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, May 31, 2016

The Adventures of the Two Boston Cannon?

The last book I’ll highlight in this stretch of postings is no longer available in stores but can be read online—not that I recommend that.

In 1894 Rhode Island native Hezekiah Butterworth published The Patriot Schoolmaster; or, The Adventures of the Two Boston Cannon, the “Adams” and “Hancock”: A Tale of the Minute Men and the Sons of Liberty. The book included a few illustrations by H. Winthrop Peirce of Andover.

The Patriot Schoolmaster is historical fiction for young readers, and not very good at that. As the extended subtitle might suggest, Butterworth tried to cram every tradition of Revolutionary Boston into the book, and the result is a mishmash of events that never coheres into a plot.

On top of that, Butterworth kept breaking off from what little story there is to fill us in on the history, or future, of his characters, sometimes quoting long passages from his source material. One begins to suspect he was being paid by the word and never reread what he’d written.

The young hero, Allie Fayreweather, starts out as “about twelve years old,” but he seems younger, or stupid. The date of the opening action is “Saturday, September 27, 1768.” The novel lasts until Continental troops march into Boston, or six and a half years later. And Allie never seems to get older or smarter.

Most other characters are types reflecting the age when the book was written. It starts with Samuel Adams’s enslaved maid Surry speaking in broad dialect, and she remains a major character. Later Phillis Wheatley appears, better spoken but deferential and totally starstruck by Gen. Washington. The villain is a pompous, violent Tory named Dr. Oliver. Curiously, the title character plays a minor role. Instead, Samuel Adams is the anchor of the action, with his dog Queue and fictional young Allie trotting after him.

You might wonder why I mention The Patriot Schoolmaster at all. This book shows how the story of “the Two Boston Cannon, the ‘Adams’ and the ‘Hancock’” was a standard part of Boston’s Revolutionary narrative in 1894. To be sure, the novel gets nearly every detail of that narrative wrong. But for New England children of the turn of the last century, the legend of those cannon was as familiar as Paul Revere’s ride is to us now. Yet by the time of the Bicentennial, when I was growing up, that story was unknown.

My new book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, aims to change that. But with sources more reliable than The Patriot Schoolmaster. I’ll be speaking about that history at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Thursday.

1 comment:

meryka said...

Hi John,
Good luck with your talk at the MHS. Wish I could attend.
I'm looking forward to reading your book!
Best wishes,

I love Butterworth's statement: ... nearly all of the incidents, except such as are essential to the movement of a story, have "a basis of truth or well-ordered tradition."
p.IV, Preface