Nancy Drew for Smart Kids:
Mysteries by Augusta Huiell Seaman
by Christine M. Volk
How did a writer who was very popular for over half a century become almost unknown 40 years later? And why is it almost impossible to find a copy of some of her books?
One of the books in my collection provides a clue to this mystery: battered and beat-up, the spine of this former library copy was reinforced with colored tape, the cloth covers are frayed from repeated readings, and the pages are spotted, torn and taped. The wear bears silent witness to the hundreds of children who pored over this book, but is this a book worth saving?
Those of us who discovered Augusta Huiell Seaman in our youth were passionate about her books, but most of us didn’t own them; we borrowed them from the library. We didn’t have our own copies to hand down to our children and as the years went by, the copies owned by libraries could no longer be patched, and they were discarded. As a girl, I remember reading about fifteen or twenty of her books from our small town library; it no longer has a single copy of her books.
So who was Augusta Huiell Seaman, and why should we bother collecting her books today?
As an omnivorous reader, I devoured all of the series books I could – ranging from the Bobbsey Twins, Judy Bolton, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Bomba the Jungle Boy, Tom Swift and Baseball Joe. Nancy Drew books were always on my most-wanted list; I remember my uncles and aunts checking which numbers to buy next. I used my allowance at the downtown Woolworth’s store to buy the less expensive and more down-to-earth Trixie Belden books. But the mysteries written by Augusta Hueill Seaman held a deeper appeal that has endured for almost half a century.
Seaman was a prolific author: between 1910 and 1949 she published 42 books for older children, as well as serialized versions of these novels and many short pieces, both stories and non-fiction, in the most popular magazines of the day. She was well-loved: many of her books remained in print for twenty or thirty years or more, kept available not only by the original publisher, but in inexpensive Grosset & Dunlap and Doubleday editions, and even in Scholastic press paperback editions in the 1960s and 7’s. The 1929 book by Mahoney and Whitman, Realms of Gold in Children’s Literature, recommends 9 of her books. One of her books was popular enough that it was offered as the free bonus book for membership in the Junior Literary Guild. Several of her books were translated into French, Danish and Norwegian; the last “new” edition of one of her books was the 1973 French language edition of her 1942 book, The Clue of the Calico Crab.
In many ways, Seaman’s books are as pat and formulaic as the traditional “series books”; in fact, some booksellers who specialize in series books call them a “non-series series.” Since the characters were different in each book, readers did not have the same impetus to collect them all, as they did with the conveniently numbered juvenile series, like Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift. Nevertheless, most of her books had the same comforting familiarity: the plot frequently involved two ordinary young girls, often with a pesky, but clever, younger brother or sister, solving a mystery that they just happened to stumble on (usually in a small town). This was a situation in which my friend – another reader of Seaman’s books – and I could easily imagine ourselves becoming involved. While we read, and liked, the Nancy Drew mysteries, Nancy’s ability to travel on a whim almost anywhere in the world was so far outside of our own personal experience that we never really expected to live in one of her stories.
With Seaman, the opposite was true: I was deeply impressed by the central theme in many of the books – that decrepit old houses, just like the one I saw down the street, may be hiding treasure or crucial clues. Seaman tapped into the universal feeling that ruins, abandoned buildings, and even old homes have stories to tell. There weren’t a lot of abandoned houses in our area, but we haunted one of the few ruins in town, a pre-Revolutionary powder house. I remember spending a lot of time at the local historical society – which was located in the oldest house in the town – but I had forgotten, until I started re-reading Seaman’s books as an adult, that her characters actually use the historical society’s library to help solve some of the mysteries.
I grew up in a small Massachusetts town, near Boston. Recently I met a Japanese-American woman, about my age, who grew up in Berkeley, California. Yet, despite our different backgrounds, both of us were so influenced by Augusta Seaman’s writing that 45 years later, this woman began collecting all the books in an attempt to find the few she had read as a child, and I have not only been gathering together Seaman’s books, but also delving into her life and her writing career. Seaman’s mysteries lived on in our minds long after we read them.
