Monday, July 6, 2009

John D. Fitzgerald and The Great Brain

By Doug Gibson

Editor's note: This essay originally appeared in the July 5, 2009 Standard-Examiner.

'The Great Brain' remains popular to those kids who read the series
In educator Colleen Smith's recent fourth-grade classes at Wasatch Elementary School in Ogden, time is spent listening to and reading about the exploits of a brainy, scheming little capitalist who roils the early 1900s town of Adenville, Utah, with his exploits.

The books are The Great Brain series, written by the late John D. Fitzgerald, a roving Gentile reporter/adventurer who spent very little time in Utah after his 18th birthday in 1924, but kept tucked into his mind an endless trove of fond memories. Those memories, along with a strong talent for writing and a healthy dose of literary license, produced three novels for adults and eight "Great Brain" books for kids. Those books were introductions to Mormonism for hundreds of thousands of readers.

"The Great Brain" series features Tom D. Fitzgerald, the smartest kid in Adenville, who puts his great brain to work trying to separate cash from the other kids, and many of the adults, in town. The books are narrated by Tom's younger brother, John, who provides colorful commentary. Fitzgerald wrote seven "Great Brain" books. After his death in 1988, a partial manuscript for another book was discovered, and it was polished and published several years later.

Smith uses the books to teach Utah history to her fourth-graders. "(The books) talk a lot about Utah history," she says. Examples include the town of Adenville, its supposed founding and growth - including the planting of trees there - and the early 20th century relations between Mormons and non-Mormons, she says.

"The Great Brain" is still popular to those kids who read the series. Smith says her students enjoy the books so much they hunt and snatch up the series' titles at school libraries.

The books were wildly popular in the 1970s. I recall my fifth-grade teacher reading "The Great Brain at the Academy" to us in Long Beach, Calif. The easy-to-read prose, Fitzgerald's sense of comic timing, and the morality tale found in each chapter no doubt contributed to the success. Utah historian Audrey M. Godfrey, in a 1989 essay, "The Promise is Fulfilled: Literary Aspects of John D. Fitzgerald's Novels," correctly pegs Fitzgerald as a regional writer, a sort of Utah Mark Twain, who stresses authenticity through characterization and very detailed settings.

This is particularly evident in Fitzgerald's creation of Adenville. Witness this descriptive excerpt from "More Adventures of the Great Brain": " ... I looked at the trees planted by early Mormon pioneers that lined both sides of Main Street. Adenville was a typical small Mormon town but quite up to date. There were electric light poles all along Main Street and we had telephones. There were wooden sidewalks in front of the stores. Straight ahead I could see the railroad tracks that separated the west side of town from the east side. Across the tracks on the east side were two saloons, the Sheepmen's Hotel, a rooming house ..."

The books are crafted as short stories, strung together to both tell a good tale and teach a lesson. "Every chapter has a moral lesson," says Smith.

Tom's youthful urges to gain are generally tempered by a serious plot twist requiring charity, or an authority figure that moves the children to a more altruistic stance. To Smith, Tom's newspaper editor father often serves this purpose. In one example, he tempers his son's eagerness - and success - in publishing a competing newspaper by pointing out that most of his "news articles" were in fact gossip designed to hurt subjects and appeal to readers' baser instincts.

Another moral lesson, appropriate to today's political climate, involves the persecution a Greek immigrant named Basil receives at the hands of jingoistic townspeople. His persecutors, including the father of a friend of Tom, complain immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born Americans. The chapter ends with the bigotry resolved - at least among the kids - as Tom teaches Basil how to assimilate. True to his character, the Great Brain tries to profit from the endeavor.

Godfrey, in an interview, says the moral lessons in Fitzgerald's tales were likely influenced by the good feelings he experienced toward the Latter-day Saints growing up as a gentile in Utah. A consistent virtuous character in Fitzgerald's works is Bishop Ephraim Aden, the tolerant, gentle, elderly leader of Fitzgerald's Adenville.

However, the ecumenism prevalent in Fitzgerald's works may owe more to his idealized, fond memories of growing up in Utah than to reality. Price, Utah, where he lived, perhaps was a less tense place for Mormons and non-Mormons than Southern Utah, the setting of his novels. The guilt and secrecy, of, for example, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is not found in Fitzgerald's novels.

"He had good feelings towards Mormons," says Godfrey. Bishop Aden, she adds, is representative of the larger role a bishop assumed in a Utah community 100-plus years ago. "In a small town there was a lot more give and take" between Mormon and non-Mormons," she says.

The accidental series

The "Great Brain" series came about almost by accident. One night Fitzgerald and his wife were entertaining friends for dinner. Fitzgerald's fiction writing career had peaked after the publications of "Papa Married a Mormon," "Mama's Boarding House" and "Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse." The author recounted some long-ago tales about his older brother, Tom. The guests loved the stories so much Fitzgerald was motivated to write his first "Great Brain book.

