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First American Boy Books Born in NH


But Portsmouth’s claim as the birthplace of the American boy novel does not end there. Both Twain and Aldrich were influenced by another writer who also grew up on the streets of Portsmouth. Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber was born in a tiny house on the North Mill Pond and moved to Boston at age 18 to seek his fortune in the printing business. Shillaber created the troublesome boy Ike Partington in the late 1840s as a comic partner to his popular character Mrs. Partington. The two country bumpkins appeared in close to a dozen books by Shillaber and were popular throughout the expanding nation.

Boy shoots another with an arrow /

Shillaber described Ike as a "human boy" and evolved a detailed theory about the developmental nature of boys at the onset of puberty. Boys at this age, he said, were distinct creatures that existed only to have fun. No matter how outrageous the "human boy" acted, Shillaber suggested, he should be allowed to go his own way, and no man should be judged by his actions as a youth.

"Ike was not a bad boy in the wicked sense of the word bad, "Shillaber wrote, "but he had a constant proclivity for tormenting every one that he came in contact with."

Clearly borrowing from BP Shillaber, Aldrich opened his groundbreaking novel by identifying himself as "a real human boy". He says:

This is the story of a bad boy. Well, not such a very bad, but a pretty bad boy; and I ought to know, for I am, or rather I was, that boy myself."

Mark Twain too was indebted to Shillaber’s "plaguy boy" Ike Partington. Shillaber was, ironically, the very first major national editor to publish the comic writing of the young Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. As if in tribute, in his first edition of the novel Tom Sawyer, Twain included a sketch of Mrs. Partington on the final page.

The "American boy" genre lasted only a few decades. Authors Stephen Crane, Booth Tarkington and William Dean Howells all wrote their bad boy stories. Popular culture historians might argue that the "bad boy" genre did not die, but simply moved into movies and television. It shows up in early Little Rascals and Three Stooges through to Dennis the Menace, Beavis and Butthead, Dumb and Dumber, South Park and the MTV Wild Boyz and Jackass productions. While these characters may be descended from Tom Bailey and Tom Sawyer, they suffer from a Peter Pan syndrome in which men refuse to outgrow their boyhood ways.


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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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