J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Class Consciousness in Mr. Revere and I

This entry continues my comments from yesterday on Robert Lawson's historical novel for children, Mr. Revere and I.

In his earlier Ben and Me, Lawson told the story of a mouse who lives with Benjamin Franklin. Amos the mouse is a lot like the famous Philadelphia printer: independent, ingenious, hard-working, fond of the ladies, pleased with himself. The result is almost a parody of Franklin's autobiography, with some mouse-sized swashbuckling at the end.

Lawson took a different approach in Mr. Revere and I. Its narrator, the horse Scheherazade or Sherry, starts out as the steed of a British army officer, and a snob. She looks down her long nose at the "bumpkins" of New England, including silversmith and jack-of-all-trades Revere. Sherry is a foil for Revere, not a parallel. "No haughtier stepper in the regiment" the original dust jacket calls her, and the text follows that up with: "Naturally, the fall of this mare was equally great, even to the glue factory."

Yes, Sherry loses her place in the army and suffers the snobbery of her former stablemates. She thus goes through a character-building exercise that Amos, Ben Franklin's little mouse, never has to suffer. Humbled and yet warmed by her experiences with the Revere family, Sherry feels a sudden change in sentiment. On page 103 she declares:

I was a free horse! I was a Colonial! I was a Patriot, my life dedicated to the ideals of Liberty and Freedom!
To strengthen that contrast between old order and new, Lawson plays up the aristocratic qualities of the British officers and plays down the gentility of Boston's Whigs. Samuel Adams, who had an M.A. from Harvard, a seat in the assembly, and the legal label of a "gentleman" all his life, gets portrayed as a threadbare, hungry, street-corner orator. The historical Lt. Col. William Dalrymple of the 14th regiment becomes Col. Sir Dagmore Dalrymple. Most exaggerated of all is Lawson's portrait of Sherry's first owner, Lt. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable, Bart. Early in the book, the horse offers these admiring words:
Just turned twenty-one, tall and slender (not spindly, as some said), he had the true proud nose of the conqueror, rather like that of a puffin, but less elaborately colored. He was blessed with splendid strong teeth not greatly different from my own. These were quite prominently displayed, because his mouth was usually partly open and his chin was merely a slight ripple in the flesh, a highly prized characteristic of the Barnstable family.

A fall from his nurse's arms at the age of two had resulted in a continual and somewhat copious watering of his pale blue eyes and had left him with a slight speech impediment. It was not quite a stammer or a stutter but more a combination of the two.
Lawson's caricatures are usually amusing, but they have an odd effect: Mr. Revere and I, though published in Cold War 1953, portrays the American Revolution as a class conflict. Paul Revere, his working-class comrades, and the yeoman farmers of Massachusetts throw off the oppression of the aristocracy!

Even John Hancock, as the richest of the Patriots, gets more ribbing than the working-class Bostonians. But I must admit I love Lawson's picture, in words and lines, of Hancock at Lexington, storming out of the Clark parsonage with his sword strapped on over his nightshirt. I got to see the original of his drawing a couple of years ago at the National Heritage Museum in an exhibit created by the Brandywine River Museum. That was before I reread Mr. Revere and I, and seeing the image brought me right back into the book. And the more I read about Hancock at Lexington, blustering and stubborn and completely unprepared for combat, the more that picture rings true for me.


Andre Mayer said...

Not at all surprising to see Revolution portrayed as class conflict in 1953 -- this "progressive" interpretation was the dominant view at the time among scholars and to a considerable extent the general public. Edmund Morgan's book on the Stamp Act really began the swing the other way.

J. L. Bell said...

An excellent point. We see the same class-based portrayal of the conflict in Johnny Tremain, with the Loyalist merchant as the main villain and the British privates sympathetic. But that novel also includes some less than admirable local workers, and most of the British officers are also sympathetic, well-meaning men given an impossible job.

(Indeed, with its "we're really all in this together" treatment of the British army and the revelation that Johnny's father was French, Johnny Tremain might reflect its WW2 origin. The hero turns out to be a mini-Atlantic alliance.)