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  • "A Man Can Stand Up":Johnny Tremain and the Rebel Pose
  • C. Anita Tarr (bio)

On a superficial level, Johnny Tremain is the quintessence of the American Revolutionary spirit. Not jingoistic, but certainly patriotic in tone, it was published in 1943 and, since then, has been used frequently by educators as a way of bringing history to life and of helping us to understand our heritage. If only Johnny Tremain were that and nothing more, it would be a remarkable achievement for Esther Forbes. However, what is even more worthy of our attention is how Forbes has interpreted the Revolution as a re-creation of Paradise Lost, including a Satan-like rebellious hero who refuses to bend.

Johnny Tremain has been criticized for its Whig bias, that the American Revolution was a justified response against a tyrannical king. Christopher Collier, coauthor of My Brother Sam is Dead (1974), goes so far as to call Johnny Tremain "simplistic":

. . . Miss Forbes' presentation of the American Revolution does not pass muster as serious, professional history. Not so much because it is so sharply biased, but because it is so simplistic. . . . To present history in simple, one-sided—almost moralistic—terms, is to teach nothing worth learning and to falsify the past in a way that provides worse than no help in understanding the present or in meeting the future.

("Johnny and Sam" 138)

Collier's analysis is, simply, wrong. First of all, Johnny Tremain is complex in its presentation of the many issues preceding the Revolution; critic Joel Taxel commends Forbes for her treatment of these ("American" 67), and John Rowe Townsend states that "though undoubtedly inspirational," Johnny Tremain does not appear to be "one-sided" (189). Perhaps more importantly, the novel is primarily antiwar in its tone. Admittedly, Forbes is adamant in her attempts to solidify an idealistic foundation for the rebellion, but this insistence is forgivable, especially since she was [End Page 178] writing the book during the dramatic events of World War II. We should also note that Forbes was a historian; her biography of Paul Revere, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Obviously, Forbes knew the intricacies of interpreting historical events, and she was also aware of the horrors of war and presents them through the eyes of Johnny Tremain.

Johnny Tremain is a children's novel, but it is not simple (as most children's books are decidedly not simple). In her Revere biography, Forbes analyzes the events leading up to the Revolutionary War and sympathizes with England's efforts to recuperate from her costly protection of the Colonies during the French and Indian Wars by enforcing taxes against the Colonists. The resulting mob behavior in Boston, controlled by Sam Adams, is not condoned. Similarly, Johnny Tremain carries on this examination of the American Revolution and reveals it to be questionable in its origin, for the instigators were certainly not all pure of heart. Forbes's explanation of the Colonists' gripes, as well as of the dangerous mob behavior, indicates her deliberate attempts not to be simplistic. Furthermore, her use of Paradise Lost as an analogy for the rebellion as a whole and for Johnny Tremain as a character illustrates the complexity of Forbes's writing.

As in so many other children's books about the Revolutionary War, Joel Taxel concludes, Johnny's rite of passage serves "as a metaphor for the experiences of the nation itself that was transformed, via the Revolution, from a state of weak, colonial dependence to independent nationhood" ("American" 71). Johnny does symbolize the Colonies' struggle for independence. Johnny is a lost, disowned relative of the Lytes (a.k.a. Jonathan Lyte Tremain); he possesses a cup with the Lyte insignia for proof, but this is later stolen from him by the Lytes themselves. 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. Later, when Johnny is at the abandoned Lyte mansion after the Revolution has begun, he is able to reject the cup and thus breaks his ties...


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pp. 178-189
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