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Lieutenant at Eighteen


William Taylor Adams (1822-1897) was a noted academic, author, and Massachusetts state legislator. He was born in Medway, Massachusetts. He became a teacher in the Boston, Massachusetts public schools in 1845, and remained in that capacity through 1865. He served as a member of the School Board of Dorchester, Massachusetts, for 14 years. In 1869, he became a member of the Massachusetts General Court. He wrote many books of fiction for boys under the pseudonym "Oliver Optic",

These books are all you could hope for: breathlessly optimistic stories of train wrecks, steamboat explosions, an escape from Libby Prison, secret codes deciphered, blockade runners foiled, slaveholders defied, betrayals and reverses, etc. etc.  You also get Oliver Optic’s weirdly amiable and funny narrative voice—“weird” in the context of the subject matter.  The books were written at the end of the Civil War, while the artillery barrels were still cooling and the bodies being shipped home from the battlefields for burial.  (There was a boom market at the time for metallized coffins, which made shipping by train more sanitary.  Embalming was a new art, often practised by unscrupulous charlatans.)

Oliver Optic himself—his real name was William Taylor Adams—was a born and bred Massachusetts progressive, morally opposed to slavery and friendly to a host of reform movements.  His sole work of book-length non-fiction was a boys’ biography of Ulysses S. Grant, which got him invited to Grant’s inauguration following the 1868 election.  He served a term in the Massachusetts legislature, and he was an advocate for public education and vocational schools.  His fiction can sound condescending to modern ears—some of the dialect passages in his books border on the unforgivable—but his heart is always in the right place: despite our differences we’re all human beings of equal worth.

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