Saturday Art: Influential Authors: John R. Tunis
I was probably eleven years old when I was pointed towards John R. Tunis’s works. By this time, I had read all the Black Stallion books from Walter Farley and I had progressed beyond the simple, sanitized sports biographies and was looking for something a little more advanced. I can still picture the location of his books in the then public library in my hometown.
Here’s the intro from Tunis’s wiki:
John Roberts Tunis (December 7, 1889 – February 4, 1975), “the ‘inventor’ of the modern sports story”,:11 was an American writer and broadcaster. Known for his juvenile sports novels, Tunis also wrote short stories and non-fiction, including a weekly sports column for the The New Yorker magazine. As a commentator Tunis was part of the first trans-Atlantic sports cast and the first broadcast of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament to the United States.
I know the first Tunis book I read was The Kid From Tompkinsville which is the first of a series he wrote about a fictional Brooklyn Dodgers. Again from his wiki intro:
Tunis’ eight-book baseball series about the Brooklyn Dodgers began with The Kid from Tomkinsville, a book often cited by sports writers and commentators as inspiring childhood reading. Phillip Roth used The Kid from Tomkinsville and its main character Roy Tucker in his book American Pastoral. It is also considered an influence for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly.
John Tunis vividly imagines the drama of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkerque. Sergeant Edward Williams of the Second Battalion was among the first British troops to land in France, just across the English Channel from his family in Dover, after the declaration of war in September of 1939. Battles have been few and far between since then, in what the Germans have been calling der Sitzkrieg—the sitting war. In May 1940, under the leadership of their new prime minister, Winston Churchill, the British are hoping to stem the tide of Nazi invasion along their southern border. But now, flanked to the east and west by German troops and cut off from the Allies further south, Sergeant Williams and his battalion must retreat to Dunkerque in the north, and escape by sea is their only hope.
As a person who reviewed this book at Goodreads says, historical fiction is a way to make history come alive and I remember having a bit more appreciation of the evacuation at Dunkerque after reading this book.
As with so many other influential authors in this series, Tunis had many accomplishments. A tennis player, he was involved in the first broadcast of Wimbledon to air in the US. A graduate of Harvard, he was not overly impressed with Harvard itself. Once again from wiki:
In 1936, on the 25th anniversary of his graduation from Harvard, Tunis wrote Was College Worthwhile?, a condemnation of the Ivy League school and of his classmates that became a best seller. Jerome Holtzman, in No Cheering in the Press Box, calls it “a searing assault on Harvard traditions”.:261 Throughout his career he continued to write about education, including the chapter “New Leaven on the Campus” for Democracy’s Challenge to Education, and “Education and Ethics” for the Journal of Higher Education.
…a 1951 American drama film directed by Ida Lupino and starring Claire Trevor, loosely based on the 1930 novel American Girl by sports fiction author John R. Tunis, which itself was an unflattering and thinly-veiled fictionalization of tennis star Helen Wills Moody
And finally from wiki yet again on Tunis’s legacy:
By the 1970s Tunis felt his message had been ignored or misunderstood by most Americans, saying “Nobody has paid attention… There was a time when I expected to do some good. But that was a long while ago.”:272 This may seem surprising considering that his New York Times obituary referred to him as a man who “helped educate a whole generation of Americans”.:155 Perhaps seen in light of Tunis’ distrust of professional athletics, it can be understood. Though he may have felt his message against the commercialization of sports was ignored, there are those who cite Tunis as having made a lasting impact in publishing and to them personally and professionally.
In his tribute to the writer, Bernard Hayes said “Tunis has probably made good readers of millions of young people.”:7 His success with the juvenile audience helped change the publishing industry. Along with writers like Howard Pease, his books demonstrated to publishers that there was money to be made in targeting books for teenagers. His influence went beyond simply creating a market for young adult books. “In his attempt to link sports with the communities in which they are played, he broached some highly significant issues in the literature written for and about America’s youth”, according to John S. Simmons in John R. Tunis and the Sports Novels for Adolescents: A Little Ahead of His Time. Tunis never considered himself a writer of boys’ books, insisting his stories could be read and enjoyed by adults. He felt that the word “juvenile” was an “odious… product of a merchandising age”.:11 Despite his dislike of the term, Tunis’ novels helped create and shape the juvenile fiction book market.[
I am just one of the book lovers who benefited from his introduction to Tunis. I have to say that I am (pleasantly) surprised that Tunis’s catalog appears to have been mostly re-published within the last ten years, introducing new generations to his writing, even if it is from and about times no longer alive.
Picture from pmell2293 licensed under Creative Commons