To the purists, Frank is the only one of the Merriwells who counted, and the series undoubtedly began to decline after Dick entered the scene. Patten himself realized this. "The reason was that Dick was not the character that Frank was," he recalled years later for James M. Cain. "I couldn't make him a replica of Frank, you know; he had to be different. But it was Frank who really stood for every boy's dream. Dick was all right, but not many boys wanted to be like him. And then I suppose I got careless. Frank's ventriloquism was a big hit. But Dick's capacity to talk with wild animals never went over. It just didn't click. I guess I had written Merriwells too long."
In 1914, after 20 million words of Merriwell, Patten asked for relief. He complained that he felt "like a horse in an old country treadmill." Once, when he wanted to get away on a trip, he did 50,000 words, two and a half stories, in a week, but that was his "best record." Merriwell took all his time. In the morning he would plot two or three chapters, before his secretary arrived at 9. Then he would dictate until noon or one o'clock. "At the end of the stretch I was often worn out and compelled to lie down for ten minutes or so before I could eat lunch," he later wrote in a biographical memoir. "After lunch I had a nap of thirty or forty minutes. Then I got out into the open air for a while. Persons who saw me walking about or loafing in the afternoon occasionally said: "Well, you have a snap. Don't you ever work?' "
Street & Smith assigned a fresh team to Merriwell, but the series lasted for only three more years, devoted, for the most part, to the exploits of Frank Jr. Patten attributed its demise to the rise of the movies. "Instead of buying a book with it, the boy who had a nickel spent it on a motion picture," he said.
After giving up Merriwell, Patten continued to write at a furious pace through most of the 1920s. He finished more than two dozen novels for boys (Lefty Locke is probably the most memorable of his later characters) and worked briefly in Hollywood. He found he could command only $60 a script, so he returned to New York. The going was difficult. He tried his hand at a few Merriwell stories, but he had a hard time convincing editors that he could write other stories besides Merriwells. In desperation, he began grinding out stuff for Bernarr Macfadden's Snappy Stories, Saucy Stories and True Story. "It made me pretty sick," he said, "but the editors were convinced. It won me a market for adult adventure stuff." Patten drifted farther into the anonymous reaches of hackdom. In 1930 a feature writer for the World interviewed him and reported that Patten's favorite writers were Zola and Proust.
In 1934 Frank Merriwell became a radio program, but if Patten shared in the profits they must have been small. Several years later he was threatened with eviction from his apartment. In 1939 he was in the news again when he wrote a radio script for the Council Against Intolerance in America. The central figure was Dick, not Frank, and the role was played by Richard Merriwell Erickson, a pitcher for the then Boston Bees. According to the script, the pitcher for Fardale leaves the school to enroll at rival Eton. On the day of the Fardale-Eton game, the pitcher beans Sam, a Jewish player for Fardale, and then hits Dick. There is a rumpus, but Dick stands up for the pitcher, saying he is sure the pitcher would not hit a batter on purpose. Later the pitcher admits to Dick, "I did do it on purpose," and Dick says, "Yes, I know you did." And thus the pitcher sees that Dick saved him, and he apologizes to all concerned.
In 1941 Patten wrote his final Merriwell story. It was called
Mr. Frank Merriwell
, and it was published as a hard-cover novel. The scene is Elmsport, a town not far from New York. Frank is 50 and lives with Inza and daughter Bart (named for Bart Hodge) in a house called "The Nest." Frank Jr. is a war correspondent "over there, somewhere close to the blazing, blasting battlefront in stricken Holland." (He is later reported missing in action, but Frank p�re discovers him by chance as an amnesiac panhandler in Madison Square Park: "Suddenly, like the rending of a black cloud by a flash of lightning, recognition and remembrance came. He leaped to his feet, his eyes shining with a great joy. 'Father!' ") Merriwell is looked upon as a warmonger by old Harry Willwin, the villain and local millionaire. Frank, who is anti-Communist and antifascist, wants America to prepare, and to that end he starts the Young Defenders of Liberty. He keeps track of the organization's growth on a huge map of the United States in his office: "Daily the map was becoming increasingly bespattered with pin-anchored tags."
The two high points in the novel come when Frank thrashes four ruffians with a cane and when Gladys, the town floozy, tells him, "If there were more men in the world like you there'd be less women like me." There is no reference to athletics, except for a brief note that Frank coaches the high school football and baseball teams on the side. The novel sold only 4,000 copies, and Patten blamed the publisher for poor distribution. Not long afterward, Patten moved to Vista, California, near San Diego, where he lived with his son, Harvan Barr Patten. On January 16, 1945 he died in his sleep. He was 78 years old.
"Did I love Merriwell?" Patten once answered an interviewer. "Not at first. Those early stories were more of a joke to me than anything else. But when it go so that half a million kids were reading him every week—and I think there were that many when you stop to think how the stories were lent from hand to hand—I began to realize that I had about the biggest chance to influence the youth of this country that any man ever had. And when you get the messiah complex you are lost. Yes, I loved him. And I loved him most because no boy, if he followed in his tracks, ever did anything that he need be ashamed of."