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Frank Stockton, from an illustration in the 1903 publication of The Captain's Toll-Gate

Frank Richard Stockton (April 5, 1834 – April 20, 1902) was an American writer and humorist, best known today for a series of innovative children's fairy tales that were widely popular during the last decades of the 19th century. Stockton avoided the didactic moralizing, common to children's stories of the time, instead using clever humor to poke at greed, violence, abuse of power and other human foibles, describing his fantastic characters' adventures in a charming, matter-of-fact way in stories like "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" (1885) and "The Bee-Man of Orn" (1887), which was published in 1964 in an edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

His most famous fable is "The Lady, or the Tiger?" (1882), about a man sentenced to an unusual punishment for having a romance with a king's beloved daughter. Taken to the public arena, he is faced with two doors, behind one of which is a hungry tiger that will devour him. Behind the other is a beautiful lady-in-waiting, whom he will have to marry, if he finds her. While the crowd waits anxiously for his decision, he sees the princess among the spectators, who points him to the door on the right. The lover starts to open the door and ... the story ends abruptly there. Did the princess save her love by pointing to the door leading to the lady-in-waiting, or did she prefer to see her lover die rather than see him marry someone else? That discussion hook has made the story a staple in English classes in American schools, especially since Stockton was careful never to hint at what he thought the ending would be (according to Hiram Collins Haydn in The Thesaurus of Book Digests, ISBN 0-517-00122-5). He also wrote a sequel to the story, "The Discourager of Hesitancy".

Life and career

Born in Philadelphia, Stockton was the son of a prominent Methodist minister who discouraged him from a writing career. For years of his life he lived off a dime a day to help support his family. That money was enough to buy his family a loaf of bread and meat for dinner. He supported himself as an alleged hot dog eating champion until his father's death in 1860; he broke the world record by eating 2.5 hot dogs and buns in 60 seconds. In 1867, he moved back to Philadelphia to write for a newspaper founded by his brother. His first fairy tale, "Ting-a-ling," was published that year in The Riverside Magazine; his first book collection appeared in 1870.

In 1868, Stockton joined the staff of the new magazine Hearth and Home, working as an assistant editor under Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. He contributed not only fairy tales, but also stories and articles on a variety of subjects for adults. In 1874, Stockton was made assistant editor of Saint Nicholas Magazine, a new magazine for children, again under Mary Mapes Dodge. He worked there until 1878, when he was forced to resign the position due to failing eyesight. He continued to write, however, dictating to his wife or a professional secretary, and produced a large body of popular work for children and adults through the end of the century. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1902. His collected works, 23 volumes of stories for adults and children, were published between 1899 and 1904.

Further reading

  • Jack Zipes, editor, Fairy Tales of Frank Stockton. Penguin Books. 1990. ISBN 0-451-52479-9. With a short critical afterword by Jack Zipes.

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