From 1984 to 1986 there was a newsletter for Seaman collectors called The Seaman Log, published and edited by Donald J. Summar. Much of the biographical information about Seaman below is taken from several articles which Summar wrote for this newsletter. Since Seaman kept her life very private – even the author information on the dust jacket flaps is inaccurate or contradictory – the original records which Summar received from her former secretary are significant; they are especially valuable for the history they give of her manuscript submissions, rejections, and acceptance by various publishers. In the late 1970’s, Summar was also able to interview several people who knew Seaman, when he visited the New Jersey coast where she lived for many years. He incorporated that material into several issues of the Log.
Seaman’s books also reflect much of her life: her love of history and music, her natural teaching ability, and most of all her enthusiasm for the varying locales she used as settings for the books. The themes which recur over and over in the books are rooted in her own personal experiences transmogrified by her imagination and creativity.
Augusta Curtiss Huiell was born in New York City on April 3, 1879. Her father, John Valentine Huiell was a bookkeeper and her mother, Anna Curtiss, was his third wife (and the younger sister of his first wife, who had died in childbirth) Of Huiell’s eight children, only Augusta and a half-brother John, who was nine years older, survived past early childhood. In 1888 when Augusta she was only 9 years old, her mother died. A year later her 3 year-old sister, Florence, also died. Summar recounts several stories which show that Augusta obtained her love of books and of history from her father. Her first published book was dedicated in part to ‘my severest critic, my father.’ While little is known of her life after her mother died, she did live in New Jersey with relatives for part of this time. Her own early experiences are echoed in many of her books – often the girls have only one surviving parent, and it is not uncommon for her heroine to be sent to live with other relatives.
In 1900 Augusta Huiell graduated from Normal College in New York City (although the author biographies found on her books’ dust jackets usually say Hunter College, as the school was later renamed). She spent the next 5 years living with her father and half-brother in the Richmond Hill community of Queens and teaching – mostly fifth graders. In 1906, she resigned her position to marry her first husband, Robert Seaman, an accountant like her father. Only then could she turn her attention completely towards writing. She was not, however, immediately successful.
Among the materials left behind by Seaman was a ‘manuscript’ book; starting in 1907, she began keeping track of where she had submitted stories, and in 1908, she transferred these records to the ‘manuscript book.’ Summar’s article in the 3rd issue of the Log depicts a slow starting career. In 1907, she submitted 8 stories to different magazines; only one of those was accepted and published that year. The story “The Long Night” earned her $20 and appeared in All-Story Magazine in December 1907.
Almost a year later, in the November 1908 issue of the St Nicholas Magazine, her first story for children, “How Constance Conquered,”was published. During 1908, Seaman also finished her first full-length book for children, an historical novel, When the Cobbler Ruled the King, which imagines how little Louis XVII, the Dauphin of France, could have been spirited out of captivity. Louis was just 7 when the French Revolution claimed the lives of his father, Louis XVI and his mother Marie Antoinette, and he was imprisoned in the Temple Tower. Although St Nicholas had accepted her short stories, they rejected this novel for publication as a serial.
Despite this setback, by late 1909 Seaman had finished her second historical novel, based on the heroic actions of a young boy during the siege of Leiden in 1574. She submitted this work to a new company just starting out in New York City, Sturgis & Walton. Not only did Sturgis & Walton accept Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons, they did a rather handsome job of publishing it, including an introduction by historian William Elliot Griffis, and illustrations by the well-known and award-winning artist, George Wharton Edwards. Although Griffis built his reputation as a historian of nineteenth century Japan (his collection of materials related to the history and culture of Japan, now at Rutgers University, is considered one of inestimable value), he had also published several books on Holland, including some for young people. For a new author, his endorsement must have been very gratifying.
Sturgis & Walton went on to publish Seaman’s two other historical novels, including the previously rejected When a Cobbler Ruled the King (Summar indicates that this was after extensive rewriting) and Little Mamselle of the Wilderness, which was published in 1913 to mixed reviews.
