Esther Forbes believed that history is not about events as much as it is about people. As a result, Johnny Tremain, a historical novel set in colonial Boston just prior to and at the beginning of the American Revolution, follows the character development of fourteen-year-old Johnny Tremain as he grows into a young man. Using a host of historical research, including official records, diary entries, and letters of actual eighteenth-century apprentices, Forbes created the story of a silversmith at first unknowledgeable, then undecided about, and finally supportive of the cause of American independence. As she said in her Newbery Award acceptance speech for the book, she was "anxious to show young readers something of the excitement of human nature, never static … and endlessly fascinating."
The book almost instantly became a staple in school literature and history classrooms for its literary quality as well as for the glimpses of history and colonial life it conveys. It is the story of Johnny Tremain, a young man whose life takes a turn after an accident in his apprenticeship. Without a job or much hope for a future, he becomes involved in the growing rebellion against British rule, interacting with famous American historical figures such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Johnny's participation in the rebellion, including the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's midnight ride, and the American Revolution, leads him to find an identity and purpose in life that had previously been missing.
Some critics, like Joel Taxel in his essay "The American Revolution in Children's Fiction," claim the book demonstrates too much patriotism, which can get in the way of telling a balanced story. Taxel quotes Alistair Cooke as saying that the patriotism in Johnny Tremain becomes "a flattering explanation of a complicated story … [that] satisfies our insatiable hunger for good guys and bad guys." However, others have perceived the book as conveying the depth of the tense time by presenting the ambiguous positions of the characters, the human side of both the colonists and the British soldiers encamped in Boston, and the inner turmoil and severe consequences of going to war. At the same time, the book champions human rights and liberty.
Though other historical novels of the American Revolution have been written since 1943, few have replaced Forbes's Johnny Tremain in popularity, not even the often-compared My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) by James and Chris Collier. The Walt Disney Company made Forbes's book into a film in 1957. In conveying the struggle of a boy becoming a man as a parallel to a young land becoming an independent nation, Forbes's novel has stood as a timeless classic of American literature for over sixty years.
Esther Forbes was born in Massachusetts on June 28, 1891. Her father was a judge and her mother was a professional researcher and writer. They influenced her decision to study journalism at the University of Wisconsin. When World War I interrupted her studies, she traveled to Virginia to work on a farm. She never returned to college but instead worked as an editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston and eventually married.
When she began thinking about Johnny Tremain, she had envisioned a neutral protagonist, but according to an interview with Robert Van Gelder in Writers and Writing, she said that once the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, she "was suddenly the most unneutral woman in the world." She found the idea of a person who could stay neutral during war "absurd." She began writing Johnny Tremain on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The novel won the Newbery Award, and her biography of Paul Revere, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. By the time she died on August 12, 1967, she had published eleven historical novels, four magazine essays, and four short stories.
Chapter 1: Up and About
In the early morning, Mrs. Lapham, the widowed daughter-in-law of the aging Mr. Lapham, awakens the household. This includes not only her daughters, Madge, Dorcas, Cilla, and Isannah, but Mr. Lapham's silversmithing apprentices as well: Dusty Miller, Dove, and Johnny Tremain. Though not the oldest of the apprentices, Johnny possesses the greatest skill, so he does not have to complete menial chores as Dove and Dusty do. But Johnny tends to be
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prideful and treats Dusty and Dove poorly. Mr. Lapham keeps warning him about his pride and makes him read passages from the Bible about that very topic.
Mr. Lapham gets an important and potentially lucrative job from Mr. John Hancock, making a new sugar basin to replace a melted one from his coffee creamer set. Johnny spends all night trying to fashion the wax mold for the sugar basin properly. After Johnny finally goes to bed, Cilla and Isannah wake him up because Isannah is feeling ill, and they travel to the wharf together to try to ease Isannah's sickness. While there, Johnny reveals to Cilla his family secret: through his dead mother, he is actually related to the aristocratic Merchant Lyte family, and he has a silver cup to prove that lineage.
Chapter 2: The Pride of Your Power
Johnny continues to work on the intricate sugar basin mold and seeks out Paul Revere, the most talented silversmith in Boston who would later serve an important role in the American Revolution. Revere critiques Johnny's work on the mold so far and then offers to buy the rest of Johnny's apprenticeship from Mr. Lapham so that Johnny can work with him. Johnny is excited by the possibility of working with the great Paul Revere.
Dove and Dusty deliberately work slowly to repay Johnny for his meanness to them, and Johnny knows he will not finish making the sugar bowl by the Monday deadline unless he breaks the law by working on Sunday. As a trick, Dove and Dusty give Johnny a cracked crucible, or cup-shaped vessel made of a material that can withstand very high temperatures, to pour the molten silver into. In his rush to stop the silver from overflowing the broken crucible, Johnny reaches for it, trips, and lands with his hand on the hot furnace covered with liquid silver. Because they cannot fetch a doctor on the Sabbath without being discovered as having broken the law, the Laphams call a midwife who attempts to treat Johnny but cannot fix the damage from the injury. Johnny's hand closes in on itself and will never again allow him to work as a silversmith. Upon seeing Johnny's injured hand, Mrs. Lapham says, "Now isn't that a shame! Bright boy like Johnny just ruined. No more good than a horse with sprung knees." His promising career as a silversmith is over. Mrs. Lapham relegates the menial chores to Johnny, and he feels useless. He wanders the town to heal his aching loneliness and depression. Mr. Lapham tells him to take as long as he needs to find other work that suits him.
