- Shooting the Monkey:Taming Oral Greed in Toby Tyler
In four surveys, taken at ten-year intervals in the first half of this century, W. W. Charters aimed to identify favorite "boy's books." Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus by James Otis Kaler (pseud. "James Otis") did not place among those of the first rank (Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). But it did make it into the second most popular group (along with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Call of the Wild, and others)—all in all, still an Olympian height when compared to the thousands of other offerings of its kind.1
Nowadays, the book seems less popular. Publishers have, regrettably, let this minor classic drift out of print; it is currently available only in two expensive hardback editions.2 If the story is known at all, what is likely to be remembered is the Disney film (1960) featuring Kevin Corcoran.3 Still, Toby Tyler has its enthusiasts, among them Maurice Sendak, who named it one of the favorite books of his childhood.4
When, however, it was first published as a serialized magazine story (1880-1881), at the beginning of an extraordinary wave of American interest in circuses,5 Kaler's work sparked widespread enthusiasm. The advertisement for one of his later books mentions this: "Don't you remember the 'Toby Tyler' stories, which appeared some years ago in 'Harper's Young People'? And don't you remember how impatiently boys and girls looked forward to the next issue merely because of those tales? Stories like that mean something to children and make an impression."6
But what kind of impression? If Hans Brinker is remembered for a Dutch boy's silver skates and Tom Sawyer for an American boy's whitewash mischief, Toby Tyler has a kind of synonymous association with "running away to join the circus." In this, memory is subversive. Kaler's book was in fact intended as a moral tale meant to discredit the very idea of "running away."
Toby Tyler is in large part the story of a runaway boy who discovers that circuses are not as glamorous as they seem (his bosses are demanding, the schedule exhausting, and the sideshow freaks just ordinary folks); and who learns (along with MGM's Dorothy Gale from Kansas and Oz) that, despite churchgoing and chores, "there's no place like home." The [End Page 121] book is something of an exposé (by chapter three, after running away the night before, Toby finds the circus ruined-looking and dirty in the harsh morning light). It is also a tale full of long emotional passages that speak of the boy's remorse and regret for having deserted his guardian ("when he thought of home, of the Uncle Daniel who had in charity cared for him—a motherless, fatherless boy—and of returning to it, with not even as much right as the Prodigal Son, of whom he had heard Uncle Daniel tell" ). Demystification and contrition, in other words, go hand-in-hand: Toby's "own reflections [led him to] the positive conviction that boys who ran way from home do not have a good time, except in stories" (111).
Toby Tyler was not a novel novel. Kaler, like an equestrian performer going around the ring, was following the well-worn path of the Sunday-school book and its predictable tales of prodigals who err, suffer, and recant—or (on deathbeds, in jails or abject poverty) wish they had. The big-top had been the setting of an American Sunday School Union Book, Slim Jack: or, the History of a Circus Boy (1847), in which it was revealed that "the greatest show on earth" is not a bed of cotton candy. As in Toby Tyler, the story's main focus is the cruel treatment received by a circus boy.7
When Slim Jack was republished in a Springfield, Massachusetts paper, a circus employee wrote to object to the portrait of carnival life and felt impelled to reveal the truth about it. This roust-about insisted that circus folk were not idlers; he invited...