Peter Graves

Circa 1970, I read a large number of grade school reading books. One of them had a story in it about a boy who performed various athletic feats. The passage I remember from this book was the boy’s manager saying that his diet was rich in iron, and the boy was getting a part-time job as an anchor.

It turns out that the story I read 50 years ago was an excerpt from Peter Graves, by William Pène du Bois.

frontispiece of “Peter Graves”

My father was a professor of education at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University). He got a ton of textbooks for free from various school book vendors, either by promising them he’d review them favorably, or more probably by offering to take the books off the salesman’s hands at the end of some dreadful, boring conference.

The summer after I was in third or fourth grade, I read an entire series of those elementary school reading textbooks, from beginning to end, skipping only the learning-to-read super easy books. I read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, a James Thurber story, and lots of others, including the “part time job as an anchor” story.

This spring, the “part time job as an anchor” phrase came to my mind. I also had a vague recollection of reading some other stories by the same author. By googling what I remembered of those other stories, I found the author, and from the author, found the book Peter Graves.

I ordered a used copy from Amazon, and read it. It’s a pretty standard pre-modern young adult story. I got a vague feeling that the author was talking down to me while describing a whole civilization that he thought was self-evident, but I didn’t recognize.

Peter Graves (the character) isn’t even the star of the book. The stock Mad Scientist character, Houghton Furlong, is really the protagonist.

The book has interesting aspects. There’s an anti-gravity material called “Furloy”, for Houghton Furlong’s Alloy, I suppose. Du Bois imagines a few interesting uses for an anti-gravity material, but really doesn’t stretch the idea very far. It seems instantly obvious that such a material could be used to power a reactionless space travel vehicle. Maybe Cavorite has already cornered that market.

The casual, unethical, human experimentation that Peter Graves (the character) and Furlong undertake is shocking to my modern sensibility. If Furlong had weighted the anti-gravity harness incorrectly, Graves could easily have died by leaving earth’s atmosphere.

Furloy is Flubber?!?

Once, I managed to convince my dad to take me to (as I recall) a midnight-movie showing of Son of Flubber. I really don’t know how I managed that - my dad was very determined to “get enough sleep”, and kept to a rigid eating and sleeping schedule. I do remember that Son of Flubber was side-splittingly funny.

Some years later, I was able to watch Disney’s Absent Minded Professor, which is the first of the two “Flubber” movies.

Reading Peter Graves immediately reminded me of the flubber movies. Houghton Furlong could certainly be the model for Fred MacMurray’s “Ned Brainerd” character. Unfortunately, Wikipedia gives a short story called A Situation of Gravity credit for inspiring the flubber movies.

Signature inside cover

I got a used copy of Peter Graves. Apparently “Alexander DeConde” used to own what’s now my copy:

Alexander DeConde signature

I can only find one Alexander DeConde (1920 - 2016) on the web, who was a historian of US diplomacy. DeConde would have been age 30 when my copy of Peter Graves was printed (1950), which seems a little old, but is still plausible.

It’s possible DeConde knew du Bois, but there’s no obvious connection. In 1950, DeConde was teaching at Whittier College in southern California. Looks like du Bois was mainly an East Coast upper crust intellectual. Both du Bois and DeConde were combatants in WW2, du Bois in the US Army, DeConde in the US Navy. DeConde seems to have spent most of his life in California, du Bois on the east coast and in France. Du Bois lived from 1916 to 1993, they were contemporaries.

I judge it plausible, but unlikely, that DeConde the historian previously owned my copy of this book.