by Howard Fast
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in colonial New England around April 19, 1775; published in 1961
A boy is forced to become a man after taking part in the Battle of Lexington.
Born in New York City in 1914, Howard Melvin Fast was the son of immigrant parents: his father was from the Ukraine; his mother from Lithuania. Educated at George Washington High School and the National Academy of Design, Fast dropped out of the latter after a year, when he sold a story to a science-fiction magazine. In 1933 Fast published his first novel Two Valleys, which was favorably received; his second novel, Strange Yesterday (1934) was less successful. After a brief slump, Fast’s literary career regained momentum with the 1937 printing of his short story “The Children” in Story magazine. A string of successful novels followed— Conceived in Liberty (1939), The Last Frontier (1941), The Unvanquished (1942), and Citizen Tom Paine (1944). During the Second World War, Fast served first on the overseas staff of the U.S. Office of War Information (1942–44), then worked as a war correspondent in the China-Burma-India theater (1944–45). Fast also joined the Communist Party in 1944, devoting several years to the left-wing cause. His political views resulted in his being brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and then jailed briefly on contempt charges in 1950. Fast’s time in prison, inspired a hugely popular historical novel, Spartacus (1951), which he was obliged to publish at his own expense because interference from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) prevented him from finding a publisher. Russian leader Nikita Krushchev’s revelations about the atrocities of his country’s earlier Stalin regime prompted Fast to resign from the Communist Party in 1956. His subsequent works, including April Morning (1961) and The Hessian (1972), were subsequently published by mainstream publishing houses. While Fast’s political sympathies changed throughout his career, his interest in history—especially American history—and the historical novel remained constant. April Morning has been widely praised for its painstaking depiction of the events surrounding the Battle of Lexington, during which a boy and a nation are forced to come of age.
Lexington and Concord
April Morning covers a span of perhaps 36 crucial hours in the life of Adam Cooper, a 15-year-old boy who, along with his family, is caught up in the drama surrounding the Battle of Lexington. The novel de-scribes not only the battle itself but also the chain of events immediately leading up to it, creating a mood of mounting tension. A description of the battle according to historical records follows.
British troops, under the command of General Thomas Gage, British Military Governor of Massachusetts, had long been stationed in Boston. But while the city of Boston was itself under military rule, the British did not have the authority to enforce the king’s law in the surrounding countryside. As British and colonial relations worsened during the 1760s and 1770s, rebel militias began to form in rural towns and villages. Eventually, the British declared the Colony of Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion against the mother country and attempted to stamp out colonial resistance to British rule.
The breaking point came on April 15, 1775, when Gage received orders to take decisive action against the colonists. He decided to send an expedition to destroy the rebels’ military supplies that were being stockpiled at Concord. Gage assembled his British troops, drawing on the “flank companies”—consisting of grenadiers and light infantry—of eight regiments for this mission; Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and Marine Major John Pitcairm were put in charge. Gage also composed a relief column under the command of Lord Hugh Percy that was scheduled to leave six hours after the main column departed. Although Gage attempted to keep the mission a secret by not telling his officers of his plan until the very last minute, the colonists had been watching every move the British made and were quick to report any suspicious troop activity.
By the evening of April 18, 1775, the residents of Boston knew of the British plan to march on Concord. Around midnight, British forces—numbering from 600 to 900 troops—crossed the Charles River but were followed closely by the American alarm rider Paul Revere. With the help of fellow riders William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, Revere spread the word of the British advance throughout the Massachusetts countryside, including Lexington, Concord, and Water-town. Rebel militia was quickly deployed to meet the enemy.
Arriving in Lexington around dawn (5:00 a.m.), British troops under the command of Major Pitcairn were confronted by a group of about 70 colonial militia, armed and in formation on the village green. Both British and colonial forces had apparently agreed among themselves not to shoot unless fired upon. Pitcairn ordered the rebels, led by Lexington militia captain John Parker, to lay down their arms. In response, Parker ordered his men to disperse; reluctantly, they started to obey. Then a single shot, followed by two or three more, rang out. It remains unclear to this day who fired those shots, but on hearing them, the British fired upon the militia, killing eight and wounding ten. Among the dead were Parker’s cousin, Jonas, who was bayoneted as well as wounded, and another soldier, Jonathan Harrington, who crawled home to die on his own doorstep. The remaining militia fled into the woods to avoid capture.
