Roundtable: Johnny Tremain and Me

johnnytremain.jpgMore 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). Continue reading

The New Old Revolutionaries

It’s often said that we tell old stories to get new ones, a truth self-evident in my favorite of Pauline Maier’s many works, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980). And everything I admire about her as a scholar rolls in with the first lines of that barefaced preface: “Let me confess at the outset that this book, though it answers some questions of the sort historians are trained to ask, has also been—and was meant from the outset to be—a personal adventure. I wanted to know better what it was to be an American of the late eighteenth century and to live through the American Revolution” (xiii). Maier’s prosopography of five men and their “worlds,” accentuated by a thoughtful “interlude” on the rigors of political life in the colonies, marked a change in how historians used individual biographies to retell the Revolution to post-bicentennial Americans. First given as a series of lectures at New York University in 1976, the essays gather a fairly random matrix of people for a group shot of colonial life: Samuel Adams, Isaac Sears, Dr. Thomas Young, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll. Few had appeared in solo biographies, and if they did, it was often in fairly dim light. In fewer than 300 pages, Maier promised to deliver the story of “not just why Americans made the Revolution, but what the Revolution did to them.” How to get at it? Continue reading