Remembered, Yet Forgotten: The Writer’s Life of John Tunis
Is an author “forgotten” if readers do not forget the writing? Apparently so, if he wrote for adult readers made him a kids’ book best seller.
“Apologizing” for living and working according to convictions that seem to have sprung equally from Victorian ideals of sport and Jeffersonian ideals of democracy, John Roberts Tunis began “A Measure of Independence,” his 1964 autobiography: “I am the product of a parson and a teacher; any such person is forever trying to reform or to educate, himself if nobody else.”
He may have been the most successful free-lance writer of the day--a day that spanned the introduction of automobiles to just past the landing of men on the moon. Does he reform? More likely he “forms,” educating and entertaining his readers. He challenges hypocrisy in sports, politics and education not with the fire-and-brimstone jeremiad but with the parables that keep his classes filled and at attention.
His work has never disappeared from shelves, but its integrity seems to be inspiring something of a Tunis revival. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and William Morrow will have repackaged and reissued 15 of his young-adult novels by the end of this year, and both “The Kid From Tompkinsville” (1940, 1987) and “American Girl” (1930) recently have been mentioned as possible movie material. He is read today as yesterday because of an ability to bring the reader from outside to inside the work. As a result, though many of his references are dated, there is a “realism” to his fiction that transcends the ephemera of popular culture.
Tunis began regularly publishing his work just after World War I. He is best known for his young-adult novels, begun in the late 1930s. His publisher made a “marketing decision” Tunis was not altogether happy with at the time, but which he would come to appreciate.
He was a columnist for the New Yorker and the New York Post, covered Wimbledon for NBC radio for many years (and in 1932 broadcast the first sports event from Europe to America, the French Open tennis tournament). He also regularly contributed to Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, among others. The success of his novels has obscured how successful he was as a “Yankee peddler” of his wares--the story, review, article, essay . . . and novel. Often writing six to seven days each week, he published more than 30 books and an estimated 2,000 newspaper and magazine articles before his death in Essex, Conn., in 1975. The New York Times eulogized him as someone who “captivated and helped educate a whole generation of Americans.”
The complexity of Tunis’ fiction will astonish those who dismiss works aimed at young audiences as necessarily simplistic. Even people who read him years ago are likely to be surprised as they come across Tunis again. These are not just children’s action-and-adventure morality plays of the good guys coming from behind to win at the tape or in the final minute. The good guys have faults. The bad guys have virtues. Characters change as situations change and they learn, as do the readers, the lessons of humanity.
He did not “shorten his grip” when writing for younger readers: The goal was to “reform and educate” all readers. Tunis used sports as the background for his novels because that is what he knew--and what he knew would interest his audience.
Alfred Harcourt’s decision to publish Tunis’ second novel, based loosely on his undergraduate experience, for the juvenile market greatly dismayed Tunis. He had thought he was writing a story for adults. If not for his editor, Elizabeth Hamilton--whom he credited along with Frederick Lewis Allen, the famed Harper’s editor, as “unconsciously, and without any attempt to do so, influenc(ing) my life and thinking"--it is not clear he would have come to appreciate the challenge and importance of these readers:
“A book written for my audience doesn’t have to be merely as good as a book for adults; it must be--or should be--better. Not only does youth deserve the best, but also no youths read a book because it is on the best seller list. Nor do they read it because it has a huge advertising budget, or is well reviewed; they read it for one reason alone, they want to.”
“The Iron Duke” (1938, 1990) told of James Wellington of Waterloo, Iowa, a talented athlete facing difficulties in dealing with his father’s expectations and Harvard’s classroom and social pressures. The book highlights, as many Tunis works do, a faith in the common sense and decency of humanity, a belief that no person is necessarily better than another, and a conviction that competition is a way to improve oneself, not demean another. It began a string of books published for the intrepid to discover for themselves on library shelves, for friends to recommend to each other and for parents to pass down to their children.
Sympathetic winners and losers, a sense of place within the world of (professional or celebrated “amateur”) sports, and a refusal to condescend to a younger audience are the hallmarks of these novels. One not only roots for Roy Tucker (“The Kid from Tompkinsville”), Spike and Bob Russel (“The Keystone Kids,” 1943, 1987), Don Henderson (“Yea! Wildcats!,” 1944, 1989), or any of Tunis’ other characters, but glimpses cordoned-off worlds, spared neither glories nor foibles.
If there is a formula to Tunis fiction it is the empathy he builds between his readers and characters by using protagonists who are outsiders. As these characters learn what is expected in a world that is new for them, so does the reader. Tucker and the Russell brothers are rookies taking jobs from veterans as they try to adjust to the reality of major-league baseball (with a team modeled on the Brooklyn Dodgers). Henderson is the basketball coach new to town who battles star players with bad attitudes and the town fathers as he leads his underdog team to a state championship. Whether it is baseball, basketball or politics, the reader learns, as the character learns, the sports world serving as a metaphor for the world at large.
Tunis is marvelous when he is describing the crack of the bat, swoosh of the forehand or swish of the basket, the glory and self-satisfaction that can be achieved by playing games. He is also careful to show the limits of sports. Sports is play, an entertainment that too often is abused by noncompetitors for reasons of ego or profit. Of course, Tunis had enough sense not to claim this as a scoop. He noted that, despite their potential, sports had been corrupted since at least the time of the original Greek Olympics--petty and magnificent sports scandals are not a modern invention.
Tunis prominently displays a faith in youth, and he layers his stories, ostensibly for younger audiences, with issues such as Bobby Russell learning to accept that being Jewish does not disqualify a major-league catcher, and of a whole town dealing with race and class prejudice and rooting for a black forward. These, it should be noted, are subplots. Few other “kids’ book” authors risk introducing such ideas, presumably out of fear of controversy, or perhaps because they “needlessly” complicate “stories for children.”
Tunis was not a prose stylist, which may be another reason the full extent of his writing is taken for granted except by the person caught up in one of his stories. He wrote out of a sense of conviction, his words serving to bring action and ideas to life. Although he continued to turn out a prodigious amount of comment and reporting in his essays for adults, Tunis found himself in his sports novels. Through the ‘40s and ‘50s he never went more than two years without publishing one; he published three in 1943. He even saw “American Girl” made into the movie “Hard, Fast and Beautiful,” though, like many an author after accepting the money, he rued having seen what Hollywood made of his book.
In the foreword to “This Writing Game,” a collection of “adult” pieces he published in 1941, Tunis described his life’s work:
“Looking back over the past twenty years, I realize, however, that the writing wasn’t enough. For writing, whatever it once was, is not an art today. Writing is a business. Before going to work on articles it was first necessary to interest some editor. I had not only to manufacture my product. I had to sell it as well. I was my own collection manager, too. I have never been able to hand over the Department For Worrying About Money to a subordinate. Writing is not merely sitting with a typewriter against a blank wall. Writing articles means legwork. It means hard work. It means unpleasant work.”
Writing is a business, and for each author something more. For John Roberts Tunis--who seems never really to have considered doing anything else no matter how unpleasant the writing itself may have been--it was one way to keep to the path his parents laid out. His reward was to fill young readers’ heads with dreams (mention of his name brings childhood scrambling back into older eyes) and to be “somewhat” forgotten, but surely beloved.