Victorious, the British troops advanced to Concord, but the colonists were ready for them. At Concord’s North Bridge, a group of armed militia routed the British who were forced to retreat. Meanwhile, militia from surrounding towns had also advanced towards Concord. As the British marched back along Menotomy road towards Lexington and Boston, they were promptly attacked by Americans shooting at them from behind trees, walls, and other hiding places. The battle continued for most of the day; British morale crumbled beneath the onslaught—so different from their own way of fighting—and the troops broke ranks while retreating to Lexington. Instead of meeting the enemy in direct confrontation, the Americans fired at the British from behind the cover. The relief efforts of Lord Percy, who used his two cannons to disperse the rebels and then led the retreat back to Boston, saved the British from total defeat. Nonetheless, British forces suffered significant casualties: out of 1,800 men, 73 were reported killed, 147 wounded, and 26 missing (Nolan, p. 170). By contrast, colonial casualties consisted of 49 dead, 39 wounded, and 5 missing (Birnbaum, p. 191). The events of Lexington and Concord marked the true beginning of the American Revolution. In April Morning, Adam undergoes a bloody rite of passage when he sees his father killed at Lexington, then participates in the roadside attacks on the British as they re-treat from Concord. Although Fast ends his novel with the close of day, it is implied that Adam, now the man of the family, will eventually join the fight against the British on a full-time basis.
Repeatedly in April Morning, Adam Cooper refers to “Committees” that have been established throughout the colonies but provides little clarification regarding their function and purpose. Secret colonial societies did in fact spring up in the colonies, beginning around the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. During the American Revolution and the years preceding it, these societies went by many names—Sons of Liberty, Committees of Correspondence, Committees of Safety—but all included radicals who favored rebellion against Britain.
Certain differences existed between Committees of Correspondence and Committees of Safety. The former were created in 1772, for the purpose of coordinating the activities of colonial agitators and organizing public opinion against the British ministry. The first of these was established in Boston at the urging of Samuel Adams, and consisted of 21 members who were empowered to communicate with other Massachusetts towns, which soon followed suit by creating committees of their own. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry successfully urged their native Virginia to establish one, and soon Committees of Correspondence spread throughout the colonies. News, pamphlets, and the political writings of Committee members were carried from town to town by riders on horseback. Among them was Paul Revere, a Boston silver-smith who became one of the Committees’ busiest couriers.
By contrast, Committees of Safety followed a more military agenda. Created by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774, its Committee of Safety had the authority to mobilize and train the local militia, issue orders, purchase equipment, and seize military stores. Members included such figures as Dr. Joseph Warren (elected committee president), the merchant John Hancock, and Artemas Ward. As with Committees of Correspondence, other colonies quickly established their own Committees of Safety, which, until the adoption of new state constitutions in 1776, essentially functioned as state governments, maintaining order and furnishing men and supplies to the Continental Army.
Intriguingly, April Morning never uses the term “minutemen,” the name most often associated with the colonial militia of Massachusetts at the time of the American Revolution. Almost since the start of their history, the American colonies had maintained local companies of militia, which consisted of able-bodied men, commanded by officers who were commissioned by the royal governors. These militia companies marched in parade once or twice a year; drilled frequently with such weapons as muskets, fowling pieces, and squirrel guns; and could be called out by the governor to participate in certain conflicts. For example, the militia of New England and Virginia fought in the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s and 1760s; one young Virginian, George Washington, distinguished himself in that campaign. During the 1770s, however, relations between Britain and the American colonies deteriorated. To eliminate Tories —pro-British colonists—from the old militia organization, three regiments in Worcester, Massachusetts called for the resignation of all officers in September 1774. These regiments were broken up to form seven new regiments, under the command of new officers. It was the task of these new officers to elect one-third of each new regiment to be ready to assemble at a minute’s notice in the event of an emergency: hence the name “minutemen” (first used in the town of Brookfield in 1774). While this new system was not adopted in every colony, Massachusetts maintained a dual system of militia and minutemen companies and regiments. The minutemen were those who assembled on the green on April 19, 1775, and later led the attack on Concord bridge.
