If asked who was the most popular American dog novelist of all time, people might answer Jack London or Bruce Cameron, the author of A Dog’s Purpose series. The answer is Alan Payson Terhune (1872-1942) who penned over 30 bestselling dog novels. Many starred Lad, a Rough Collie, who was not related to the later Collie screen star, Lassie.
Terhune’s Sunnybank Collies
Before he became the world’s bestselling dog writer, Alan Payson Terhune had spent the first thirty years of his career as an underpaid newspaper reporter who churned out magazine stories in his spare time to make ends meet. A lifelong dog lover, he and his wife Anice also bred Rough Collies at his parent’s New Jersey summer house, Sunnybank.
Running short of story ideas, Terhune turned to his favorite Collie Lad for inspiration and wrote a tale about a heroic Collie named Lad who lived with his Master and Mistress at a house called Sunnybank. It was bought Red Book and published in 1915. To Terhune and Red Book’s surprise, the story generated a deluge of fan letters begging for more Lad tales. Never one to turn down a lucrative offer, Terhune obligingly wrote eleven more. Dutton published the collected Lad stories in 1919 with low expectations—no dog book with the exception of Jack London’s had ever sold particularly well. A month after publication, Terhune’s editor wrote, “Lad is on a rampage. He can’t be stopped.” Within six months, Lad: a Dog had run through ten printings and became a bestseller in both adult and children’s fiction.
Terhuhne’s Lad Becomes a Franchise
The huge popularity of Terhune’s Lad for readers was that he was basically a house pet who snoozed on the veranda and or at his Master’s feet. In other words, a dog like their own, only superior in every way. Lad was matinee-idol handsome- eighty pounds of muscle with a magnificent snowy ruff and chest ,“flecked mahogany” coat, and “absurdly tiny forepaws in which he took inordinate pride.” He had all the traits of a hero from a Victorian novel- he was courageous, unstintingly loyal, hated injustice, and defended the weak. His adoration for a female Collie named “Lady” was based on chivalric love rather than hormones. During the course of the book, Lad rescues his bumbling Master and Mistress from falling in a freezing lake and attacks by a burglar and a poisonous snake.
Terhune’s not-so subtle theme was the conflict between purebreds and mongrels, both canine and human. Even though he is wearing a muzzle, Lad is able to defeat a junkyard cur “with ridiculous ease.” Terhune chalks up Lad’s superiority to his breed’s “uncannily wise brain” and “uncanny swiftness.” The villains in Lad are the nouveau riche neighbor who mistreats his dogs and suspicious riff raff such as an “invading negro.”
With the phenomenal success of Lad, Terhune was finally able to quit his despised newspaper job, retire to Sunnybank, and turn his full attention to writing about dogs. Over the next twenty years, he published over thirty dog books including fifteen about other Sunnybank Collies. He formed a partnership with Grosset and Dunlap (publishers of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) for a series of Famous Dog Stories which is still in print. Terhune and his Collies became such celebrities that thousands of visitors flocked to Sunnybank each year to visit the kennels and pay their respects at the graves of Lad and his kin.
Critical response to Terhune’s Lad books was sometimes harsh. Isabel Paterson in the New York Tribune wrote, “Lad is pretty hard to believe. To have such a dog around would be worse than being afflicted with a regiment of Boy Scouts all desperately trying to get one good deed per diem. Some of Terhune’s harshest critics at the time were dog breeders who felt no real dog could or should measure up to Lad’s human-like virtues.
Neither Terhune’s Lad books nor Sunnybank has aged well. Modern critics have faulted Terhune for his clunky prose, shameless anthropomorphizing, and overt racism. Terhune’s wife left Sunnybank as a historic site so fans could continue to wander the grounds and visit the Collie’s graves. The house fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1969 for a housing development. The graves of Lad, Lady, and their son Wolf, although overgrown, can still be found in Terhune Memorial Park.