Jacqueline of the Carrier Pigeons went through at least 3 printings under the Sturgis & Walton imprint, and when the company was acquired by Macmillan in 1917, Macmillan kept her S&W list in print. Summar states that eventually Jacqueline sold over 35,000 copies. While the earlier Macmillan editions retained the attractive S&W format, later printings did not. The front dust jacket flap of one of the later Macmillan editions of this book talks about why Seaman is so popular as an author – her book “is written in a spirit children like, and yet not written down to them” – and it also states that “the book itself is, thanks to the cover design and illustrations by George Wharton Edwards, a most dainty and attractive volume.” Ironically, this edition – which has 1919 on the title page, but is probably from the late 1920s or early 1930s – only has a plain gray cover, and just the frontispiece and illustrated title page; the 4 other plates have been dropped.
Even as her novels were finding success, many of Seaman’s shorter pieces were still being rejected; Summar mentions one story which was sent out 20 times in 1910 and 1911 without success. I can only guess at the reasons why Seaman turned to writing mystery stories instead of historical novels. Historical novels were a very popular form for children’s books at the time – and many of those who wrote historical novels – such G. A. Henty in the late 19th century and Seaman’s contemporaries, the husband and wife team of Emilie Benson Knipe and Alden Arthur Knipe – continued to write them with only occasional variations. The answer may be rooted in her experiences as a fifth grade teacher: certainly, this is part of the reason why she was able to write books that charmed older children without writing down to them. As a teacher she would have known how mysteries captivate the imagination of children. At this time, there were no mysteries being written for younger readers, especially girls. The Stratemeyer syndicate had just started up, but at this point the combination adventure and mystery stories were being written more for boys. It would be many years before the first Nancy Drew book appeared in 1930. It seems probable that Seaman was aware of the great popularity the series books were achieving, and, as a former teacher, felt that she could do better. Not only would she write entertaining mysteries, but she would weave historical events into the story and create characters who were changed by the events of the stories.
Seaman’s first mystery novel, The Boarded-Up House, was immediately successful. It was published in serial format in St Nicholas in 1915, and later as a book by the Century Company (who were also the publishers of the St Nicholas Magazine.) Using the Civil War as the historical background, this story established the framework used in many of her best later novels: two young girls exploring a boarded up house, the Collingswood mansion, in New York, discover a long-overlooked letter. It is their determination to uncover the story behind this letter that leads to a reunion in 1906 between Mrs Collingswood and her son, both of whom had believed each other dead. The boarded-up house of the title does not just refer to the actual mansion: it can be taken as a metaphor for the ‘boarded-up’ emotions when a quarrel drives apart a family – in this case a mother and son – and as a symbol for the ‘house divided’ theme of the Civil War. This book, and the next five which appeared, remain among her most appealing novels.
The second mystery to be published, The Sapphire Signet illustrates how effective the technique of incorporating a historical mystery into a story of contemporary children can be. This was her most complex serial: it ran for 9 issues in St Nicholas, starting in November 1915 – the same month in which her only child, a daughter named Helen Roberta (but called Bobbie) was born. Set in a very modern New York City (that is, in the early 1900’s), where change is constant and construction of the new subway system brings noise and turmoil to what had been a quiet neighborhood, the plot involves three sisters, a younger cousin, and a new friend who together work to solve a mystery rooted in the Revolutionary War.
After the birth of Bobbie in 1915, Seaman limited her production to one full-length novel, and a few shorter pieces per year. Her next book, The Girl Next Door, was also set in New York City; the story involves missionaries recently returned from China, with the Boxer Rebellion providing the background for the historical mystery. The Three Sides of Paradise Green (1918) was set in a thinly disguised Stratford, Connecticut, her mother’s hometown. This is the first of several of her books which returned to the theme of the Lost Dauphin having survived the French Revolution and been smuggled to America; it is also notable for its careful attention to the architecture of the pre-Revolutionary houses which surrounded Paradise Green. As in most of her stories, the events of the real world are significant to the story in this book, while the US is not yet involved, the War is raging in Europe, and near the end of the book, young Louis (despite the discovery that he is not, after all, a descendant shawof the Dauphin) leaves to enlist in the French Air Service.