In April Morning, Adam’s father Moses Cooper and many of his neighbors serve as “Committeemen,” meeting to discuss everything from military stores to the establishment of a newspaper. Initially, they seem mostly concerned with the writing and circulation of political statements—the main agenda of Committees of Correspondence—but all are ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice when they receive news of British troops approaching Lexington.
British and colonial relations
During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the American colonies and Britain, their “mother” country became increasingly strained. Much of this hostility could be attributed to the more stringent colonial policy Britain adopted after the conclusion of the French and Indian War (1756–63), waged by France and Britain for dominance in the New World. Although Britain had emerged victorious, it faced a heavy national debt and the difficult task of administering vast territorial holdings in its empire.
During the war, American colonies had profited by continued trade with the French West Indies and had begun to feel less dependent upon Britain. Therefore, attempts by Britain to bring the colonies more firmly under control of the British king and Parliament met with growing resistance. From 1763 the British ministry implemented several unpopular parliamentary measures that worsened British-colonial relations: the Currency Act (1764), which forbade the issuance of legal tender paper money by the colonial assemblies; the Sugar Act (1764) which levied a three-penny-per-gallon duty upon molasses imported from the West Indies; the Quartering Act (1765), which required colonists to supply quarter and supplies to British troops stationed in settled areas of the colonies.
A crisis erupted after the passage of the Stamp Act (1765), which required colonists to purchase stamps for newspapers, playing cards, marriage licenses, and other legal documents. Colonists from all professions and walks of life were affected by this tax and angrily demanded its repeal on the grounds of unconstitutionality, asserting that they could be taxed only by their elected representatives. Stamp distributors were harassed, even attacked, and pressured to resign. Ultimately no stamps at all were being sold in the colonies. Meanwhile, Americans successfully boycotted British goods, prompting British merchants and manufacturers to likewise call for the repeal of the Stamp Act. Although the Stamp Act was indeed repealed in 1766, the British Parliament rejected the colonists’ cry of “no taxation without representation” and asserted through the Declaratory Act that its Parliamentary authority extended over the colonies in all cases.
Matters continued to deteriorate with the passage of the Townshend Acts (1767), which levied import duties on lead, tea, painter’s colors, and paper. A colonial boycott led to the 1770 repeal of these duties as well, except for the tax on tea. The repeal did not, however, usher in any wholehearted loosening of the reins on the part of Britain. Several British regiments had occupied Boston from 1768, and they continued to do so, to the great dismay of the city’s inhabitants. Violence erupted between the soldiers and civilians on March 5, 1770, when British troops fired upon an angry mob outside the Customs House, killing five and wounding several others. Colonial outrage over the incident led to the withdrawal of British troops from Boston; in 1774, however, British forces again occupied the city after several Bostonians, disguised as Indians, dumped three shiploads of tea into the harbor to protest the continuing tax on tea. The Coercive Acts of 1774 closed the port of Boston until the town compensated the wronged party (the British East Indian Company) for dumping its tea. They also increased royal control over Massachusetts, reducing it to a crown colony—one in which the government in London exercises some control over lawmaking and appoints the governor.
Meanwhile, mutual animosity continued to grow. If the colonists regarded the British as tyrannical and arrogant, the British looked down upon the colonists as ignorant, ungrateful upstarts. British disdain for the colonial militia was especially pronounced. In a letter to his family, one British soldier wrote, “As to what you hear of their taking arms to resist the force of England, it is mere bullying, and will go no further than words; whenever it comes to blows, he that can run fastest will think himself best off . . . they are a mere mob, without order or discipline and very awkward in handling their arms” (Anonymous in Birnbaum, p. 86).
In April Morning, despite his youth and relative innocence, Adam becomes aware of the deteriorating relations between Britain and the colonies, mainly through listening to the complaints made by his father and other committeemen. After the Battle of Lexington and the death of his father, Adam receives a sobering lecture from Solomon Chandler, a veteran of the French and Indian War, about the depth of the hostilities on both sides. Encouraging the boy to take a long hard look at the enemy, Chandler explains, “They have a great contempt for us, and they call us peasants and louts, but not one in ten of them can read or write his letters. A good half of them are convicts, cutthroats and footpads, serving out their time in His Majesty’s colors instead of in jail. The rest of them are poor, ignorant devils, with a religion as cloudy as their minds” (Fast, April Morning, p. 120).
