Tom Swift Comes Back to Life: By Alan Crawford (Town of Newburgh Historian)

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With the temperatures outside in the single digits, it didn’t take much to encourage me to start up the fireplace, grab a book to read and settle down in my Great Grandfather’s (John P. Johnson) armchair. This chair was the first I ever rebuilt and reupholstered. What I always found to be the most comfortable was a down-filled cushion. None of that foam which tires out after a number of years. Good old down cushions can be fluffed back up and always mold to the contour of your body, no matter how many extra pounds you put on during the holidays. A friend told me this, I have no firsthand knowledge of weight gain phenomenon.

So, what book did I choose? Tough decision, but I settled on “Tom Swift and his Motorboat”, an original edition given to me by my Godmother years ago. Now, why did I decide on this particular subject and author? I recently was excited when I heard there was a television reboot of Tom Swift and eagerly awaited the premiere. I was sadly disappointed.

The reboot transformed Tom Swift into an abomination that really had no real direct correlation to the original character’s attributes other than the name. I would have been more apt to watch and enjoy the character and plot if it had not been a lame attempt at springboarding off the success of Victor Appleton’s original series. Granted, this series is not a literary classic in the true sense of the term, but is immensely enjoyable, especially to younger readers.

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There are more than 100 volumes in the original series attributed to Victor Appleton. Victor Appleton was the name of the “author” and the character is the creation of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Various ghostwriters were used for these stories which emphasized the technological advances being made during the early twentieth century, with Tom Swift being the inventor of many of these in the field of science and technology. He was seen as being noble and heroic, admired by all.

C:\Users\ALAN\Documents\Town of Newbugh Historian\2022-12-30 Newspaper Article No. 184 - Tom Swift - Photo 2.jpgAnd, one of the things Tom Swift was noted for was his use of the English language. The writers composing these novels exploited Tom’s vernacular to the point that people began referring to particular phrases as “Tom Swifties”. What are these? Read on!

Rather than using the word “said” by itself repeatedly in the text, a different, more quotative adverb would be employed. An example would be “We must hurry”, said Tom swiftly. Or, “Turn the thermostat down, it’s too hot in here,” said Tom heatedly. I’m sure many of you remember these puns from our youth. Perhaps you even recall some of your favorites. I always thought it was a fun way to improve a child’s vocabulary while at the same time stimulating their imagination to come up with new puns while providing some enjoyable reading at a young age.

In the May 31st, 1963 edition of Time magazine, the fad, or should we say craze, culminated in a contest that asked readers to send in their best original Tom Swifty. For those of us who were Boy Scouts, you may remember these puns were even published in the magazine, Boy’s Life. Occasionally, you’ll even see them in the humor sections of Readers Digest to this very day.

These old books have nothing on those of Newburgh native and author, James Patterson, but I think for the time being, “I’ll just settle in by the glow of the fireplace”, the Town of Newburgh Historian said warmly.

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