Chapter 3: An Earth of Brass
Johnny continues to wander the streets in search of work but finds none. He tries to go without food and to be at the Lapham home as little as possible. While looking for a job, Johnny meets Rab Silsbee, a printer's apprentice, at the Boston Observer printshop, and Rab shares some of his lunch with him. Rab tells Johnny he should take whatever job he can find and not be picky about it. When Johnny returns to the Lapham home in hopes of a breakfast meal, he speaks roughly about Mr. Lapham's new apprentice, Percival Tweedie, and Mrs. Lapham throws him out of the house. Johnny meets John Hancock on the street, but Hancock turns him away from a job because he cannot write. However, he gives him money for food and clothing, and wishes him well.
Mrs. Lapham accuses Johnny of stealing when he comes home with new shoes and gifts for Cilla and Isannah purchased with Hancock's money. Isannah rejects him because of his hand, telling him, "Go away, Johnny, go away! I hate your hand." Johnny becomes more depressed than ever. He goes to his mother's grave and cries himself to sleep, but not before he decides he will go to see Merchant Lyte, his supposed relative, to see if Lyte will help him.
Chapter 4: The Rising Eye
Mr. Lyte laughs when he hears Johnny's claim to be a relative, but Johnny says he has a cup with Lyte's coat of arms on it to prove it. Lyte asks Johnny to describe the cup and then suspiciously tells Johnny to bring the cup to him at his house. When Johnny arrives at Lyte's lavish Beacon Hill home, Lyte says the cup "was stolen from me by thieves." Johnny is arrested for theft. Rab gets Johnny released from jail and secures a lawyer for him. Johnny wins in court with the help of Cilla's testimony verifying that Johnny had never shown the cup to anyone. The judge dismisses the case because there is no evidence that Johnny stole the cup and gives the cup back to Johnny.
Chapter 5: The Boston Observer
Johnny approaches Lyte with an offer to the sell the cup to him for twenty pounds. Lyte scoffs at the offer and then calls two associates into his office to hold Johnny. He is determined to get his cup back and threatens to send Johnny away on his ship to Guadalupe. Johnny escapes from Lyte's office and runs into Rab's Uncle Lorne, who runs the printshop. Johnny accepts a job as a courier for the Boston Observer, for which he has to ride Goblin, a beautiful but skittish horse. He eventually learns to ride and to control Goblin. While Johnny is delivering a paper to Sam Adams, another figure of the Revolution, one of Adams's maids accidentally throws dishwater on him. Taking him inside to dry off, Johnny meets Adams, and they develop a friendship. Johnny often meets with Adams, "and the great leader of the gathering rebellion would talk with him in that man-to-man fashion which won so many hearts." Johnny moves into the attic room with Rab, and after spending time with him, discovers he is a "born fighter—ferocious, utterly fearless, quick and powerful—but he didn't fight often and he hadn't much to say afterwards."
Chapter 6: Salt-Water Tea
As Johnny improves at riding, he gets additional jobs. Uncle Lorne is involved in printing placards and fliers for the Sons of Liberty, of which Sam Adams is a member. Johnny learns that the Sons of Liberty are planning to prevent the ship Dartmouth from entering Boston Harbor with its load of tea. Johnny acts as a messenger to inform all of the men of the Sons of Liberty about secret meetings. In this way, he meets and interacts with many famous men of the day: John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and James Otis. Johnny attends the secret meeting that night, and the next day, he takes part in the raid. The men black out their faces with soot so that no one recognizes them as they board the Dartmouth, where they "broke open the chests and flung the tea into the harbor," in an event that became known as the Boston Tea Party.
Chapter 7: The Fiddler's Bill
Angry over the tea party, British officials close the port of Boston, and British soldiers move into the town. However, the "punishment united the often jealous, often indifferent, separate colonies." Through Johnny's work as a mail-deliverer, he becomes a spy for the Sons of Liberty. Two of Lapham's daughters, Cilla and Isannah, with whom Johnny has remained friends, move into the Lyte's home as servants of Lyte's daughter, Lavinia. Mr. Tweedie, Lapham's chief apprentice, fires Dove, and he becomes a stable boy for British officers. The other stable boys tease and beat him, and Johnny finds himself actually protecting the boy who was partially responsible for his wounded hand. A British colonel tries to commandeer Goblin, and Johnny tells him to take the horse for a ride first, knowing that Goblin does not respond well to strange riders.
Johnny begins to wonder what use he and his crippled hand can be in the fight for liberty. Johnny visits the Lapham home and makes peace with his past there. He visits Cilla and Isannah and finds that Cilla, on whom he has a crush, is treated badly, and Isannah has become like a pet to Lavinia. Tensions have greatly increased in Boston, so much so that some Whigs, supporters of the Revolution, move out, and Tory families, supporters of the British, move into town for the protection of the British troops stationed there.
Chapter 8: A World to Come
The Lytes leave for their summer house in Milford, where the Sons of Liberty conduct a raid on their house. Merchant Lyte has a fit and collapses on the way back to Boston, and the family seeks shelter from the mob in the guardhouse at the gates of town. Cilla wants to return to the Milton house to get the silver and restore the house's order, and Johnny goes with her. While there, he finds a family tree in the family Bible and discovers that he is Lyte's grandnephew. Though he could take back his stolen silver cup and the documents proving his lineage, he has matured enough not to want to do so, and he does not. Johnny and Cilla witness Minutemen on the move toward Boston and know that war is coming. Rab is caught attempting to buy a musket, but because of his age, the British let him go. Johnny's relationship with Cilla grows deeper, as she admits that her mother always thought Cilla and Johnny should marry. Johnny sits in on a meeting of the Sons of Liberty at which James Otis gives a rousing speech about fighting for the rights of all men, so all men "can stand up." As the meeting ends, several members head to the Continental Congress meetings in Philadelphia.