Rural life in colonial New England
In April Morning, the close-knit rural community of Lexington is almost a character in its own right. The Coopers and their neighbors, most of whom are descended from the seventeenth-century Puritans who first settled in the Massachusetts colony, are bound to each other by ties of faith and kinship. Historians Oscar and Lilian Handlin write, “From the start, the Church had been important in the life of this region. A yearning for purified forms of worship had been one motive for the original migration. . . . Throughout New England, faith linked the minister to society and impinged upon government, economic attitudes, and family relations” (Handlin and Handlin, p. 9).
If the Church was the source of spiritual and intellectual development in rural communities, the farm was the source of economic livelihood. Harsh winters, rocky soil, short growing seasons, and unpredictable weather meant that New England farmers had to work constantly in order to prosper or even survive. Children as well as adults were expected to participate in the maintenance of the farm, and people showed scant patience for laziness or indolence. Quality of life was determined by how much effort a person was willing to expend cultivating his or her property. “The unending struggle shaped Yankee character. The lesson that life was a battle against uncongenial elements, learned early in life, trained people to strive lest they go under” (Handlin and Handlin, p. 11). Traits such as industry, determination, and obstinacy—especially in the face of adversity—became identified with the New England farmer.
Fast’s novel depicts the Coopers as a typical Yankee family of the colonial era: hardworking, stubborn, and independent. Stern, outspoken Moses Cooper manages the family farm; sons Adam and Levi perform chores—and receive scoldings when they do not perform them with sufficient promptness; and the Cooper women are likewise preoccupied with necessities. They sew, they quilt, they cook. Granny Cooper speaks with some pride of the family’s industry and accomplishments: “Coopers have been teachers and pastors and free yeomen farmers and ship captains and merchants for a hundred and fifty years on this soil, and I don’t recall one who couldn’t write a sermon and deliver it too, if the need ever arose”(April Morning, pp. 10–11). The Coopers’ strength and determination, nurtured by their rigorous way of life, help them survive and adjust.
RELIGIOUS ATTITUDES IN COLONIAL AMERICA
Although the events of the Battle of Lexington form the crux of the novel’s plot, Fast nonetheless emphasizes the role religion plays in the daily life of a New England family. The Coopers, who appear to be descended from Puritan stock, say grace before meals and attend church regularly. Like his Puritan ancestors, Mr. Cooper has little tolerance for the more pompous religious practices of the Anglican Church; Adam observes, “The Church of England was one of the things—one of the very few things, I should say —that he couldn’t argue about. Not that he wasn’t willing; but ten words after he began, his face flushed, his neck thickened, and he became near apoplectic” (April Morning, p. 51). Curiously, Mr. Cooper shows more open-mindedness about other faiths, visiting a synagogue while in Rhode Island: “Father said that apart from the fact that they kept their hats on in church and read from the Bible in Hebrew—something he had always aspired to—they didn’t seem any different from Presbyterians” (April Morning, p. 52). Indeed, religious minorities —including Jews, Moravians, and Catholics —who were discriminated against in Europe found a relative haven in the American colonies: in most regions, they were free to worship as they pleased. Historians Oscar and Lucinda Handlin write, “In New England the descendants of the Puritans had accepted the presence of the Church of England and then of various deviant groups. Congregationalists and Anglicans dominated Bristol, Rhode Island; across the bay in East Greenwich most families were Baptists and Quakers” (Handlin and Handlin, p. 161).
The novel begins on an ordinary afternoon at the home of the Coopers, a farming family in Lexington, Massachusetts. Fifteen-year-old Adam, the eldest son and narrator of the novel, goes through his daily routine—performing his chores, quarreling with his younger brother Levi, bantering with his mother and grandmother, and wondering if he can ever please his stem, undemonstrative father, Moses. That evening at supper, the Coopers are visited by Joseph Simmons, a cousin and the town blacksmith. In the course of the conversation, it is revealed that Mr. Simmons and Mr. Cooper both belong to a local Committee, which meets regularly at church to discuss possible solutions to the deteriorating relations between Britain and her colonies. Appointed to write a statement on the rights of man, which would then be posted in Boston, Mr. Simmons wishes to show his draft to Mr. Cooper, known in the community for his oratorical skills.
