- The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain
In Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain the "Sons of Liberty" do not call themselves the "Founding Fathers"; their story, in world or text, begins parthogenetically with an idea, free of biological origin, family ties and dynastic allegiances—an American myth of origin. Only in times to come will that idea be personified in the militant virgin images of Columbia or the Statue of Liberty. It is, therefore, consistent with the values of the novel that Johnny Tremain, too, is a fatherless and motherless child seeking a community of men who declare themselves the champions of Liberty, her freeborn sons who refuse to be enslaved. But Johnny perceives more than heroic postures; he learns that the rebels are political and morally ambiguous men. His closest bonds are with young men, for older men tend to reject him, are indifferent, or even endanger his life. Those who do accept him, such as Paul Revere, have a decidedly youthful air about them.
The theme of the orphan or abandoned child who becomes a liberator of the oppressed is a familiar archetype, but in Johnny Tremain a group of people feel themselves collectively abandoned and abused and seek to find the means to liberate themselves by collective efforts rather than through a redeemer-hero. In this the novel is genuinely American, as "we the people" discover discourse and means to define a new community. The mode of the hero and his quest must, therefore, be projected through displacements, not only because of the novel's historical and psychological realism, but also because the traditional concept of the hero goes counter to democratic values. This does not mean that archetypal images and moments, recalling the heroic quest, are absent; they are in disguise, particularly in relation to Johnny, whose youthful process of individuation leaves him at the end on the threshold of possible heroic action so that "a man can stand up" (256).
Forbes's narrative point of view enhances the visibility of the patterns of myth and romance as subtext to Johnny's "low mimetic mode," as Frye would call it (1958). The novel is not written in the individualistic, a-historical and atomizing first-person point of view so favored in contemporary fictions for young readers. The third-person point of view [End Page 53]
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centers on Johnny's consciousness through the language of an adult observer who is both distant and close to her subject as she tends to his development in the context of the historical-political community. History and the archetypes of tradition shape Johnny's individuation. Moreover, the future that is Forbes's historical present in 1942 is foreshadowed for the young reader through Johnny's situation, as she herself admits in her Newbery Award acceptance speech:
The twentieth-century boys and girls are by the very fact of war closer now spiritually, psychologically, to this earlier generation. Quite suddenly and clearly I saw what I wanted to try to do. Today the boys Johnny's age are not yet in the armed forces, but many of them will soon be and many will lose or have lost older brothers. So I let Johnny lose Rab. I also wanted to show that these earlier boys were conscious of what they were fighting for and that it was something which they believed was worth more than their own lives. And to show that many of the issues at stake in this war are the same as in the earlier one. We are still fighting for simple things "that a man can stand up."(Forbes, 1944)
Today, such intentionality calls for critique. Johnny Tremain teaches acceptance of the notion that young men must be prepared to give their lives for causes vaguely understood through simplistically formulated slogans. Yet, as we will see, Forbes is aware of the ambiguity in her intent, for her choice of several important...