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First American Boy Books Born in NH

Boys fighting from Story of a Bda Boy /

Before Tom Sawyer there was Tom Bailey. The first American "boy book" was not only written here, but is deeply rooted in the history, landscape and lifestyle of Portsmouth, NH. So why don’t we celebrate that? Boys just wanna have fun too, and the "Return of the Sons" was a celebration of that fact.




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An entire literary genre started here. The "American boy" book was born in 1869 when Thomas Bailey Aldrich published the harrowing tale of his childhood on the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His "Story of a Bad Boy", a thinly disguised autobiography, broke new ground by recounting the real life of a mischievous 10-year old. In it, Tom Bailey runs away from home, sets fire to a stagecoach in Market Square, knocks himself unconscious with gunpowder, shoots a friend with an arrow and falls in love.

Tom Bailey blows himself up / SeacoastNH.comWriter and critic William Dean Howells immediately recognized that this book was something special. In the January 1870 issue of Atlantic Monthly Howells wrote:

"Mr. Aldrich has done a new thing in American Literature…No one seems to have thought of telling the story of a boy’s life with so great desire to show what a boy’s life is, and so little purpose of telling what it should be."

Aldrich was just 32 when he revisited his grandfather’s house in Portsmouth and composed his most popular novel. He finished the novel late in 1868 and his twin sons were born the same week. Aldrich did not try to teach his readers how to be good little boys as was the common theme of books for boys in his time. Instead he recounted the dangers, thrills, triumphs and failures of his childhood days in classical terms. His account of a huge snowball fight between North and South End boys of Portsmouth reads like an epic battle from history, complete with battle strategy diagrams.

The book was a hit with young readers, parents and teachers and "The Story of a Bad Boy" was reprinted in dozens of editions and remains in print to this day – making it a classic of American literature. Mark Twain perfected the genre with his novels Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The two authors were friendly, and had it not been for Aldrich, Twain might have scrapped his book.

"I was just planning Tom Sawyer when he (Aldrich) was beginning the Story of a Bad boy," Twain told his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. "When I heard that he was writing that I thought of giving up mine, buit Aldrich insisted that it would be a foolish thing to do. He thought my Missouri boy could not by any chance conflict with his boy of New England, and of course he was right."


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