Melissa-Across-the-Fence (1918) returns to New York City, while her next book, The Slipper Point Mystery (1919), was set in a rural area of New Jersey where she had lived with relatives during part of her childhood. The historical mystery in Slipper Point involves the discovery of a tunnel from the river to the house at Slipper Point, a tunnel used by abolitionists to help fugitive slaves. A recent local newspaper article (in the Brick, NJ Communicator) brings up a rather intriguing point: the reporter refers to the local legend that an old house sitting on a bluff high above the river had been a stop in the Underground Railroad, and he goes on to trace the route that the two girls in The Slipper Point Mystery took, matching them to the actual landmarks and buildings in the area – but then he wonders: was the novel based on the legend, or has the legend grown up because of Seaman’s book? Perhaps Seaman had more influence than she could have imagined – or would have liked.
Seaman’s next book, The Crimson Patch, was published shortly after the end of the First World War (1920), and while its setting is a New Jersey beach resort which Seaman knew well, the story is entirely contemporary – and totally unconvincing. The depiction of German spies infiltrating a small country hotel might have been an accurate reflection of the jingoistic spirit of the times but the plot is farfetched, there is no real mystery, and even the setting is given short shrift. Since the plot involves the theft and recovery of a drawing which contained the key to an important military breakthrough – a drawing made by Patricia’s father – an important part of this book should have been the closeness between her and her father (as it was with Corinne and her father in The Sapphire Signet), but even the main characters are barely developed. Judgments about the minor characters are based entirely on their national origin – or even just on their appearance. Although the following book, The Dragon’s Pool (1921), returned to the historical mystery, it still lacked the freshness and appeal of her earlier novels. Sadly, if a reader’s first experience with Seaman is one of her lesser books, then that reader cannot be blamed for feeling that Seaman’s books are deservedly forgotten.
It was about this time that Robert Seaman, her husband, was diagnosed with cancer. Partly for his health, and probably partly to re-inspire her writing, Augusta and Robert began travelling extensively, and several novels reflect their journeys. The Mystery at Number Six (1922) effectively uses one of her most unusual settings: the contrast between an abandoned phosphate mine – Number Six, now an idyllic pool – and an active phosphate mine in central Florida is vividly portrayed. A trip to Bermuda, and a mystery related to the earliest settlers of Bermuda, is the central theme of Sally Simms Adventures It, the first of three novels which appeared in 1924.; The Edge of Raven Pool is set near Savanah Georgia, andBluebonnet Bend, was set in Texas. Despite the travelling, Seaman’s output increased, as the income from her writing became essential to support her family. However, Robert’s health continued to decline and in 1927, he died from cancer.
One of the most frequent devices which Seaman uses in her novels is the poor health or illness of a character, varying from inventing ill or dead parents to creating protagonists who themselves suffer a temporary illness or chronic health problems. It is worth noting the way in which she handles death and sickness: while there might be, and often is, some sadness, this is not allowed to dominate the story. Her books are not, in any way, similar to the contemporary “problem novel” written for today’s teenagers, but there is a strong sense of the importance of making the best of your life despite difficulties, whether caused by poor health or financial problems. There are no traces of self-pity in her books, although Augusta Seaman’s life contained a significant amount of sorrow. As the only surviving daughter, she surely understood and shared the underlying grief of her father, who lost three wives at a young age, and who saw six of his eight children die as infants or very young. While her father obviously communicated to her his love of books and history, there must have also been an unspoken sharing of sadness. Augusta, now a mother herself, successful in her writing, had her happiness brutally overthrown by her husband’s long bout with cancer. One can suspect that, when Seaman shows her characters as being “brave,” she is at the same time honoring the bravery she saw in those around her, and reminding herself of the necessity to keep going.