After a lengthy discussion, the two men depart for that evening’s Committee meeting. Adam asks to attend the meeting but his father refuses to bring him, citing Adam’s youth and immaturity. Adam’s mother and grandmother try to comfort the boy but he remains disconsolate. Seeking additional sympathy, Adam visits Mr. Simmons’s daughter, Ruth, whom he has known since childhood. During an evening walk, Adam complains to Rachel about his father, argues with her about politics and religion, then startles them both by suddenly kissing her.
Later, at home, Adam eavesdrops on his father’s report to the Cooper women on what happened at the meeting. Members had discussed the village weapons count, the possibility of drilling, or training with their weapons, the viability of a local newspaper to connect the Committees with the people, and finally, the issue of whether minutes from the meetings should be kept. Adam’s father, Mr. Cooper, had spoken out strongly in favor of keeping minutes and so had prevailed. Afterwards, the Cooper women bring up the subject of Adam. Mr. Cooper is astonished and dismayed to learn that his son thinks he does not care for him. Adam falls asleep feeling better about his relationship with his father.
That night, a rider from Boston rouses the community with the news that a British army is marching towards Lexington and Concord. The men of Lexington argue about what should be done next; some dismiss the rider’s report as nonsense. Others call for an immediate muster of the militia. Still others, including Adam’s father, believe a Committee meeting should be convened to discuss the matter more reasonably. Finally the reverend suggests that nothing be done until more details are known, especially since the local militia are likely to be outnumbered and easily defeated by British troops. The reverend’s last claim, however, causes the out-spoken Mr. Cooper to side with those eager to muster the militia, the position that finally prevails.
The boys of the community are excited to learn that the muster book is being signed. Determined to participate in whatever action occurs, Adam hurries over to the common, or village green, to sign up. Mr. Cooper consents to his son placing his name in the muster book, after which father and son return home to collect their guns and take leave of their family. The two share a rare moment of closeness as the elder Cooper advises his son how to load and prepare his gun for battle before they gather on the common with the rest of the militia.
Waiting before dawn, the men discuss what may happen. Although some are eager to fight, most hope that reason will triumph and war will be avoided. In the morning, the British troops finally reach Lexington and confront the Massachusetts militia on the village green. The reverend attempts to speak to Major Pitcairn, the British officer in charge, but the effort is disregarded. After the militia refuses the order to disperse, the redcoats (British soldiers) fire upon them. Mr. Cooper and several others are killed in the first volley; panicked, the rest of the militia scatters. Sickened and frightened by what he has just experienced, Adam manages to escape the British and hides in a neighbor’s smokehouse.
Eventually Adam regains his composure, forcing himself to accept his father’s death and acknowledge the militia’s foolhardiness in confronting the more numerous British troops. Later, Adam’s brother Levi finds him in his hiding place and fills him in on the terrible details of what happened to some of their neighbors in the battle. Mr. Cooper’s body has been retrieved by the women of Lexington and brought home. Levi also informs Adam that he cannot come home yet because redcoats are patrolling the area and that Granny Cooper advises he hide in the woods until nightfall. Realizing that he is now the man of the family, Adam comforts Levi, then sends him back to the farm, assuring the boy that he can take care of himself.
Leaving the smokehouse, Adam is nearly captured by redcoats but manages to outrun them in the woods. He encounters an ally—the 61-year-old Solomon Chandler, a veteran of the French and Indian wars. Together, they travel through the woods, finally reaching Lincoln, where the Dovers—Adam’s cousins—live. Adam tells the Dovers what happened at Lexington that morning, then the men proceed to an assembly held at a local pasture. More men—committee members from other towns—have gathered there, including some of the survivors from Lexington; Adam is reunited with the Reverend and Cousin Simmons.
Discovering that the British are returning to Lexington from Concord, the assembly, led by Solomon Chandler, vow revenge on their enemy. From vantage points behind walls and trees, the militia shoot at British troops as they march along the road, killing or wounding several redcoats. After this skirmish, the men decide to divide into small groups and lead separate attacks on the British. Cousin Simmons takes Adam with him; they encounter and fire upon British soldiers. Sickened by all he has seen that day, Adam longs for an end to the fighting. Simmons, however, insists that a war is upon them and the fighting has only just begun.
