JOHNNY TREMAIN is As Much About WWII As It Is the Revolution

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This is a guest post from Ellison Langford. Ellison is a freelance writer and former quidditch player in Gainesville Fla. More often than not, she’s procrastinating over working on her book draft about women’s experiences in defense production during World War II. Follow her on Twitter @ _ellison.


Fiction is revelatory.

Often the author is intentional about these revelations. They want to promote a social agenda, or mine some aspect of human nature. But sometimes they reveal things unintentionally. An author may intend to write about one subject, but simultaneously reveals a great deal about something else.

I noticed this while I was reading Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes last week.
I have probably started and not finished Johnny Tremain more than any other book in my life, except Watership Down (all I see are rabbits taking a road trip– what’s the big deal?)

Johnny Tremain is about a teenage boy living in Boston at the cusp of the American Revolution. Johnny is an angry kid, which is part of the reason I picked it up again for the fourth or fifth time. I was feeling cranky, and I wanted a fictional escape that validated my grouchiness.

The book was published in 1943, and probably says as much about the time in which it was published as it does about the period it depicts. This was the height of America’s involvement during World War II. People who did not live during the time cannot appreciate that war culture was pop culture.

After a trip to the drugstore, teenage girls flopped on the bed with their new Tangee lipstick and Seventeen magazine to read articles like “What Are You Doing about the War?” and listen to radio hits like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Remember Pearl Harbor,” and “Rosie the Riveter.”

High school boys hoped with all their might that the conflict would last long for them to get old enough to take a shot at Hitler. Which is exactly what we see in Johnny Tremain. He idolizes his older, and more level-headed, friend Rab, who spends much of the novel agonizing about how to acquire a gun fit to fight the British Regulars. When he finally departs with the militia, Forbes portrays a man eagerly going off to do his duty to defend his principles.

During the summer of 1942, Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9182, which merged a couple existing war research agencies into the Office of War Information. It was charged with informing the public about the Allies’ wartime progress by means of the press, radio, and movies.

“The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds,” said OWI Director Elmer Davis, “is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”

The OWI was managed by some of the biggest names in media. Davis left a position as one of CBS’ most popular nightly newscasters to lead the OWI. The agency also employed a former marketing head at NBC, and an advertising director for Colgate-Palmolive. Chief of the Magazine Bureau was Dorothy Ducas, a journalist and friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Writers’ War Board included creative heavyweights such as Pearl S. Buck and Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The group pledged their services to create work, such as fiction, songs, articles, and radio material that would aid the war effort. In their first year, 2,000 writers wrote 8,000 stories, radio scripts, poems, and books, among other material.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Johnny Tremain was a product of the OWI. But patriotism was so ubiquitous, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Forbes was unconsciously, or even consciously, inserting parallels in the text between the historic struggle for independence, and America’s current efforts.

During a meeting of Whig rebels, one character, James Otis, Jr., refutes the excuses the other Sons of Liberty give for resisting England. He proclaims that American must make her stand for the sake of all oppressed peoples, “The peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now, but because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west.”

It’s not difficult to imagine such rhetoric coming from another New Englander while pledging America’s service as the “arsenal of democracy” over the radio.

Unfortunately, some of 1940s hallmarks are less inspiring.

Every black character in the book is someone’s servant. They are all blissfully simple-minded, and speak minstrel English. Although one woman, a laundress, is able to help Johnny by recovering letters from one soldier’s trash.

Forbes won the 1944 Newberry Medal, and I can’t help but be suspicious her paper pedestal of American exceptionalism boosted her there.


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