The summer after her husband’s death, Augusta went to Island Beach in New Jersey, and there she met Frank Freeman. He had been gassed and wounded during the War in France, and after the end of the war, and the death of his first wife in childbirth, he had spent two years teaching agriculture in Russian Armenia. At the time Augusta met him he was the manager for the Henry Phipps estate on Island Beach in New Jersey. Phipps, a steel magnate and partner of Andrew Carnegie, had planned to create an expensive resort on this site – one of the last undeveloped stretches of the New Jersey shoreline. During that summer, Seaman wrote The Disappearance of Anne Shaw,
the first of several of her books which used very effectively the history and natural features of Island Beach – features which included a rustic hotel, a large shorefront house, the lighthouses, stories of shipwrecks and even the work of the Coast Guard in this region. Appearing in 1928, this book also marked her change of publishers from Century to the much larger house of Doubleday Doran.
In the spring of 1928, about 6 months before Anne Shaw appeared, Frank and Augusta were married. Island Beach became her home – – first in a ‘shack’ lacking even electricity, but soon after in a large bayfront house built for them. The 1929 Depression put an end to the plans to develop the area, but Frank remained there as superintendent. The Island Beach area was the setting for many of her later novels, including The Stars of Sabra, The Secret of Tate’s Beach, The Figurehead of the Folly, The Calico Crab Mystery, and even her last book, The Vanishing Octant Mystery. The healing power of the beach and the ocean is frequently referred to in those books – in Stars of Sabra, Seaman uses the term ‘the healing alchemy’. In 1933, the area was protected by being incorporated as the Borough of Island Beach – with 14 registered voters. Frank became the mayor, fire chief, police chief, and president of the board of education, while Augusta filled the roles of borough treasurer, tax collector and registrar.
While Seaman did much less travelling during this part of her life, she and Frank visited Haiti together, and in 1930 she published The Charlemonte Crest. The historical mystery in this novel is based in part on stories Augusta had been told about her grandfather who came to New York after the death of his parents in the Haitian revolution led by Toussaint L’Overture. Although her grandfather was actually much older, in the book he is depicted as an infant, smuggled out of Haiti by his black nurse, and the only one of his family to survive. The Charlemonte Crest was the only one of her novels to be selected by the Junior Literary Guild; in fact, it was the bonus book given to new subscribers, and because of this, it is one of her few titles which are easy to find in hard cover.
The 1930’s formed the second very productive period of her career. In addition to the books mentioned above, some of her notable books from this decade included Bitsy Finds the Clue in 1934 – set in Williamsburg where her daughter Bobbie was a freshman at William and Mary College – and The Pine Barrens in 1937 which is a wonderful introduction to a fascinating and unique area in southern New Jersey.
We do not have enough space here to take a close look at all of her novels, but her second mystery, The Sapphire Signet is a good one to analyze more closely. Obviously, when I was a girl, I read this just for the story – but it is fun as an adult to see the allusions and hints hidden within it. It is possible that one of the young girls in the story, Corinne Cameron, was modeled closely upon Augusta herself: she is described as “offish and queer and quiet. . . and when she isn’t studying she is always reading something”(p. 8). More significantly, when the twins, Jess and Bess, visit Corinne for the first time, she talks about her father with whom she lives (her mother is dead) and she picks up on old book with the title Valentine’s Manual, Volume II, an old history of New York, and said that her father had picked it up an auction sale and given it to her for her birthday. When the twins are nonplussed at the pleasure she is showing in this “old, dilapidated, uninteresting book” she says that she is a born “antiquarian” just like her father (p. 11). Valentine is, of course, the middle name of Seaman’s father.