Arriving at a friendly farm, Adam and Cousin Simmons join a party of men hoping to trap the British on the road between Lexington and Menotomy and keep them there until more committee men arrive. En route, the militia surprise a British cavalry patrol, wounding and capturing one of the officers, a boy of about 20. Continuing on, Adam and Simmons discuss the likelihood of war; Adam complains that he has “had a bellyful of war and killing,” but Simmons maintains that the colonists cannot stop fighting until the British depart and leave them in peace (April Morning, p. 159).
Hearing a report that Lexington is burning, Adam grows even more worried about his family. He marches on with the rest of the militia to Menotomy, however, and takes his place among the fighters. While the campaign does not go entirely as planned (the British are not successfully contained between Metonomy and Lexington), both sides continue to fire at each other. Realizing that his fowling piece is useless at this distance, Adam stops shooting and falls asleep, exhausted by all that has occurred that day. On awakening, he discovers that the fighting has apparently stopped; he also overhears the reverend and Cousin Simmons discussing him as though he has been killed and hastens to reassure them of his survival. Both men are happy to see him alive and astonished that he slept during part of the battle.
As the day draws to a close, Adam, Simmons, and the reverend head back to Lexington, where they discover to their relief that only three houses have been burned, rather than the whole village. Adam continues on alone to the Cooper farm, where he has an emotional reunion with his family. Over the next several hours, Adam tries to cope with his new responsibilities as the man of the house—comforting his grieving relatives, filling them in on the details of the day’s battle, and helping with the arrangements for his father’s burial. Later, Cousin Simmons again broaches the subject of war to Adam, remarking that both of them must soon decide whether they will fight in it. Feeling painfully suspended between childhood and manhood, Adam wishes he could return to the former and not have to make such decisions.
At home, Adam encounters Ruth Simmons and they achieve an understanding about their relationship, agreeing to marry when they are old enough. When the neighbors have left the Cooper farm, Adam tries again to console his mother and grandmother. The latter wants to know if Adam means to sign the muster book for the siege of Boston, now circulating through the town. Adam reluctantly admits that he probably will, but does not wish to talk about that tonight. Retiring to his bed, Adam thanks God that this day is finally over and bids “farewell to a childhood, a world, a secure and sun-warmed existence and past that was over and done with and gone away for all time”(April Morning, p. 202).
Rite of passage
In April Morning, the Battle of Lexington serves as a catalyst on several levels. Just as the American colonies take their first painful step towards nationhood, so does Adam Cooper take his first painful step towards manhood. The opening shots of the American Revolution provide a backdrop against which to view a boy’s rapid maturation in the space of less than 36 hours.
Throughout the novel, Adam’s character is mainly defined through his problematic relationship with his father, the stern, outspoken Moses Cooper. In the first half of the story, Adam is described as being almost as tall and strong as a grown man; emotionally and intellectually, however, he is still a child, dawdling over performing his chores, fretting over his father’s frequent reprimands, quarreling with his younger brother, and receiving comfort and sweets from the Cooper women, who dote upon him. Like a child, Adam sulks when his father refuses to take him to a committee meeting and runs off to a neighbor’s house in hopes of receiving sympathy there.
Learning of the British troops’ projected arrival and preparing for the impending confrontation alters Adam’s perception of his entire world, including his father. Moses Cooper’s insistence on discipline and occasional harshness are revealed as a sincere attempt to guide his son towards manhood and thus improve his chances of survival. Armed with this new understanding, Adam willingly heeds his father’s instructions on how to load and prepare his gun before facing the British.
“Load it up. I want to watch you.”
I nodded and took my powder bottle and measured
out the cap measure for the muzzle.
“It’s not enough,” Father said harshly.
“It’s the hunting measure.”
“You’re not hunting.”
My mouth was dry. “How much?” I asked.
“How many pellets?” he demanded
“Do you count them?” he asked scornfully.
“Yes, sir—I count them.”