Chapter 9: The Scarlet Deluge
Johnny becomes a part of the new and increasingly vigilant spy system that Paul Revere and Dr. Warren have devised. Johnny must watch Colonel Smith and the other officers of the tenth regiment of the British army, and his information helps foil a plan for the British to fortify Fort William and Mary at Portsmouth. The Americans seize Fort William and Mary, along with British military supplies. Rab and Johnny get Dove drunk so that they can get information from him about the British officer's plans. Johnny befriends British Lieutenant Stranger, and the two spend time jumping horses, as they are equals in the saddle. His relationship with Stranger is a puzzle to Johnny, as Stranger is both his friend and his enemy.
Tensions continue to increase in Boston, and one day Johnny and Goblin are stopped and threatened with lashing. Pumpkin, a British soldier working for Lyte, nods to Johnny at the right time and mouths the word "spurs," indicating that Johnny should spur the horse and escape, which he does. Shortly afterward, Johnny meets Pumpkin and learns that Pumpkin wants to desert the British army and become a farmer in America. He asks Johnny for help, and Johnny agrees to get him a disguise and arrange for his safe passage with a relative of Mr. Lorne's. In exchange, Johnny takes Pumpkin's musket for Rab and his group of Minutemen. Johnny and Rab, like many Boston residents, secretly make bullets at night. For his desertion, Pumpkin is executed by a firing squad. Johnny witnesses Pumpkin's death. He realizes that his crippled hand may be the key to avoiding a death similar to Pumpkin's, as he would never be accepted as a soldier with his injury. He is both ashamed and comforted by this fact.
Chapter 10: 'Disperse Ye Rebels!'
It is April 1775. Revere tells of his plan to warn the area militiamen that the British are coming by hanging one light on the church in Charlestown if the British are coming by land, and two lights if they are coming by sea. Rab, now eighteen, leaves Boston so that he will not be held in the city and unable to fight. He and Johnny part unceremoniously, and Johnny regrets seeing his friend go. He fears for Rab, and he questions his own courage because of that fear. Johnny spends a lot of time helping Dove so that he can get key information about British troop movements. Johnny learns from Dove that Colonel Smith is preparing to leave that night at eight o'clock, possibly for a campaign. Johnny informs Paul Revere and Dr. Warren that the attack will occur that night. Revere and Bill Dawes must leave immediately on horseback to warn the other towns. Johnny must deliver the message that two lights must hang in the tower at North Church as a message that the British will come by sea. The war begins in Lexington at midnight, April 19, 1775.
Chapter 11: Yankee Doodle
British General Gage sends troops from house to house to find the rebels, but he is too late; the key leaders have all gone. Johnny keeps himself in the shadows to avoid capture and continue gathering information. British troops surge into Boston in such great numbers that they look like "red ants" in their scarlet uniforms. The British have destroyed Mr. Lorne's printing press, and Mr. Lorne has gone into hiding because he fears for his life, but he is still defiant. The Lytes have decided to flee to London. Cilla and the cook, Bessie, will stay behind, but Isannah will go because she chooses to do so, and Mrs. Lapham has signed papers to give her to Lavinia. As Cilla and Bessie help Isannah get ready, Lavinia tells Johnny the truth about his parents and his lineage, confirming the fact that they are indeed cousins and he is entitled to some of their property. After the Lytes leave, Johnny arranges for Mr. Lorne and his family, and Goblin to stay at the Lyte's Boston house with Cilla and Bessie. Johnny asks Cilla to find the British uniform Pumpkin left behind because he will need it to get out of Boston. The uniform is a little bit large, but when Johnny puts it on he feels "confident and happy … like a different person."
Chapter 12: A Man Can Stand Up
Disguised as a British soldier, Johnny pretends to have a letter for Earl Percy and crosses safely into Charlestown. He makes his way to Lexington and Dr. Warren, who takes him to Rab. Rab has suffered a fatal injury without ever having fired his own musket. He lives long enough for Johnny to speak with him. Rab gives Johnny his musket and asks Johnny to check on his family. Johnny goes to the home, but he finds it abandoned. He notices that the gun and powder horn once over the mantle have vanished, and he suspects Grandsire Silsbee has gone to war. While Johnny is doing this errand for Rab, Rab dies. Dr. Warren examines Johnny's crippled hand and tells Johnny that if he has enough courage, the doctor can perform surgery to repair it enough so Johnny will be able to hold and fire a musket. Johnny agrees to the surgery, and while Dr. Warren prepares, Johnny goes out into a nearby field to think about his future and America's future. He sees Grandsire Silsbee but knows he will not stop even for Rab's death because he is leading men to Cambridge. Johnny realizes that though men may die, the thing that they are dying for—liberty—will live on.
A revolution is a sudden and drastic change in a social or political institution, led either by an entire population or a small group of revolutionaries. In the case of the American Revolution, a small group of revolutionaries, the Sons of Liberty, encouraged a large population of fellow Americans to rebel against oppressive British rule. The Revolution successfully brought about American independence from Britain and brought about a new nation.
The characters of Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and James Otis exemplify the revolutionary spirit in Johnny Tremain. Sam Adams inspires the people to hope for liberty, and as Rab's Uncle Lorne tells him, "Without you … there would not have been any belief in liberty." Paul Revere risks his life to pass along news of the coming British invasion in order to warn the Minutemen to prepare to fight. In the chapter "A World to Come," James Otis speaks to why the Americans should rebel against the British. They must fight so that "[t]here is no more tyranny. A handful of men cannot seize power over thousands. A man shall choose who it is shall rule over him." Otis argues that the battle has worth only if it takes place to benefit all of mankind, not just the few or the rich. The reasons for armed struggle should have a more significant purpose than simply "free[ing] Boston from these infernal red coats" and have "more importan[ce] than the pocketbooks of our American citizens."