Other themes and techniques which Seaman used consistently in her books can be found in The Sapphire Signet also. First of all, there is her use of vocabulary: while the word “antiquarian” sends the girls to the dictionary, Seaman would often pair an uncommon and common word to increase her readers’ vocabulary painlessly – thus you have ‘old dilapidated’ ‘strange unaccountable dread’ and even the somewhat awkward ‘jargon of slang.’ Although Seaman’s books contain many cliches and several are rather distressingly dated by some of the slang she has the young characters use, the teacher in Seaman seemed to be constantly looking for ways to educate her young readers.
The beginning of The Sapphire Signet deliberately echoes Little Women – and just in case you might miss the allusions, the younger, invalid sister is reading Little Women at the beginning of the book. While there are only 3 sisters (with the twins jointly sharing the tomboyish qualities of Jo), the hardworking careworn mother returns home, and is eased by her daughters’ love; even the family name is Bronson (the first name of Louisa May Alcott’s father.) It is often forgotten that Little Women was itself the first book of a very successful series; one which was begun, according to Bobbie Ann Mason’s enormously entertaining book The Girl Sleuth, because the publisher wanted a series for girls to compete with the popular Oliver Optic series. After this early novel, though, the only writer whom Seaman obviously echoed was herself!
However, what makes the story most interesting is the way in which the 4 girls – and a younger cousin, a 12 year old boy named Alexander – gradually learn to delve into a mystery which can only be solved by research in old books. When Corinne first visits the Bronson house she tells them to ‘think what mysteries there may be about it – if we only knew them . . . or what secret letters may be hidden behind the woodwork in that funny little cater-corned closet over there.” When they find a secret journal left behind – although not in the closet – and manage to decipher the code in which it is written, they also learn the story of a young girl of 16, in danger, living in New York during the American Revolution. In order to solve the real mystery they also have to find out more about the background of the journal. They learn about the history of the area of New York City in which they live, about the Revolutionary War, and a foiled plot to murder George Washington. Here is a mystery story which has one of the heroines going to the local library and “the big library on 42nd St” to research the clues found in the journal.
While one cannot expect total realism from a juvenile mystery, and coincidences abound in this book, the underlying picture it gives of how a big city changes over time is fascinating, even now reading it as an adult. The historical setting of the book was the Mortier mansion, which had been outside the city in the time of George Washington, on an actual hill (Richmond Hill). As the city grew the hill was lowered. The mansion was destroyed by fire, but first a theatre and then a stable were constructed on top of the original cellar beams – and moving into contemporary times (that is, 1915) the streets are being torn up for a subway and the old stable and the remains of the original mansion are being destroyed for the final time.
More than 20 years later, Seaman once again used the Mortier mansion as the setting in one of her two later historical novels, The Vanderlyn Silhouette, set in 1819. Unlike her first three novels, these later historical books were still mysteries and The Vanderlyn Silhouette was based on the legend that the “lost Dauphin” actually survived
and was smuggled to America.
Seaman’s second try at teaching the American Revolution again produced one of her best novels. The Stars of Sabra was written in 1932, in the midst of the Depression and shortly after her second marriage to Frank Freeman. It is set in part in the Island Beach area, which is given its correct name of Lord Stirling’s Beach. This is one of her more difficult-to-find titles, since it only had one printing of 5000 copies. The copy I have is the battered one I described earlier. One of its many readers even underlined some of the vocabulary she didn’t understand, which makes it easy to appreciate how Seaman taught children to comprehend words like replete, veered, plausible and obstreperous while ostensibly just writing exciting stories for girls.
The Stars of Sabra starts when two girls discover a diary in a pre-Revolutionary War house in a small New Jersey town. Once again, history – in this case the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse and a story of stolen funds from the State Treasury in 1768 – provides the mystery which needs to be solved. In this story, the two older girls, Penelope and Hope, are friends, and Hope has a 12 year old brother, Dizzy, who loves to tease them (just as 12 year old Alexander did with his cousins in Signet.) However, this is a more carefully plotted, and in many ways a more realistic story, with a nice twist at the end.