The series, published by Dell, offered a second literary career for Fitzgerald and likely provided him and his wife Joan a comfortable retirement.

The writer Fitzgerald enjoyed an adventurous life through most of the past century. He left Utah at 18 to try his hand at being a jazz drummer. Early in his career, he was a pulp fiction writer and likely authored more than 100 lowbrow novels and short stories. If any survive that describe "Adenville" or his Utah youth, they have not surfaced. He worked as a staff writer for the New York World-Tribune and labored on the foreign desk for the United Press wire service.

He was also a bank auditor and even tried his hand at politics, working on the staff of Republican Wendell Wilkie's failed 1940 presidential campaign. He conceived the idea for "Papa Married a Mormon" while working as a steel purchasing agent in California in the 1950s. His sister Rose, although not listed on the title, was active in the novel's creation. Fitzgerald's novels, including the "Great Brain" series, were inspired by his mother, who asked him to one day write about "the little people" who founded the West, bankers, laborers, mother, merchants, newspapermen, the clergy, etc.

Besides his better-known works, Fitzgerald wrote two other children's novels and a book on how to craft a novel. He freelanced extensively, contributing more than 500 articles. "To thousands of youthful readers in the United States, England, and Germany he is a well known author. The Great Brain's character in Fitzgerald's series for children is as familiar as Tom Sawyer to these young people," wrote Godfrey in her 1989 essay.

Despite his literary achievement, much of Fitzgerald's life remains a mystery. Besides Godfrey's essay, there is little independent research on Fitzgerald. In fact, his death in 1988 was barely mentioned by Utah media. Perhaps Fitzgerald encouraged the secrecy. His books are crafted as if they include real places and real people. In "Papa Married a Mormon," there are even photos of the main characters.

Yet, while many of the tales related may have occurred in part and characters existed, the books are clearly fiction. There is no Adenville. Papa Fitzgerald is not a newspaper editor. There was no Jesuit academy in Salt Lake City 100 years ago (the setting of "The Great Brain at the Academy").

This literary license has led to confusion. Some libraries have placed "Papa Married a Mormon" in the biography section. There is a Web site devoted to trying to locate the "Southern Utah locations" of "The Great Brain" novels. On a personal note, I spent a long afternoon as a young teen dragging my parents through back roads of Southern Utah searching for the non-existent ruins of Adenville.

A perusal through long-filed away records in Carbon County and Price, Utah, unveil some of the mystery of the writer Fitzgerald's life. Most of the characters existed. Most are interred in Carbon County. The "Great Brain" himself, brother Tom Fitzgerald Jr., lived his entire life in Price. He died in 1988, the same year as his writer brother. By the way, the Great Brain was not a Mormon, but a lifelong Catholic. Tragedy dogged the real-life "Great Brain." In 1925 his young wife Fern died while pregnant and their daughter was stillborn.

Fitzgerald's father, Tom Fitzgerald Sr., was a well-known businessman who served as a Price City councilman. At his funeral, future Utah Gov. J. Bracken Lee was one of the pallbearers. Fitzgerald's mother was a Mormon who married a Catholic - that much is true. Her name was Minnie, not Tena, her name in the novels.

There is still much more to unearth in Carbon County and other areas should a biographer one day tackle John D. Fitzgerald's unique life.

Fading in popularity

It has been two decades since historian Godfrey wrote her essay on John D. Fitzgerald. His "Great Brain" series is still in print, but it has clearly faded in popularity. "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and other series are read today in far greater numbers than "The Great Brain" was read even during its most-popular era.

"(Most) kids don't even know about it. They are into more modern subjects, like fantasy, escapism," says Godfrey.

Nevertheless, the success of the series in Smith's fourth-grade class, and its popularity at other schools where it's part of the curriculum probably will prevent Fitzgerald's re-creation of turn-of-the-past-century Utah from ever growing extinct.

The Great Brain has proven to be immortal, and perhaps more importantly, he has managed to turn a tidy profit for The Fitzgerald family for half a century.

A postscript: With the explosion of Mormon-themed cinema, the Great Brain seems ideal for adaptation. Although few know this, it was made into a film in 1978 and starred Jimmy Osmond! On Osmond's Web site are stills from the film.

Trying to locate the film is futile. It is out of print and never had a video release. Why not is anyone's guess, although rumor has it the rights to the film are tied up in litigation. This seems silly, since the film had a mediocre box-office run. The film aired on TV and there may be murky taped-off-television video copies circulating.

I have seen the film several times -- I taped it in 1981 -- and it is OK, although acting is not Osmond's strength. The settings, however, are quite well done and the plot is faithful.

Hopefully in the future a new, presumably better, adaptation of Fitzgerald's series will be produced for a new generation of children.


S.P.House said...

I just started re-reading the series too my daughter that I had read as a young boy - I now understand where I picked up some of my ways, I loved these books & was just thinking today this would be a great movie for todays children..

Greg Clark said...

Thanks, Doug. Informative and interesting!