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johnny tremain

23 december 2010

A key episode in Esther Forbes's 1943 classic Johnny Tremain is the Boston Tea Party itself. The Tea Party has recently been transformed from a quaint exercise in taxation and representation into a catchphrase for a still-ascending political movement. Yet I don't sense that Johnny Tremain has become required reading for the Glenn Beck set.

Required reading it certainly remains, though. And Johnny Tremain is more than a required book: it has retained a readership larger than those of most Newbery Medalists. In part this is due to a healthy content of good old American corn. In part it's because (like so many Medal Books) it values reading and good treatment of animals. In part it's due to the book's nationalistic themes, though they're hardly as blatant as those of some contemporaries like The Matchlock Gun. (In fact, the difference between a still-viable novel like Johnny Tremain and a dated curiosity like The Matchlock Gun resides largely in the how the former complicates themes that remain obtusely simple in the latter.)

The continuing appeal of Johnny Tremain also partly lies in its characters. It's one of those historical chestnuts about which one could, and still can say, that it's not "merely" about the American Revolution. It's about people, their ambitions, their desires, and the competing motives that create human drama. In fact, if there are people reading Johnny Tremain in an attempt to imbibe the values of Tea Parties past or present, they're going to be disappointed.

Esther Forbes was fascinated by colonial America, but in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, not that of Parson Weems. In other words, she used the rich history of conflict and energy that characterized pre-Republican America to tell stories with a more universal humanist reference, not just as reflections of political allegiances in her own present day.

Johnny Tremain is by turns a bully, a resourceful trickster hero, a chastened "forgotten man," an irrepressible dynamo, and a coming-of-age hero. Politically, he stands for some of the concerns of the 1770s, and some of those of the 1940s.

What Johnny Tremain doesn't stand for is a narrowly jingoistic conception of "American" values. He's a plucky hero, all right; but war, for Esther Forbes, is hell. In his role as spy, Johnny makes friends on both sides of the lines. The heroes of the Revolution are not much more admirable than the leading Tories in the novel. Sam Adams is a bloodthirsty radical, and John Hancock an insufferable snob. Paul Revere (subject of a biography by Forbes) is the most admirable of the famous patriots. Revere is a tradesman, not a merchant: like Johnny Tremain, he's a silversmith. Forbes's novel is deeply class-conscious, and it's on the side of workers and small businessmen, not of plutocrats. Trickle-down economy is evident in Forbes's colonial Boston, but the people the trickles emanate from are not very admirable.

The philosophical center of the novel is James Otis, a senior patriot who, by 1775, is demented and, worse, dated. About 2/3 of the way through, Otis gives a long speech to the assembled Whigs of Boston. In it, he sounds notes borrowed from Enlightenment political and moral philosophy, Winston Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Otis expounds a theory that links the universal rights of mankind to the flourishing of liberty in the English-speaking countries.

Johnny Tremain is more impressed by Otis's speech than his elders are. Sam Adams and John Hancock thirst for war. They imagine an America where a baptism of fire will make new nationals in a new political order. But Johnny, contemplating the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, sees that baptism of fire has cost him his best friend (Rab, the printer's apprentice on whom Johnny has a serious man-crush).

Johnny, however, takes up arms: for so many, the way to become a man, and an American. When the influence of Otis yields to that of Sam Adams, the course of American history shifts decisively from foreshadowing the French Revolution to triggering the epic of How the West Was Won. Forbes doesn't underline these ideas with a heavy hand – and that's another reason why Johnny Tremain is still so readable. But its complications mean that it's not easily available as a screed for a 21st-century political party.

Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain. 1943. New York: Dell, 1972.