Instead, the revolution is concerned with "rights such as [people] will be enjoying a hundred years from now." This last assertion becomes a central focus of justifying the revolution in the action of the novel. The book admits repeatedly that people will die and that the land will be bloodied. After Rab, Johnny's best friend, dies, Johnny's conviction becomes the very essence of revolution: "Hundreds would die, but not the thing they died for. 'A man can stand up.'"
In Johnny Tremain, America evolves from a young colonial nation into an independent country, a transition that requires bravery, confidence, and resolve. At the same time, Johnny Tremain grows from a teenager who suffers a disfiguring injury into a revolutionary young man. Both events lead to independence: for America, independence from the British, and for Johnny, independence from self-doubt.
At the beginning of the novel, Johnny possesses great pride and arrogance, a desire to attach himself to the aristocratic Lyte family, and a tyrannical attitude toward the silversmith apprentices who possess less talent than he does. Egotistical and quick to anger, he is very self-involved. Yet, ironically, he lacks any true independence and inner strength. Once he suffers a disabling burn on his hand and loses his ability to work at his craft, he has to learn to stand on his own and overcome his disability. As C. Anita Tarr writes in her essay "A Man Can Stand Up," "For Johnny to become independent, he must give up this tie to the Lytes and make his own way, just as the Colonies must break their tie with England and create a new, independent path." For example, in Chapter 7, when Johnny recalls the experience of burning his hand and trying to recover, he understands that "in a way he had died in that room; at least something had happened and the bright little silversmith's apprentice was no more…. [N]ow he was somebody else."
Johnny must lose his debilitating self-interest and develop an interest in the needs of the wider community: the cause of liberty for all. Just as the Sons of Liberty agree to give up all of their property and even their very lives for the cause, Johnny tells Cilla that he too can give up his aristocratic longing. When, after the Lytes have fled, Johnny is given the opportunity to take his silver cup, he remarks: "I'm better off without it. I want nothing of them. Neither their blood nor their silver…. This is the end. The end of one thing—the beginning of something else." Johnny's participation in the revolutionary cause transforms him, just as it transforms America. Johnny's growth into manhood, maturity, and independence becomes a metaphor for the transition of the thirteen colonies, who unite to become the American nation.
Novels that "reveal some of the psychological and physical suffering caused by war" in some way show an anti-war bias, according to Chris Crowe in "Young Adult Literature, Peace-Keeping Forces: YA War Books." He goes on to say that in Johnny Tremain, Johnny "is initially enamored by the potential glory of war," but ultimately, he understands that in this war, "[h]undreds will die." Before he has his surgery, Johnny cannot fight and has to learn, as Tarr points out in "A Man Can Stand Up," that "his usefulness is not limited to actual fighting." In grasping that lesson, Johnny also begins to grasp the complexities of war. When he loses his best friend Rab in the very first battle of the Revolution, he fully comprehends the tragedy that comes with war. Thus there is a tension in the novel between the possible glory that comes with war and the reality that glory is, perhaps, the least of a soldier's worries while engaged in battle.
The Inevitability of War
In spite of glimpses of the complexities and hardships of war, Johnny Tremain seems to suggest that war is an inevitable part of human existence. In Chapter 8, for example, Dr. Joseph Warren mumbles, "[W]e are lucky men … for we have a cause worth dying for. This honor is not given to every generation." The implication that other generations may have "that honor" again stands out. In the two centuries since the Revolution, Americans have found themselves in several wars with causes "worth dying for," including the Civil War and World War II. On the flip side, however, wars have been waged without a cause that unites the soldiers in their purpose. Some have argued that World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Second Gulf War lacked "that honor" of having causes worth dying for, yet those conflicts were also somewhat inevitable, though for different reasons.
To emphasize the inevitability of war again, at the end of the novel, Johnny says a prayer for the Revolution, pleading, "Please God, out of this New England soil such men would forever rise up ready to fight when need came. The one generation after the other." The book closes, then, with a warning that the Revolutionary War will not mark the last time man has to fight for principles and for liberty. This idea echoes the time period in which the book was written, World War II. Johnny's prayer for generations to "rise up ready to fight when need came" connected the sacrifices and cause of the Revolution, a fight for liberty against the British, with the cause of World War II, a fight to liberate the world from tyranny. Readers at the time of Johnny Tremain's publication in 1942 would have found Dr. Warren's and Johnny's words about just causes for war as applicable to World War II as to the American Revolution. They, too, would be reminded that though thousands of soldiers would die, the things that they died for—liberty, freedom—would live on.
The Boston Tea Party
By the eighteenth century, Britain ruled a vast area of the North American continent. It governed these colonies from afar, with much of the decision- and law-making occurring in England without input from the colonists themselves. As John Butler details in Becoming America, British military success in the Seven Year's War (1756–63) "worsened the empire's long-standing fiscal problems … [and the] government needed money…. [It imposed] the Sugar Act … the Stamp Act … [and] Townsend duties, on tea, paint, paper, lead, and glass" on American colonists to help offset the expenses from the recent war. American colonists were enraged over being taxed without their consent in Parliament, giving rise to the popular slogan, "No taxation without representation."