Once again, one of the underlying themes of this story is how, by becoming involved in an historical mystery, the two girls discover that history can actually be interesting. After the deciphering faded old handwriting in the diary, they start to research the history of the area and especially the story of Lord Stirling. Again, two stories, a tragic one in the 18th century, and the other set during the Depression in the 20th century, are juxtaposed. The account of the Battle of Monmouth, as recounted by a young girl in her diary, is vivid and moving. The contemporary story involves the struggle of Penelope’s father to keep the beach house he loved so much; by solving the mystery of the long ago theft, the children succeed in helping him in a surprising way.
While Penelope and Hope are shown as conscientious students who actually do their homework before working on the mystery, the reality of history had not affected them before the discovery of this diary. Thus, Penelope is shown as marveling “I got so interested and went over it so many times that it just stuck – without any effort! . . . But can you think how we were such geese as not to remember an important general like that in our American history?” (p. 59) When 12 year old Dizzy, who is shown as a outdoor loving and baseball playing boy, becomes involved, he actually winds up doing research in the library at the town’s Historical Museum – and, speaking for Seaman, I suspect, he often makes statements about the girls being “thick” and not realizing how much they can find out by checking old records – at one point he tells them to “use your heads” By the end of the story, they have learned just this.
It might be appropriate here to talk about one of the weaknesses of Seaman’s books – a weakness unfortunately common to many other books from the same era, and that is her use of stereotypes for servants, minorities, immigrants and other outsiders in Seaman’s middle class white world. The standard villain in children’s mysteries of the early 20th century was, even when not specifically identified as a member of another race or culture, virtually always described as dark and swarthy. This is true of the original versions of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books (the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series among them) and in the 60’s and 70’s the older titles in these series were rewritten to remove much of the objectionable stereotyping and language. Seaman’s books only exist in their original format, and they contain many gratuitous references, like the one in The Crimson Patch to “old Juno” who had the fire in the range too hot and burned down the house. (Quite aside from the improbability that an experienced old cook would not know how to use a stove better than her mistress, this was totally unnecessary to the plot, and Juno is not mentioned elsewhere in the book.) So perhaps one reason why The Stars of Sabra is more completely satisfying is not just the uncommon twist to the end, and the vivid story told in the diary, but also because the treatment of the slaves in the story is totally sympathetic and free of derogatory comments. It was the courage of Sabra, one of those slaves, which saved the diary – and even the title of the book acknowledges her importance.
Seaman’s background and biases in both her own life, and in her stories, was that of a solidly middle-class family. Her life was not free of financial difficulties, nor are the lives of her characters, but they are almost usually shown as retaining a servant – albeit sometimes an unpaid one. Although Seaman’s biographer, Donald J. Summar, states that there is no evidence that Seaman ever joined the Daughters of the American Revolution, her writing proves that she was very proud of the history of her family. The audience for Seaman’s books shared her biases, and it is unclear to me if in some cases, she was not writing to her readers’ expectations rather than out of her own prejudices.
In The Mystery at Number Six, Seaman neatly turns the tables on her readers, making me suspect that she may not have wholeheartedly believed in the stereotypes she propagated. Here the character Ike , who is first described as lazy and ignorant, suddenly reveals to the kids that he had known all along they were pumping him for information. The woman described as a “fat, lazy ‘cracker’” later turns out to be not so bad after all; the ‘half-breed” Jerry Saw-Grass is neither an Indian, or even a half-breed, nor a villain. The one genuine Seminole discussed in the story, Jake’s first wife, Wanetka, was the one who was the kindest and most loving to the young girl called Delight.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the reader can find some more enlightened examples in Seaman’s books, the use of images like colored servants throwing their aprons over their heads, rolling their eyes, and derogatory terms like darkies, occur frequently enough that they mar the books, and perhaps provide a partial explanation of why her books have not been kept in print. Only three of them were published as paperbacks by Comet and Scholastic Press in the late 1950’s through the 1970’s.
