October 20th – Lilian Garis

“She believes in girls, studies them, and depicts them with pen both skilled and sympathetic.”

Advertisement in Polly and Eleanor, Lillian Elizabeth Roy. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1922.

Lilian C. McNamara was born in 1872 in Cleveland, Ohio, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She was an avid writer, penning a popular “Women’s Page” for a local city paper as a teen. After high school, she was hired by The Newark Evening News as a reporter. There she met her future husband, Howard Garis. They married in 1900. They had two children. 

She and her husband Howard were among the most prolific authors of the early 20th century, writing hundreds of juvenile fiction books between the early 1900s and the early 1940s. Both wrote for the Stratemeyer Syndicate and other publishers as well. Her husband wrote Tom Swift novels, then became successful with ‘Uncle Wiggily’ stories. Lilian reportedly wrote the fanciful endings for which the stories were known. For Stratemeyer, Lilian wrote under the pseudonym Margaret Penrose, penning the very popular Motor Girls series published from 1910-1917. She also wrote as Laura Lee Hope for volumes 4–28 and 41 of the Bobbsey Twin series.

Garis was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In her books for young people, she gave coping strategies for girls who wanted to move out of their traditional roles as housewives – dealing with ridicule from men and the public as they defied society. Other Garis series that spoke to these unconventional roles were The Girl Scout Pioneers, about adventuring young girls, and the Melody Lane Series, nine detective books, beginning with The Ghost of Melody Lane, published by Grosset & Dunlap between 1933 and 1940.

In 1951 Lilian and Howard moved from New Jersey to Amherst to live with their son Howard, his wife, and their three children. 

Lilian passed away on April 19th, 1954. 

In 1966 their son Roger, also a writer, published My Father Was Uncle Wiggily, a biography of his father and their family. Roger’s daughter Leslie, a journalist, published House of Happy Endings in 2007, a biography that takes a very different view of the storied family. In the book, Leslie describes her father, Roger, as suffering from depression and failure with his writing. He became addicted to drugs and was committed to mental institutions. Her grandmother, Lilian, is seen as domineering, smothering her son with both protection and condescension, and grandfather Howard descends into alcoholism after the death of his wife. Not so happy of an ending after all. The difference in the father and daughter’s biography is an interesting view of how we write the stories of our lives.

Lesson from Lilian Garis:

Ironically, for all her prolific literary output, it is hard to cobble together a biography of Lilian Garis or find quotes from her own lips about her life and her craft. This speaks glaringly to the difficulties women face pursuing any ‘untraditional’ role outside of the house a hundred years ago. Garis was one of the first female journalists in New Jersey, and she was penning novels in the early part of the 20th century before women could cast a vote. But the credit and recognition for her writing is all but absent. Regardless of the accolades, she used her writing to provide inspiration and encouragement to young ladies growing up in the world and imagining more for themselves. And that ripple effect has surely (and thankfully!) gotten us to where we are today. 

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