In an act of protest over Britain's tax policies, the revolutionary group the Sons of Liberty boarded the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773, and dumped all of the crates of tea onboard over the side of the ships. The event was relatively peaceful and nonviolent. Britain responded with the Coercive Acts, which closed the Boston port, and placed local governmental powers and offices under British control. Eventually, the colonial government was abolished all together. Many of the colonists, even those who had sided with the Tories or had remained neutral, became outraged; war became inevitable.
The Continental Congress was the legislative body of the Thirteen Colonies, created in response to the Intolerable Acts. The Intolerable Acts was the name given to the Coercive Acts that the British imposed on the colonies after the Boston Tea Party. At the first meeting of the Continental Congress, September 5, 1774, to October 26, 1774, in Philadelphia, the Articles of Association were drafted. The Articles formed a contract between the colonies to boycott British goods and avoid exporting to Britain until the Coercive Acts were lifted.
The second meeting of the Continental Congress was in May 1775, after the Revolutionary War had already begun. This meeting created the Continental army, with General George Washington, America's future first president, in command. On July 4, 1776, the Congress drafted the Declaration of Independence, the founding document on which the independent America would build its nation. Members of the Continental Congress included Samuel Adams, who is mentioned in Johnny Tremain; Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane; speaker Patrick Henry, who coined the phrase "United we stand, divided we fall"; and future presidents George Washington, Benjamin Harrison, and John Adams.
The Continental Congress governed the newly independent United States until 1789, when it was replaced by the familiar structure of modern government.
The Revolutionary War (1775–1783)
On April 19, 1775, American Minutemen met British forces in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the first battle of the Revolutionary War, the "shot heard round the world." British troops retreated to Concord, where more fighting ensued, with the British suffering heavy losses against the colonial militia. The British sent for reinforcements and achieved their first victory at the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, in which both sides met with high casualties. General George Washington took charge of the militia shortly thereafter. In March 1779, the colonial militia ran the British out of Boston.
In the summer of 1776, British and Continental forces met in New York, first on Long Island, then Manhattan. The British ran the Continental army out of New York, capturing Fort Washington and Fort Lee in November 1776. While the British established winter headquarters in New Jersey, Washington made his famous trip across the Delaware River. In several battles in December 1776 and January 1777, Washington regained New Jersey for the Americans. The turning point of the war came in October 1777, when the Americans defeated the British at the second battle of Saratoga. Eventually, the French joined the Americans in opposition to the British.
Revolutionary War campaigns occurred in the North (Philadelphia, Massachusetts, New York); the South (the Carolinas, Virginia); the West (Ohio, Kentucky, Wyoming); the Gulf Coast; and the Caribbean. The battle that finally decided the war, and ended it, was the Battle of Yorktown on October 6, 1871. After the Continental and French armies defeated the British troops, the British Parliament voted to end the war in April 1782. The peace treaty was signed in Paris on September 3, 1783. It was ratified by the Continental Congress on January 14, 1784.
World War II
On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States became involved in World War II. While all Americans, including Esther Forbes, had known of the events and atrocities unfolding in Europe since 1939, the United States had hesitated to involve itself or its troops until it suffered attack itself. This political policy is known as isolationism. The day after the bombing, Esther Forbes began writing Johnny Tremain because she saw a parallel between the principles of the American Revolution and those of World War II. She felt that American young adults who would soon be asked to go to war needed a story to help them understand why they should go. In his article, "The American Revolution in Children's Literature," Joel Taxel states that Forbes "conceives of the Revolution as an ideologically motivated struggle," one that readers in her time could easily identify with. Taxel writes that such ideas were common in World War II-era books, "written during the era when European fascism threatened the freedoms and liberties of the entire globe."
In 1944 Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal, an award presented by the American Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children to the best young adult novel published in the previous year. Literary critics often cite the strength of Johnny Tremain's literary quality and the excellence of the novel's characterization. Marilyn Apseloff, for example, writes in her essay "Johnny Tremain and My Brother Sam Is Dead: Two Views of the American Revolution" that Johnny Tremain's "emphasis on dialogue and descriptive action keeps readers engrossed," and that Forbes can "evoke the period to bring it vividly to life." In "Esther Forbes: Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction," M. Sarah Smedman writes that "Forbes'[s] technique of conveying strong feeling through description of exterior behavior typifies her preference for understatement, and serves to soften harsh reality, to avoid sentimentality, and to heighten genuine emotion." Alice Jordan states in her essay "Esther Forbes, Newbery Winner" that Johnny Tremain "is a distinguished book, primarily, because the people in it are vigorously endowed with the human quality which binds one generation to another."
Critics, however, disagree whether Forbes presents a balanced, complex enough portrayal of America and the issues surrounding the American Revolution. Smedman and Tarr, for instance, argue that Forbes was too good of a historian to offer a one-sided, oversimplified version of history. But other critics disagree. In "Johnny and Sam: Old and New Approaches to the American Revolution," Chris Collier, the co-author of the young adult novel, My Brother Sam Is Dead, claims that Forbes's history in Johnny Tremain is one-sided, and "teach[es] nothing worth learning and … falsif[ies] the past in a way that provides worse than no help in understanding the present or in meeting the future," a view with which prominent children's literature critic Joel Taxel agrees. Marilyn Apseloff contends that Forbes's novel presents "the idea that war can be glorious," an approach for which she condemns the novel, though she admits that given the World War II feelings prevalent at the time, Forbes's choice is understandable.
Offering completely different views of reading Johnny Tremain, C. Anita Tarr examines the book as a retelling of Paradise Lost, British poet John Milton's epic story about Adam and Eve's temptation and subsequent ejection from the Garden of Eden. In the essay "The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain," Hamida Bosmajian perceives the book as a story of psychology that emphasizes individualization and empowerment through various stages of Johnny's characterization.
