More than anything else, people remember the hand. Bring up Johnny Tremain in a group of adults, and for those who read it, they’re most likely to remember the disfigurement that serves as the hinge for much of the novel’s plot, the story within the story of the coming of the Revolution in Boston. A few people have told me that the hand by itself made the book unpalatable; for my part, it always served as a matter of fascination. And it’s one of two things that most stand out for me about the novel (the other being that it was the first place I heard that Biblical injunction that “pride goeth before fall;” make of that what you will).
Johnny Tremain was probably my favorite book as a kid. In fact, the way my family tells it you’d think it was the only book I ever read, over and over (I don’t recall the actual number of times, but I assume it was a number greater than five.) For me, it’s one of the touchstones that led me to study history and the American Revolution as a career.
My fascination with the Revolution traces back to elementary school. In my memory, it was my second-grade teacher (hi, Ms. Deuel, wherever you are) who handed me a book about the Revolution one day, and I haven’t stopped since. At some point I worked my way through what seemed like all of the youth fiction and non-fiction on the topic: silly books like Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I, in which personified animals served as witnesses to history; My Brother Sam Is Dead and April Morning, which took a serious tone about the start of the Revolutionary War; non-fiction from the Cornerstones of Freedom series, among others. And—of course—Johnny Tremain, which won the Newbery Medal in 1944.
Age 14 when the book’s action opens, Johnny Tremain turns into a sort of fictional George Robert Twelves Hewes, a historically insignificant figure who nonetheless turns up at key moments in the escalating crises in Boston. A mere apprentice to a not-very-successful silversmith, Tremain nonetheless finds himself engaging in shop talk (literally) with Paul Revere. He negotiates business deals with John Hancock, and engages in political work for the Sons of Liberty, which puts him in conversation with Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Dr. Joseph Warren. He shows up at the Boston Tea Party and somehow makes his way out of the city to Lexington on April 19, 1775.
There’s plenty to criticize about a book first published in 1943, whether its straightforward depiction of protest, its approach to gender relations, its discussion of slavery, and the teleological patriotic march to Lexington and Concord. No, older work shouldn’t be immune from criticism just because of its age, but it is a product of its time. And as I’ve previously argued at the Junto, artistic and literary works aim for a different sort of representation and interpretation of the past than do non-fiction works.
But it got me hooked on the history of the imperial crisis and the Revolution, and I’m sure I’m not alone. (It may also have kept me away from a career working with molten metals, so that’s a bonus.) The question is why. It’s a good story, and Forbes’s narrative makes the lead-up to Lexington and Concord riveting, especially if you’re a kid who’s never heard the term “teleology.”
What I didn’t know when I read it in the 1980s was that its author, Esther Forbes, was a distinguished historian in her own right, who conducted deep archival research for her projects, including not only Johnny Tremain but also Paul Revere and the World He Lived In and others, at institutions such as the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. And in flipping through the book in the past few days as I contemplated this post, the research shows.
Her descriptions of Boston in the early 1770s are rich and detailed. In addition to her finely tuned descriptions of the tensions in Boston, Forbes captured quite effectively the culture of young men of the apprentice class. She covers the main events in Boston, but her primary focus is daily life, examining how the young men of the town reacted to the crisis and the perils and opportunities it provided. Now as a historian of media and communications, I can say that Forbes reasonably depicted the newspaper printing office and Johnny as a rider through the Massachusetts countryside.
This is not a book I would assign in a Revolutionary America course as a way to study the time period, though I might well do so if we spent an entire unit on the Revolution in American memory as an example for the World War II era. But I won’t hesitate to suggest it to my children, starting with my now eight-year-old son. It’s a story that enthralls young readers with the swirl of the imperial crisis. I don’t expect it to lead my kids to become American historians, but it will be well worth their time.
 On Hewes, see Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).
 She even bequeathed the royalties from her fictional works, including Johnny Tremain, to AAS. Little did my parents know when they bought me the book that they were supporting the scholarship that the adult me would undertake decades later!
Thanks for this, Joe. I loved Johnny Tremain too–but you might be thinking too conservatively in its potential for classroom use. (Do young people today know this book? I don’t know of any who do, & so might be fearful of
I could see using it as an assignment in which students could evaluate Forbes’s scholarship and also comment/critique the ways in which it doubtlessly reflects the passions and prejudices of the 1940s. That could be a subtle and powerful assignment in an upper-level history course that would expose students to the concept of historiography and encourage not just criticism but also some humility. What will people say about the books we’ve written in 40-50 years?
(Not to tip my hand, but I’ve thought about this kind of assignment in my pre-1800 women’s history class w/r/t American Girl doll stories, which are big among girls and women under 30 or 35. I’m looking forward to Christopher Jones’s post on the AGD series of books!)
Sorry–end of last graph should read “fearful of looking like a fossil before today’s college students.”
Thanks, Ann. On Twitter I’ve gotten lots of responses from people who also loved the book, but they are (or appear to be) my generation and up. (So no Millennials. Perhaps we can blame them for not doing @-replies!) If I remember in September, I can ask my students then, but I kind of doubt they’re as aware of JT as previous cohorts.
I like your assignment idea—I hadn’t thought of using it in that way. Thanks for suggesting it.
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