The fact that Seaman’s books fall into the middle ground between what is generally recognized as “children’s literature” and series books has several implications for collectors. As something less than literature, there is no general recognition of her books as things which need to be preserved. Yet, unlike the more common series books (which were not considered suitable for libraries back in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s), Seaman’s books were highly regarded by many librarians, and as a result many of the copies which were sold wound up in libraries rather than on girls’ bookshelves. Despite a high number of printings, several of her books are virtually unobtainable today in collectable condition. Finding books in fine condition is always a problem when collecting children’s books, but I suspect that ex-library copies serve as hole-fillers in a lot of Seaman collections. In addition, most Seaman collectors are driven not by a desire to obtain fine first editions in dust jackets (or at least not originally), but because they want to read the books again or to read the ones they missed.
For those who are just interested in reading Seaman’s books, the Scholastic Press paperbacks are very easy to find (they all had numerous printings) and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, while not the worst, they do not represent the best of her work either. Two of them are short novels written for children younger than her usual audience, and as such they are much less complex and interesting than some of her longer stories for older readers.
For collectors, obtaining all of Seaman’s books is probably impossible: one title, Americans All: Stories to Tell Boys and Girls, does not appear in any list of her books, nor is it included in most brief biographies. I only know of three copies – at the the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and in my collection. Even back in mid 1980s when he was publishing the Log, Summar talked about the difficulty of finding some of her books, especially in very good condition. Around 2000-2010, as a bookseller, I was still able to locate copies, usually inexpensively, in out of the way bookstores and antique stores. Although they sold very quickly, the prices were still very reasonable.
Now stumbling across a Seaman title in a bookstore, or at a flea market or garage sale, is an uncommon event. Only a few children’s specialists will have any titles in stock, and it is extremely rare to find anything other than the paperbacks at a general bookstore. In 2008, I set out seriously to acquire as many examples of her books as I could find to use in preparing an annotated bibliography of her work; since then, there are many titles where not seen a single copy is usually available for sale. Although several titles are relatively easy to find, these are often in either Grosset & Dunlap editions or in Doubleday Young Modern reprints. Unlike the original Century or Doubleday, Doran editions, these later reprints (into the 1950s) were often given as gifts to young girls. These later copies are also more likely to have retained their dust jackets.
The de-accessioning of her books by libraries probably began in the 1950s as the earlier copies began to wear out, and I suspect this process was essentially finished by the 1970s. While some university libraries and a few large city library systems still have a handful of her books, most smaller libraries have no copies at all. These ex-library copies are disappearing on the resale market – even though, for some titles, a very high percentage of all of the books actually sold went to libraries.
The difficulty of identifying first editions for the majority of her books –those published by Century – adds to the challenge. The Sturgis & Walton books are relatively straightforward, and the Doubleday, Doran titles follow the usual pattern of stating first edition on the copyright page, but for the Century books, often the only way to identify which printing you have is by looking at the dust jacket.
The scarcity of some of the earlier Doubleday titles, published during the depths of the Depression is understandable, but in 1942, on the dust jacket of The Calico Crab, Appleton-Century brags about the fact that Seaman’s books with them had gone through more than 150 printings! Where are those books?
However, with patience – and the help of the internet – some of Seaman’s books can be found. A recent search on AbeBooks.com turned up over 100 hardcover copies, representing about half of her titles. A few titles had 10 or more copies to choose among; most of the titles had only one or two examples. But only one copy was inscribed by Seaman, and only three of those 100 books were described as first editions in dust jackets. Even when the dust jackets are still present the condition of the dust jacket is rarely fine – often it is barely “good.”
An internet listing for an inexpensive copy (of an uncommon title) has this frank description of the condition: “many pages have edges chewed or torn away. Library binding is frayed, thin, with edges worn through. This book may be decrepit and doddering in its old age but still has life in it yet – it remains relatively intact with all pages easily readable for those who, like myself, have a fondness for Augusta.”
Those of us who, like that bookseller, have a fondness for Augusta, have a challenging task ahead if we wish to acquire a representative collection of her works.
c 2021, 2016, Christine M. Volk – based on an article originally published in Firsts Magazine.