Contemporary critics consider not only the voices of existing characters, but also the voices of absent ones, and the contradictions common with books of any era previous to the 1980s. In his article "The American Revolution in Children's Literature," for example, Taxel notes that characters, especially the protagonists in the novel "are drawn from middle-to-upper class segments of colonial society…. The protagonists, several of whom champion liberty although they are slave-holders, are rarely shown to be sympathetic to those less fortunate than themselves." Bosmajian points to another inconsistency, namely "the institution of slavery is accepted by the Sons of Liberty who call themselves, metaphorically, 'enslaved' by the British." Critics also point out that the Sons of Liberty dress as Indians to stage their tea party, an action that showcases a controversial view of blame. As such, Taxel explains, "lower class characters are … usually characterized in an unfavorable manner if they are white, and vilified, more often than not, if they are black," and certainly—as is the case with the Boston Tea Party—if they are Native Americans as well.
Despite conflicting critical views of Johnny Tremain, the book met with popular success in the time of its publication, and it continues to be a popular text in history and English classrooms.
C. Anita Tarr
In the following excerpt, Tarr examines the various contexts in which the phrase "A man can stand up" is used in Johnny Tremain and how each suggests the novel's themes.
Johnny Tremain (1957) was adapted to film by Disney Studios. Directed by Robert Stevenson, it stars Richard Beymer, Whit Bissell, and Sebastian Cabot and runs eighty-five minutes. It was released on video cassette in 2003 and DVD in August 2005.
Johnny Tremain was released as an unabridged audio book on cassette in 1994, and on compact disc in 2002, by Blackstone Audio books. Grace Conlin is the narrator.
"A man can stand up" is a very powerful phrase that resonates throughout the novel (and is the title of the last chapter). When James Otis first declares his ideals, he is addressing the Sons of Liberty in an attic; his head almost touches the rafters above him. He pushes his arms above him and says, "… we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up." With Otis pushing at the rafters, the literal meaning of the phrase is clear: in order for the men to stand up, the roof will have come off, be pushed off—war must be declared. Otis's concern is that the Revolution be considered philosophically, that a precedent be set for future generations, so they can see the light of freedom. The Colonists should be able to stand for their rights and not bow before a king. Furthermore, Otis, fully aware of how the Revolution will spur on others to resist oppression, speaks prophetically. He acknowledges that the Revolution will not simply free the British Colonies in America but will give hope to all the oppressed around the world. That Forbes is referring to events current to World War II is evident. Paul Revere's reiteration of Otis's words are disturbingly relevant as much in 1993 as they were in 1943: "You know my father had to fly France because of the tyranny over there. He was only a child. But now, in a way, I'm fighting for that child … that no frightened lost child ever is sent out a refugee from his own country because of race or religion."
Taxel has noted that the phrase "a man can stand up," used so frequently in Johnny Tremain, is indicative of the novel's shortcomings (and thus Forbes' insensitivity), for, while Otis is declaring the sovereignty of man's natural rights, the slave trade was still active in the Colonies. Interestingly, while Johnny tends to represent the Colonies and the split from British aristocracy, he is a kind of tyrant in the beginning of the novel. As an apprentice silversmith, he manages the Lapham shop almost by himself, and he lords over and humiliates the other apprentices; they are referred to as Johnny's "subdued slaves." Even though as "an apprentice he was little more than a slave [himself] until he had served his master seven years," Johnny is an "autocratic rule[r]." His comeuppance—the burning of his hand—like Satan's burning in the lake of fire, is expected. Apparently, Forbes considered the temporary slavery of apprentices to be in itself a contradiction of the Revolution's ideals.
Thus Forbes's "a man can stand up" is a reaffirmation of Satan's rebellious spirit. Standing up is a direct contrast to Eve, an "unsupported flower" bent naturally, and to Cilla, who bends under the yoke when she must go to the town well to get fresh water. This humbling chore is given to the least-needed member of the household, and, after Johnny leaves, the apprentices take up the slack and Cilla becomes the house slave. She stoops to support the burden, she bends, she bows; she cannot yet stand up. Like Eve, she gives Johnny an apple—a green one—which he is wise enough to save; Rab consumes the apple and finds a worm inside. What Forbes claims is "the forbidden fruit of liberty" is already as tainted as Blake's sick rose. Them is no pure paradise, no innocence, suggests Forbes. Childhood holds the seed of rebellion and independence. Within the purest motives, such as Otis's ideological "a man can stand-up," is Sam Adams's predatory instinct to fight at any cost (Within heaven was once Satan.)
Because of Johnny's injured hand, he cannot hold a gun; he must learn that his usefulness is not limited to actual fighting. It is here that we see the book's antiwar theme. Johnny eventually becomes a spy as he delivers the militant newspaper, The Observer, and, later, important British messages, which he also passes on to the rebel Colonists. The sign post of The Observer is "the little man with the spyglass and the red breeches … observing Boston from a variety of angles." Johnny, too, becomes an observer as he travels from place to place and notes the preparations for the coming revolution "from a variety of angles." Likewise, after the battles begin, Johnny never sees any actual fighting. Instead, because he is an observer, he sees both British and American soldiers moaning in agony as they return from battle; he sees a British soldier (Pumpkin), who had only wanted to own a bit of his own land, being shot for desertion by his fellow soldiers; and he sees the battle casualties being buried—the British in unmarked, mass graves. Johnny Tremain does not offer us a "high noon" of confrontation, a revolution glorified by heroes and heroics. Johnny does not actually witness any battle. What the novel does offer is several different angles of vision—all of them tragically realistic. Johnny is Forbes herself, the observer, the writer who must look from many points of view to get closer to the true complexities. Her conclusion is that there was right on both sides, for both the English and the Colonists had justification. However, by the very nature of the relationship, the imperialist parent figure trying to hold down a rebellious child, the Colonies were assured of their independence.
