Walkabout: The Prolific Pen of Arthur D. Howden Smith, Part 2

Arthur D. Howden Smith, 1918, Brooklyn Eagle

Read Part 1 of this story.

Part One of our story introduced Arthur Douglas Howden Smith, who spent his youth and young adulthood living in what is now Crown Heights, at 907 Sterling Place.

He was the descendant of New England shipping merchants, and in spite of his tony upper class British sounding name, was born in New York City, in 1887, lived as a small child in New Jersey, and grew up on Sterling Place in Brooklyn. He would live in Brooklyn for much of his life.

He didn’t look like the adventuring type; he was a small man, about 5-foot-7-inches tall and 160 pounds, soaking wet. He wore round-lensed glasses and looked like someone who would be more at home in the stacks of a library than the mountains of Macedonia. But he was a lot tougher and more determined than his appearance would warrant.

After returning to New York from his Balkan adventures in 1908, he wrote of his experiences in a book called Fighting the Turk in the Balkans. He described a part of the world and culture that Americans were totally ignorant of, and it captured the imagination of the public.

Arthur had found his true calling. He was a decent writer and could tell an engaging story. The New York Post hired him as a feature writer.

Arthur’s stint with the New York Post allowed him to jump into the wallow that was New York City politics during the middle of the infamous Tammany Hall years. He covered stories of political corruption, which was easy enough to find, and wrote some really good stories about what was going on at the time. In many ways, that was as dangerous as the mountains of Macedonia.

He also began writing for Adventure Magazine in 1911. His first stories were nonfiction, but he soon began writing fiction for them as well, publishing several short stories. By the time he got engaged, he had published his first book of fiction, an adventure novel called The Wastrel.

In 1912, Arthur married Nora Pinkney, the daughter of a well-to-do family. By this time, he was living in Brooklyn Heights himself. The Eagle noted that Mr. Smith was “one of the important younger men in journalism.” The couple had one child, a daughter also named Nora, but she died at a young age. Nothing more is recorded of their marriage.

Arthur Howden Smith was writing during a boom time for what is now called pulp fiction — popular adventure tales in far-off times and lands, with lots of action, bravery, adventure and derring-do. Cowboy and western stories, jungle and lost world adventures, detective stories, war stories and early science fiction; all were extremely popular at this time, and writers were churning the stuff out.

H. Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines was one of the first to serialize his adventure novels in magazine or newspaper form, as early as 1905, and soon there were dozens of magazines publishing all kinds of stories from all kinds of authors. They were called “pulps” because of the cheap paper used. Even the newspapers and established magazines were serializing novels.

Enduring characters like Tarzan, the Shadow, Conan the Barbarian, Zorro, Doc Savage, and thousands of other heroes, villains and damsels in distress were born during this time. Some of the authors were quite good, most adequate and many more were hacks. Arthur Howden Smith would become one of the better writers of this genre.

His most prolific writing period was in the 1920s and ’30s. During that time, he started to write serials for Adventure Magazine, one of the best and most important pulps of that period. Basically, he was writing a novel that was released one chapter at a time in the magazine.

To do this well, an author had to have at least thought out the entire story. Most of these authors were cranking the stories out as they went on. Some meandered on without plot or purpose, but the better writers could tell a tale that had you waiting impatiently for the next chapter. Howden Smith was one of these.

His first serial starred Miles MacConaughy, a Cornish captain who bravely battled the Germans in WWI. His next hero was an Englishman named Harry Ormerod, a Robin Hook-type outlaw who escapes to the United States and has great adventures in the wilds of upstate New York during the French and Indian Wars.

He was the hero of two series: The Doom Trail and Beyond the Sunset. Between 1923 and 1925, he wrote 17 stories about Swain, the Viking. He followed his hero through countless battles, winning some, losing others, gaining and losing power. At the end of the series, he kills him off, a mighty warrior to the end.

Swain was so popular that he had to bring him back several times, telling tales that took place before that final battle.

Another of his very popular series was his Grey Maiden stories. These were tales revolving around a cursed sword from Ancient Egypt at the time of King Thutmose III. It turns up throughout history, popping up at strategic times and places, inspiring villains who are fought by courageous heroes.

There were nine of these stories, ranging in time from ancient Egypt, to classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the Vikings, up until Elizabethan England.

Smith also published several long novels. These were also fictional adventure tales based on real places and events, a genre we now call historical fiction. They were very popular with his readers, but he was often raked over the coals by literary critics who found his characters and plots preposterous and badly written.

Smith didn’t care — he was doing really well, and the hits kept coming. He also put some of his serials into novel form. The Grey Maiden stories can still be purchased as a novel on Amazon.

His most important novel was inspired by one of the greatest adventure stories of them all — Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. He received permission from Stevenson’s estate to write a prequel to the book, setting his novel before the events of that book, using several of Stevenson’s characters.

His hero is Robert, the son of his English outlaw hero Harry Ormerod. Robert goes to sea with Long John Silver, Captain Flint and Billy Bones, in search of gold and treasure. The novel was called Porto Bello Gold, and it was a huge hit, the highlight of Smith’s career in fiction.

Porto Bello Gold was released first as a serial in Adventure Magazine, but soon published as a novel in 1924. It was a hit, eventually translated into many languages, including Polish and German. There were at least 28 editions printed throughout the world.

The book got good reviews, and for a time, made Arthur Howden Smith the popular fiction man of the hour. He would use the book as his calling card for the rest of his career.

As time went on, Smith’s style of fiction lost its appeal. The Great Depression had forever changed America. The pulp fiction of the late 1930s and ’40s had grown darker, with more noir detective and horror stories, and grittier, more morally ambiguous heroes.

Swashbuckling had been replaced by tommy guns and back alley murders. Smith was still writing for Adventure Magazine, but he has resurrected one of his bloodiest heroes, Swain, the Viking, and sent him out to once more conquer and pillage.

He also went back to R.L. Stevenson’s novels, and wrote a book based on the further adventures of Allen Breck, from Kidnapped. It did not resonate with the public the way Porto Bello Gold did. Howden Smith’s time had come and gone.

He wrote until the end, a story teller until he died of December 18, 1945. I couldn’t find an obit from a New York City paper, only a death announcement in a Philadelphia paper, taken from the Associated Press. It read, “Arthur D. Howden Smith, journalist, author and biographer of Colonel Edward M. House died tonight of a heart attack in his apartment. He was 57.” The “Americansky Chetnik” had embarked on his last adventure.

Fighting the Turk in the Balkans, Porto Bello Gold and other Smith books are still available on Google Books and from Amazon.

Arthur D. Howden Smith as a Chetnik soldier. Photo from his book "Fighting the Turk in the Balkans" 1908.
Arthur D. Howden Smith as a Chetnik soldier. Photo from his 1908 book, Fighting the Turk in the Balkans.

[Top photo: Smith in 1918, via Brooklyn Eagle]

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