“You’ll stop to count pellets tomorrow? Is that
“No, sir. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Then think!” he shouted. “Think! Use your
head! Put your hand in the shot pouch and pull
out a handful. Feel it in your hand . . . remember
what it feels like. . . .”
(April Morning, pp. 76–77)
Adam’s first experience of battle and his father’s death further propel him towards maturity. Despite his grief, the youth quickly realizes that he is now the head of the Cooper family and responsible for the well-being of his mother, brother, and grandmother. This realization is reinforced by the attitudes of neighbors, who, after witnessing Mr. Cooper’s death at Lexington, afford Adam a man’s place in their company as they march off to engage the British once more. Although daunted by his new responsibilities and the knowledge that he has “parted with childhood and boyhood forever,” Adam attempts to adjust to his new role (April Morning, p. 182). Returning home, he consoles his bereaved family and tries to help Levi accept the same harsh realities he has had to face: “Now listen to me, Levi. Father’s dead. That’s all there is to it, and you might as well be a man enough to face it. You can’t break into tears every time anyone mentions his name. We have very large responsibilities, you and me”(April Morning, p. 176).
The difficult, often contentious interaction between Moses and Adam Cooper accurately reflects parent-child relationships in colonial New England communities. Indeed, as strict as the Cooper parents, especially Mr. Cooper, may appear to modern readers, they actually demonstrate the more lenient parenting style that developed during the 1700s. A century earlier, Puritan families—from whom people such as the Coopers were most likely descended—exercised a much greater and sterner degree of control over their children. Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg write, “Seventeenth-century Puritans cared deeply for their children and invested an enormous amount of time and energy in them, but they were also intent on repressing what they perceived as manifestations of original sin through harsh physical and psychological measures” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 2). The authority of Puritan patriarchs in their own homes was absolute and unquestioned: “Law and church doctrine made it the duty of wives, children, and servants to submit to the father’s authority” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 9).
By the time of the American Revolution, however, significant changes had occurred in parenting practices. Colonial development weakened paternal authority by providing economic opportunities that could render adult children less dependent on their parents for their future provision; new philosophies, like those espoused by French intellectual Jean Jacques Rousseau, posited that children were not inherently sinful beings but “innocent and malleable creatures whose characters could be molded into any shape” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 17). The emotional climate within the family unit thus began to change; relations between all members became warmer, more openly affectionate. In April Morning, Adam and Levi are occasionally indulged, even spoiled, by the women in the family; Moses Cooper, himself the product of a stricter upbringing, is astonished and dismayed to hear that Adam doubts his love, protesting to his wife, “[W]hy, how could any man love a son any more than I love that boy? … I was somewhat sharp with him at the table, but boys get over that kind of thing. I’m old enough and wise enough now to thank the good God that my own father never spared the rod and spoiled the child”(April Morning, p. 45).
Sources and literary context
The plot of April Morning revolves mainly around the events surrounding the Battle of Lexington and the battle itself, both of which are well-documented. Fast probably drew from a variety of historical sources to provide the details he needed. Several real-life figures are mentioned in the novel, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams; others appear as characters—Jonas Harper and Caleb Harrington, for example, are killed at Lexington. But not all of the real-life figures are specifically named, like Paul Revere who brings the news to Lexington of the British troops’ impending arrival. The Coopers, however, are Fast’s own invention, a device that allows the author to explore momentous events through the eyes of an ordinary New England family.
April Morning fits squarely into the category of historical fiction, a genre that held a lingering appeal for Fast. Several of his early works, including his first novel Two Valleys, were set during the American Revolution. Throughout his literary career, Fast returned continually to that time period, writing about such figures as George Washington (in The Unvanquished) and focusing upon such themes as the fight for freedom. His filtering of the events of Lexington and Concord, through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, renders the novel as much a coming-of-age story as a historical recreation. Fast’s painstaking depiction of Adam Cooper’s particular thoughts and fears have led several critics to compare April Morning favorably to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which also features a boy’s first experience of battle and subsequent growth to manhood (also in Literature and Its Times).
Youth activism and the New Frontier
While April Morning painstakingly recreates colonial New England in the days before the American Revolution, the novel also reflects the spirit of activism that pervaded 1960s America. Activists of the 1960s staged demonstrations, sit-ins, and protest marches in a struggle for causes such as civil rights, women’s rights, and the Vietnam War. And often America’s youth—high school and college students—stood in the forefront of the struggle.