There is no doubt that, at one level, Johnny Tremain be seen as a patriotic tribute to freedom from tyranny. The members of Lyte family, nouveau riche, are powerful, devious snobs, and they are Tories. Their family crest is "an eye rising up from the sea. From it rays of light (or lashes) streamed out …," with the words "Let there be Lyte." This image of a new dawn begins the novel, as Boston awakes, and refers of course to the dawn of the Revolution, one to which James Otis later refers: "But because we fight, they [the "peasants of France, the serfs of Russia"] shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west." Johnny's friend Cilla, pointing out that the Lyte crest could "just us well be a setting eye," foreshadows the fall of the Lytes and other aristocracy and the watchful eye/sun of the British empire. Through these symbolic representations, Forbes is no doubt conveying a message for her own times, since the Japanese flag is a rising sun that she hoped would soon set.
Since Forbes was aware that only white, male property owners benefitted immediately from the Revolution, her writing of Otis's speech passionately crying for freedom seems doubly ironic, for, as a woman, she had to feel the omission acutely. The question now arises as to how she intended us to read Johnny Tremain—literally or ironically. I believe both are appropriate, for the ironic reading is simply another angle of vision, one that readers in the 1940s and the 1990s can readily embrace.
Apassage in Johnny Tremain that I believe is meant to be read ironically is that in which a British soldier, recently married to Madge Lapham, is strutting before his bride with his troops. Forbes, as the narrator, says "Men went to war and women wept. All was as it should be." Can this be a serious statement? Already at this point in the novel, Johnny is about to see the reality of war, the wounded, dead, and dying. Although the novel is written in a third-person point of view, usually limited to Johnny, Forbes's sexist statement is questionable. Another statement a few paragraphs later is an obvious narrator intrusion: "But over here there had grown up a broader interpretation of the word 'liberty': no man to be ruled or taxed except by men of his own choice. But we are still fighting for 'English liberty' and don't you forget it." Both passages seems to be interruptions that challenge the reader to accept or reject these conclusions.
The issue of Forbes as a woman writing about the American Revolution is interesting because she does not present a strident voice protesting the obvious privilege of white men (although she does very strongly chastize the Lytes, the false aristocracy). Again, we can read "a man can stand up" ironically because Forbes depicts several female characters in important roles that serve as an avenue of exploration for a feminist agenda. It is true that in her novel Running of the Tide Forbes presents only one female character who has any backbone—Marcy Inman—and she is instructed to act more ladylike and to forswear all intellectual activities. Forbes seems to carry a grudge against women whose small worlds are limited by social graces. Her best characters in Running and in the later Rainbow on the Road (1954) aremen—adventurous, strong, responsible, caring. Her most negative portrayals are of women, especially those who themselves (like Marcy's mother and Polly Mompesson in Running) place restrictive barriers around young girls' possibilities.
In Johnny Tremain, there are several female characters in the Lapham household: the mother; the two older sisters, Madge and Dorcas; Cilla, Johnny's friend; and young Isannah, who looks like an angel. Minor female characters include Mrs. Bessie, housekeeper for the Lytes; Lydia, the laundress at the Afric Queen tavern; and Billy Dawes's wife. Mrs. Lapham, Madge, and Dorcas are hard workers but are insensitive to others and foolish about men. They are practical, and, not the least bit interested in art, they are concerned only with being comfortable. When Johnny is older, he comes to appreciate these women's practicality.
Beautiful and vain, Lavinia Lyte, though, dresses in London fashions and condescends to everyone but her father. She plays with her suitors, a powerful Aphrodite (or a Lilith). Lavinia Lyte, whom Johnny yearns for and then eventually rejects, is a foil to Cilia. Lavinia is an earlier version of Polly Mompesson of Running of the Tide, also a renowned beauty but more fragile. In Running, Polly is compared to Snow White, encased in a crystal coffin by her over-protective, Oedipal father, as she is worshipped from afar but remains unapproachable. While she can be helped out of the coffin by the right suitor, she must first begin to break free herself and to initiate a rebellion against her father that will enable her to be born into her independent self. Lavinia Lyte has no wish to break free of her ties with her father or with England, for she is engaged to marry a British lord the whole time that she is playing with other suitors' affections.
Forbes offers positive portraits in Johnny Tremain of even her minor female characters. Lydia, "the handsome black laundress," is friend to Johnny and passes on to him information and torn-up notes from the British officers staying at the tavern. (Taxel claims incorrectly that Johnny Tremain has no black characters; in addition to Lydia, there is Jehu, John Hancock's slave, and other nameless black characters.) Billy Dawes's wife sets off her husband on a dangerous journey to get word out to the Minute Men; she seems lighthearted while she laughs at his disguise but actually demonstrates her courage as she refuses to distract him with her worry. Another strong woman—Mrs. Bessie, the Lytes's housekeeper—is an ardent Whig who tells Johnny, "If there were Daughters of Liberty, I'd be one." When the Lytes return to England, she and Cilla decide to live in the Lyte house during the Revolution; they do so ostensibly to protect it but actually to hide Whig maneuverings inside.
