- Narrative Loss and the Melancholic Reader of Johnny Tremain
In 2001, Newsweek writer Evan Thomas coined the phrase "founders chic" to describe the surge of public interest at the beginning of the new millennium in the Founders and events surrounding the American Revolution. Books about the Founders have enjoyed massive sales and long-term spots on bestseller lists, and also received prestigious awards. Books about the Revolutionary generation and its work in constructing a new nation have received significant awards recently. American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis, won a National Book Award in 1997. The Pulitzer Prize was given in 1993 to Gordon S. Wood for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, in 1997 to Jack N. Rakove's Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, in 2001 to Ellis' Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, and in 2002 to David McCullough's John Adams. This founders chic phenomenon has led historian H. W. Brands to declare in the Atlantic Monthly that "our reverence for the Fathers has gotten out of hand" (101). Brands attributes the remarkable popularity of the United States founding moment to a widespread interest in returning to America's roots at the beginning of a new century and to the heightened mistrust of politics and politicians that had been fermenting since at least the 1970s. These trends have prompted attention to a time that now seems somehow purer, simpler, and more admirable.
It is to be expected, then, that this founders chic would also manifest itself in the domain of children's culture. In 2002, PBS debuted a fast-paced, animated television series for children titled Liberty's Kids. Accompanied by picture books and a CD-ROM of games and activities, Liberty's Kids follows the exploits of three young reporters whose work for Benjamin Franklin brings them into contact with major figures and events of the American Revolution. The children's publishing world has [End Page 76] taken note as it continues to churn out fiction for young people set in and around the birth of the United States. Both the "Dear America" series marketed to girls and the "My Name Is America" companion series for boys have featured novels detailing the lives of children in Revolutionary times. Ann Rinaldi, the popular writer of historical fiction for young people, has published at least eight novels between 1991 and 2003 set during the American Revolution.
Coinciding with the beginnings of this surge in interest was the fiftieth anniversary of the 1943 publication of Johnny Tremain, the classic of children's literature written by Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, Esther Forbes. In its report on the anniversary, the Boston Globe described the book as "the enduringly popular novel for young adults that defined historic Boston in the popular imagination the way Gone with the Wind defined Atlanta, or Huckleberry Finn the Mississippi" (Canellos). Even now, visitors to Massachusetts can take a tour called Johnny Tremain's Boston. Despite historian Christopher Collier's scathing 1976 critique of Johnny Tremain, in which he accuses Forbes of representing an outdated and simplified view of the War, the novel is still widely read by and to children sixty years after being designated the Newbery Medal winner of 1944. Given the founders chic phenomenon and the ongoing readership of Forbes's novel, Johnny Tremain is useful for thinking about not only the appeal of the founding moment in the United States, but what can be learned from how the American Revolution is represented once it enters the sphere of children's culture.
Sarah Smedman reports that "Johnny Tremain is so real to adolescent readers that they have returned from Boston surprised not to find his mother's grave in the cemetery, disappointed to realize finally that the boy did not actually live" (86). I would argue that the narrative construction of the novel itself works to make disappointment and loss two of Johnny Tremain's salient features. The novel can be read as a series of anticlimaxes. Considering this repeated absence of narrative closure as representing a kind of loss, albeit a loss of something never possessed, I would like to...