Teenage youth had begun to emerge as a subculture in the United States in the 1950s, becoming more conspicuous than in any previous generation. A distinct set of teenage habits gained currency, tied to preferences in music, clothing, and cars. Slowly youth became politically engaged. The 1950s gave rise to some major civil rights victories—the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education (which outlawed segregation in American schools) and the Montgomery bus boycott (ended segregation on Montgomery, Alabama, buses). Encouraged by these victories, African American students numbered among the earliest activists in the 1960s.
On February 1, 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, a black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged the first sit-in at the all-white lunch counter of a local department store. Refused service because they were black, the students sat at the counter until the store closed that day, then returned the next day, and the next. Soon, a wave of sit-ins swept the country—mainly in the South but also in some areas of the North. Together black students and white students occupied white libraries, white beaches, and the lobbies of hotels that catered to whites, in protest against policies of discrimination and segregation. Youth involvement was not confined to protest movements either.
This wave of youthful activism coincided with the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy. Ambitious, dynamic, energetic, and the youngest candidate yet, Kennedy exhorted America to meet the challenges of the “New Frontier”—to tackle “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, [and] unanswered questions of poverty and surplus”—if it truly aspired to become the world’s greatest nation (Kennedy in Nash, p. 960). Elected in 1960, he expanded upon this theme in his inaugural address, evoking the nation’s past as well as its promise for the future, emphasizing the need to work together, appealing especially to the young: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage. . . . And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy in Nash, pp. 960–961).
This “new generation” eagerly answered his call. Many young people joined a volunteer organization created by President Kennedy on March 1, 1961. Called the Peace Corps, the organization sent members to work in impoverished countries for two years, promoting world peace and friendship. A type of revolutionary fervor spread, filling at least some young people with the conviction that they could and should do something to make a difference in the world. By the end of 1961, an estimated 500 volunteers had completed their training and had taken up their new responsibilities in various African, Asian, and Caribbean countries.
While it is unclear how much of an influence any of this ferment had on Fast’s writing of April Morning, a parallel can be drawn between the young people of the Revolutionary and modern eras. Like the fictional Adam Cooper and his real-life peers, the youthful activists of the 1960s shouldered adult roles and responsibilities. Both eras gave rise to young people who set out to shape their future in ways that would give reality to lofty ideals.
On its publication in 1961, April Morning received mostly positive reviews. Critics praised Fast’s attention to detail and recreation of an exciting period in American history. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement thought that the story slowed down once Fast began describing the battles and M. C. Scoggin of Horn Book felt that “[s]ome of the ideas expressed by the characters sound anachronistic,” but these were minor complaints in what most critics felt to be an excellent historical novel (Scoggin in Davison, p. 419).
Fast’s meticulous depiction of everyday colonial life on the eve of the American Revolution garnered particular praise. Kenneth Fearing, in the New York Times Book Review, observed, “A veteran of this sort of historical recreation, Howard Fast has admirably recaptured the sights and sounds, the religious and political idioms, the simple military tactics and strategies of that day—maneuvers that foreshadow the painful development of a professional army” (Fearing in Hunter, p. 54). Dorothy Nyren wrote in Library Journal, “There is nothing grandiose, nothing inflated, nothing chauvinistic about this book, but the rugged virtues, the simple uprightness of the Coopers and their neighbors are presented with conviction and grace” (Nyren in Davison, p. 419).
Other critics commended Fast’s decision to portray the war through its impact on a single New England family and community. R. H. Glauber, of the New York Herald Tribune Lively Arts, wrote, “It is a fine book which catches not only the tremendous excitement of this famous encounter that started the Revolutionary War but also its inevitably more personal aspects” (Glauber in Davison, p. 419). Calling April Morning the author’s “best to date,” Curt Gentry of the San Francisco Chronicle, declared, “Here Fast has achieved a rare thing—he has caught with remarkable simplicity that long moment when all men entering their first battle are as Adam, newborn, afraid, astonished that war is really as it is” (Gentry in Davison, p. 419).
—Pamela S. Loy
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