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Remembered, Yet Forgotten: The Writer's Life of John Tunis

June 30, 1991|G. K. OSWALD | Oswald has been a Tunis fan ever since his father presented him with a copy of "The Kid Comes Back."

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.

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