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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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thompson’s Timely Tale of the Revolution

For analyzing popular attitudes toward the past in a given period, I think it’s more rewarding to look at hack writing than at either historical studies or good literature. Hack writing is pounded out at speed for as large an audience as possible, often using stereotypes for characters and plots that don’t challenge readers’ assumptions. It therefore reflects the writer’s first instincts and understanding of what the public wants rather than a more deeply researched or thought-out consideration of the past.

That’s why I find the Liberty Boys of ’76 dime novels to be informative as well as amusing, and why today I’m highlighting “How a Lad of 1776 Surprised the Redcoats”, a short story featured by Hungry Tiger Press. The young writer, shown here, was Ruth Plumly Thompson, the first author to continue L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

Thompson wrote this tale for the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1916, when she was editing the newspaper’s kids’ page. At that time Woodrow Wilson was successfully running for reelection on the platform of not helping the British in the world war against Germany. And Thompson has no problem portraying a British sympathizer as a war profiteer: “Long live King George! Ha! Ha! Long live anybody that can pay me good honest crowns!” The young hero, an orphan naturally named Jack, saves the day and earns his own freedom by preserving American livestock to the American army.

The story also contains some telling anachronisms, especially in its treatment of time itself. Thompson wrote:

Tiptoeing into the room where Derry slept, [Jack] reached for the clock which stood on a chair beside the bed. Scarce daring to breathe, he took it to the window and by the pale moonlight, turned it forward one hour. Derry’s watch he treated in similar fashion. Downstairs he hurried next, fixing the old clock in the hall and the clock in the kitchen one hour fast. Now upstairs again went Jack, this time to the room of Gates, a British private, who had been slightly wounded and was being cared for in the inn. Quietly as a mouse he removed the man’s uniform from the closet, then tarrying only long enough to set his watch forward, too, tiptoed downstairs, slid the bolt aside and hurried out into the night, never stopping till he had come to the house where the young American lieutenant was lodged.
Jack changes five separate timepieces in one house—probably more than twice what there would have been. In the 1770s, many British privates were still poor and illiterate, and it would have been unusual for one to have his own watch. Not to mention being separate from his unit.

Furthermore, for Jack’s plan to work, Derry must think that it’s nine o’clock in the morning, as his timepieces say, instead of eight o’clock. But as a farmer, Derry would have been used to estimating the time by the position of the Sun in the sky, or the behavior of his livestock. Thompson’s story projected a twentieth-century sense of time back into the eighteenth century.

I’ll spoil the end of the tale by revealing that it involves a personal meeting with the commander-in-chief:
Washington himself shook hands with Jack and was so impressed with the lad’s spirit and manliness that he agreed to his entreaties that he be kept on as a drummer boy.
I’ve seen that sort of close encounter with Washington as the payoff in many dubious stories: the legends of John Honeyman, Sarah Bradlee Fulton, Primus Hall, Lydia Darragh, the Hart family, even George R. T. Hewes at his least reliable. Such moments seem to have almost developed a sacred quality in the nineteenth century, a laying-on of the great man’s hands. I’m even starting to think of a scene like that as a dead giveaway that a story is, like Thompson’s “Lad of 1776,” fiction.

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