The Adventures of Gilbert Go-ahead” (1851-1856) was, at 42 parts, the longest-running serial ever printed in Robert Merry’s Museum. The quintessential Yankee, Gilbert relies on his wits and a collection of homely aphorisms to get him through adventures that verge on being tall tales. His travels through Singapore, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Cambodia, Siam, southern China, Tibet, Iran, and Persia combine geography, adventure, humor, and anthropology in a way typical of the magazine.

While it was the most popular serial in the Museum’s history, it also attracted criticism, some of it from young subscribers who weren’t—they told the imaginary editor of the magazine—going to be taken in by fictional adventures of pretend people. The criticisms were gently mocked in the July 1852 installment, nine months after this letter appeared. (That the editor responds to a reader was typical for the Museum, which created a community through its letters column.)
A letter from a young critic of “Gilbert Go-ahead” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, October 1851; p. 128)

The following letter is from a sharp little friend of ours, and we cheerfully insert it:—

Boston, August 11, 1851.

Mr. Merry:— I have never written you a letter, and only write now to ask you a few questions. Is the story of Gilbert Go-ahead a real, or only a fancy story? Was there ever any such person as Gilbert Go-ahead? I ask these questions, because his adventures are almost too wonderful to believe in. I never heard of such animals as he appears to meet with—cats without tails, serpents with scales on their necks, and other strange things. Then the story of the ride on the hippopotamus, the intelligence of the elephant, the friendship of the ape Grin—all these things are very amusing, but they seem quite too impossible to be believed.

Now, Mr. Merry, pray answer my questions, and much oblige,

Yours, respectfully,

James L. Grey.


I do not consider myself bound to say whether Gilbert Go-ahead is a real or a fictitious personage. As to that, people may think as they please, but as to the possibility or probability of his story, I now remark generally, that his travels have hitherto been chiefly in the central regions of Sumatra. There is no part of the world, where nature seems to present so many varieties as here. There are actually such animals as Gilbert Go-ahead describes—wild cats without tails, and wild cats with knobs at the ends of their tails; shining serpents with scales on their necks, elephants domesticated by man, and ourang-outangs which show a wonderful degree of sense and intelligence. Gilbert's descriptions of the island of Sumatra, its shape and extent, its climate and products, its animals and plants, its towns and cities, are all correct, and convey accurate information. His descriptions of the people, including the terrible Battas, agree with the best historical and geographical accounts. There is nothing in Gilbert's story so wonderful as many things to be found in true books of history. If Gilbert rode on the back of a hippopotamus, so Captain Waterton rode on the back of an alligator in one of the rivers of Guiana. Mr. Cummings' adventures in South Africa, of which we gave a sketch in our June number, were far more strange and extraordinary than those of Gilbert Go-ahead.

But after all, the new story of our hero is not the main thing to be considered. My object in introducing it in the Museum is partly to amuse my readers, but more particularly to instruct them. His travels are in very remote countries, which are little known, while they are yet exceedingly interesting. Now by reading his travels, accurate ideas of these countries, of their shape, extent, products, people, &c., are conveyed to the mind. These impressions, even if associated with some little extravagance and eccentricity on the part of the personage who conveys them, are likely to be permanent and useful in life. These are the views with which the story is inserted, and I hope they will be satisfactory to Master Gray.

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