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Portsmouth is Bad Boy Book Birthplace


Mark Twain Raises the Bar

The impact of the "boy book" genre on American literature has never been fully studied, but it is fair to say that Tom Bailey rocked the nation. Author Mark Twain, who was a friend of Aldrich for decades, actually asked Aldrich’s permission to continue work on his masterpiece "Tom Sawyer", fearing a conflict might erupt between the two authors. Twain began his "bad boy" book soon after the Civil War while Aldrich was working on "Story of a Bad Boy".

hmbb05.jpg"When I heard that he [Aldrich] was writing his," Twain later told a biographer, "I thought of giving up mine, but 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."

Twain’s "Tom Sawyer" (1876) and "Huckleberry Finn" (1884) are superior books, and have since eclipsed Aldrich’s groundbreaking work. There are many similarities in plot, character and theme that reappear in "boy books" written by a host of other authors well into the 20th century.

Aldrich did not pluck his idea for Tom Bailey out of thin air. Bad boys were popular in many "Sunday School" stories of the time. They stole apples, ate up all the strawberry jam and refused to mind their mothers. But those boys inevitably suffered harsh punishments or were killed in stormy seas, or were converted to moral ways by the local preacher. Mark Twain parodied these moralistic Sunday school stories in an essay entitled "The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Lived a Charmed Life". In the story, Twain’s character Jim is a devilish boy who feels no regret and never gets punished for his crimes. Jim grows up, becomes a wealthy adult, murders his family with an ax and remains a popular member of his state legislature. Aldrich undoubtedly saw Twain’s satire when it was first published in 1865, three years before "The Story of a Bad Boy" was written.

The Theory of the Human Boy

Whether Twain copied Aldrich, or vice-versa, both men are indebted to another Portsmouth-born writer named Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber. In 1848 Shillaber created bad boy Ike Partington, two decades before Aldrich’s Tom Bailey was born. Like many young men of his time, BP Shillaber moved from Portsmouth to Boston where he created the first all-comedy publication in American history. Mischievous Ike was a popular fictional character and lived with his aunt Mrs. Ruth Partington, another comic character, likely based on the author’s aunt from Portsmouth. From 1850 until Shillaber’s death in 1890, Mrs. Partington was one of the best known and most quoted characters in American literature.

hmbb04.jpgShillaber’s weekly humor magazine was called The Carpet Bag and only ran for two years. But in 1852 The Carpet Bag made history when it published the first humorous article by a Missouri writer named Samuel Clemens, later known as Mark Twain. Like Twain, Shillaber despised the moralistic "Sunday School" books designed to improve and educate children and made fun of them in The Carpet Bag. His bad boy Ike, like Tom Bailey and Tom Sawyer who followed, refused to be good or to apologize for his behavior – and inevitably got away with his crimes. He was, Shillaber said, a "universal human boy".

Normal healthy boys, Shillaber explained, are active creatures who sometimes take great risks and do bad things. Being bad, Shillaber said, is how boys learn to be good. They cannot be effectively whipped, teased, goaded or trained by adults, because they live in a world of their own. They are not children and they are not men. Parents who coddle their boys or attempt to mold them into polite, intelligent people with music lessons and etiquette classes only stunt their natural growth and create weak, ineffective men.

"The Boy," Shillaber wrote in the introduction to an Ike Partington novel, "has but little plan, purpose, or intention in what he does, beyond having a good time."

A boy is no more like a man, he implied, than a caterpillar is like a butterfly, and like the caterpillar, the human boy requires no outside assistance in his metamorphosis. And no grown man, Shillaber concluded, should be judged by the wild and terrible things he did when he was a boy. Both Twain and Aldrich certainly read tales of "plaguey" Ike Partington when they were young and Shillaber’s fingerprints are all over their later works. Aldrich referred to Tom Bailey as a "human boy" and Twain included a picture of Mrs. Partington in his first edition of "Tom Sawyer".

Why It Happened Here

Portsmouth in the early 1800s provided the perfect womb for the gestation of bad boy literature. Once a major seaport and a wealthy social capital, the city was in an economic depression. Boys like Shillaber and Aldrich grew up among the faded glory of Portsmouth’s ancient mansions and rotting wharves. They got a good classical education and then, like many of their generation, moved away from rural New Hampshire to make their fortunes in the bustling new American cities. Later, as successful men, they looked back on their rustic childhood days with great nostalgia, especially following the bloody Civil War. They expressed this longing for their lost innocent days in works of literature.

While progress completely redefined many American towns, Portsmouth looked much the same after the Civil War as it had before. By the 1870s tourists were drawn to the historic "Old Town by the Sea". Men and women who had left as children, came back, swapped stories, and wrote about their childhood adventures. Aldrich, Shillaber, lawyer Daniel Webster, comic actor Henry Clay Barnabee and publisher James T. Fields were among the celebrated "Sons of Portsmouth" who attended such homecoming events. These successful literary men gathered together, toasted their beloved city of Portsmouth, and swapped tales of bad boys in better days.



For more info: Tour the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial at Strawbery Banke Museum or read "Being a Boy Again: Autobiography and the American Boy Book" by Marcia Jacobson (1994).


© 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.



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