentoff about Malcolm X and Robert Brustein about Lionel Trilling. There are very funny pieces by Richard Howard on meeting Imelda Marcos and by Ken McKenzie, a Yale man and former New York Mets pitcher (Ron Darling wasn't the first), on Casey Stengel. Some publisher should rush to sign up McKenzie for a book on his years with the Mets under Stengel.
But by far the most interesting and hilarious memoir is Isaiah Berlin's recollections of Edmund Wilson, particularly of a 1954 visit by Wilson to Berlin's digs at Oxford. Despite Berlin's attempts to be gracious, Wilson emerges from the account as a prototypical boor. He saw England the country as decadent and class-ridden and detested everyone from Churchill to the Bloomsbury set. And he let Berlin know clearly how he felt. At High Table at All Souls College, Wilson snubbed the historian A.L. Rowse seated next to him. After dinner, in Berlin's lodgings, he refused discourse with the other guests, Iris Murdoch, her husband John Bayley and the philosopher Stuart Hampshire. "Although Iris, who is the soul of courtesy and kindness," says Berlin, "tried to make things go, and John Bayley, a beguiling talker, did his best, the old bear remained in his lair, glaring balefully from time to time and trying to drown his boredom in drink."
Berlin makes the interesting point that Wilson was out of his time in the Britain of the 1950s, that he would probably have felt much more at home with Edwardian hearties such as Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and Arnold Bennett. Still, I have a feeling that Berlin's portrait of Wilson will become a prominent and permanent part of his biography.
In the Margin
TWO JOURNALISTS, John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, have been signed by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich to write a book called Monkey on a Stick. According to HBJ, it treats the murder of Steve Bryant, critic of a Hare Krishna guru, by a Hare Krishna hit man. The journalists previously wrote about the case in Rolling Stone magazine. It's hard to think of a hit man emerging from the ranks of those shaven-headed, saffron-robed folks. What next? ::