Cilla is the primary female character; equal to Johnny, she is spirited without being mean-spirited and pretty but not conscious of it. Cinderella-like, her goodness and budding beauty triumph over her two older sisters. She is a very positive figure when she shows real desire to learn to read. She is incredibly loyal—to her own family, to Johnny after the accident, even to the Lytes, and to Isannah. Similarly, she tends to follow others, not always wisely, especially when she follows Isannah to the Lytes's house to stay. But this is where Cilia becomes independent of both Isannah and Johnny (she waits no longer for him to pay attention to her). Here, she is influenced by the strong Mrs. Bessie who supports Cilla's growing independence. Thus Johnny is not the only one to separate himself from old ties and desires; Cilla does too.
As Bosmajian has explained, the goldenhaired Isannah, looking like an angel, represents the woman who has no self and looks always to others to define her character. She transforms herself to be whatever is expected of her; she testifies at Johnny's trial and repeats a lie so convincingly that Johnny is released from Mr. Lyte's false accusation that Johnny had stolen his silver cup (Johnny's mother had given it to him as proof of his relationship to the Lytes). Because of her appearance, she seduces ministers on the street who cannot help but reward her with candy when she recites some Bible verses. Over Cilla's protests, Lavinia adopts her plans to make her into an actress. Additionally—also noted by Bosmajian—Isannah is a portrait of a witch; when Johnny is working illegally on the Sabbath to finish work for John Hancock, leading to the burning of his hand, "Isannah sat with the cat in her lap. 'Johnny's going to Hell,' she said firmly."
The female characters in Johnny Tremain are neither stereotypical nor insignificant. They are shown to be just as vital in the struggle for independence, though they do admittedly play a limited role. As Mrs. Bessie says, her participation is limited because of her sex, for there is no "Daughters of Liberty" organization. Nevertheless, she is self-supporting and is strong, and Cilla is her protege. Forbes has not forgotten that, when Otis says "a man can stand up," women are excluded. Rather, she attempts to demonstrate that when men can stand up, so too can women. So too can any person, of any race.
"A man can stand up" is an idealistic, symbolic phrase that implies action. Forbes places it casually in context several times throughout the novel to emphasize how an ideal must be protected. Rab claims that "A man can stand up to anything with a good weapon in his hands. Without it, he's but a dumb beast"—but then Rab dies without even firing the gun. The American men, though outnumbered seventy to seven hundred "stood up" to fight at Lexington. The Colonists "stood up at dawn and the [British] regulars killed quite a few of them." After the battle at Lexington, Johnny sees it "was here the men had stood …" Doctor Warren tells Johnny that "Rab stood here … just about where we are standing now. He did not go when Major Pitcairn told them to disperse, he kept on standing …" When Rab sends Johnny away, so as to miss his dying, Johnny's head is "bent," and he does not comprehend the horror of his friend's death. Still, when Johnny holds Rab's gun, Doctor Warren sees Johnny's hand and offers to slice the thumb free from the palm. In this way, Johnny can finally hold a gun. The thumb was bent toward the palm, but now it would be unconnected, straight and free. This is the rebel pose—to stand up, to stand free. When Johnny hears the fife and drum of the Colonists returning from battle, "He stood."
When Forbes compares Johnny Tremain to Paradise Lost, she is taking the same risks as Milton. Readers of Paradise Lost sympathize with Satan's rebellion, in spite of his reckless failures. Readers of Johnny Tremain are supposed to sympathize with the title character—but what if Johnny is a fool to "stand up"? Rab stands up, and he is killed. The Colonists at Lexington stand up, and many of them are killed. James Otis, the originator of the phrase "a man can stand up," is literally crazy. If we were fated to rebel, are we now living in hell?
Source: C. Anita Tarr, "'A Man Can Stand Up': CJohnny Tremain and the Rebel Pose," in Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, Vol. 18, December 2004, pp. 178-89.
Apseloff, Marilyn, "Johnny Tremain and My Brother Sam Is Dead: Two Views of the American Revolution," in Illinois English Bulletin, Vol. 65, No. 3, Spring 1978, pp. 17-22.
Bosmajian, Hamida, "The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain," in The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, June 1989, pp. 53-66.
Butler, John, "Chapter Six: 1776," in Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776, Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 225-50.
Collier, Christopher, "Johnny and Sam: Old and New Approaches to the American Revolution," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 52, No. 2, April 1976, pp. 132-38.
Crowe, Chris, "Young Adult Literature: Peace-Keeping Forces: Y.A. War Books," in The English Journal, Vol. 89, No. 5, May 2000, pp. 159-63.
Forbes, Esther, "Acceptance Paper," in Newbery Medal Books, 1922–1955, With their Author's Acceptance Papers and Related Material Chiefly From "The Horn Book Magazine," eds. Bertha Mahoney Miller and Elinor Whitney Field, Horn Book, Inc., 1955, pp. 248-54.
――――――, Johnny Tremain, Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, 1971.
Jordan, Alice, "Esther Forbes, Newbery Winner," in Newberry Medal Books, 1922–1955, With their Author's Acceptance Papers and Related Material Chiefly From "The Horn Book Magazine," eds. Bertha Mahoney Miller and Elinor Whitney Field, Horn Book, Inc., 1955, pp. 245-47.
Smedman, M. Sarah, "Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, ed. Perry Nodelman, Children's Literature Association, 1985, pp. 83-95.
Tarr, C. Anita, "'A Man Can Stand Up': Johnny Tremain and the Rebel Pose," in The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, December 1994, pp. 178-89.
Taxel, Joel, "The American Revolution in Children's Fiction: An Analysis of Historical Meaning and Narrative Structure," in Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 7-55.
Van Gelder, Robert, "An Interview with Esther Forbes," in Writers and Writing 95, Scribners, 1946.