A Boy’s Town – William Dean Howells
The question of the identity of ‘A Boy’s Town’, has excited almost as much interest, in a certain section of our country, as the long-discussed question of the birthplace of Homer. That Mr. Howells is his own Boy there can be no doubt. But Mr. Howells, according to the biographies, was born at Martin’s Ferry in 1837. The family moved to Hamilton when he was three years of age, to Dayton when he was nine, and to Columbus-probably the scene of the opening chapters of “The Shadow of a Dream”-when he was fourteen. Each of these Western cities now claims the honor of being immortalized by the Boy, although the Dayton Herald declared, that if Dayton was pictured it was Dayton with a halo of poetry about it; not the commonplace Dayton which the unimaginative citizen of Dayton now beholds. Wherever the Town maybe, and whoever may be the Boy, the tale is one which will appeal to all the boys of all the towns in the land, notwithstanding the curious fact that the Boy does not seem to be called “Tom” – a name to which all the best boys in all the standard boys’ books of the present day invariably answer, from Tom Brown of Rugby and Oxford, in England, to Tom Bailey of Rivermouth, in New Hampshire, and to Tom Sawyer of Hannibal, in Missouri. Mr. Howells’ Boy, whose name is not mentioned at all, was quite as much of a boy as any of these – a thorough boy, from the top of his bare head to the soles of his bare feet-“a Boy from Boy Town”-and every grown-up boy among his readers will find some one of his own peculiar characteristics, and many of his own particular tastes, embodied in this Boy of Mr. Howells’, and will wonder how Mr. Howells found him out.
A Boy’s Town.
Excerpt from the text:
I call it a Boy’s Town because I wish it to appear to the reader as a town appears to a boy from his third to his eleventh year, when he seldom, if ever, catches a glimpse of life much higher than the middle of a man, and has the most distorted and mistaken views of most things. He may then indeed look up to the sky, and see heaven open, and angels ascending and descending; but he can only grope about on the earth, and he knows nothing aright that goes on there beyond his small boy’s world. Some people remain in this condition as long as they live, and keep the ignorance of childhood, after they have lost its innocence; heaven has been shut, but the earth is still a prison to them. These will not know what I mean by much that I shall have to say; but I hope that the ungrown-up children will, and that the boys who read Harper’s Young People will like to know what a boy of forty years ago was like, even if he had no very exciting adventures or thread-bare escapes; perhaps I mean hair-breadth escapes; but it is the same thing—they have been used so often. I shall try to describe him very minutely in his daily doings and dreamings, and it may amuse them to compare these doings and dreamings with their own. For convenience, I shall call this boy, my boy; but I hope he might have been almost anybody’s boy; and I mean him sometimes for a boy in general, as well as a boy in particular.
It seems to me that my Boy’s Town was a town peculiarly adapted for a boy to be a boy in. It had a river, the great Miami River, which was as blue as the sky when it was not as yellow as gold; and it had another river, called the Old River, which was the Miami’s former channel, and which held an island in its sluggish loop; the boys called it The Island; and it must have been about the size of Australia; perhaps it was not so large. Then this town had a Canal, and a Canal-Basin, and a First Lock and a Second Lock; you could walk out to the First Lock, but the Second Lock was at the edge of the known world, and, when my boy was very little, the biggest boy had never been beyond it. Then it had a Hydraulic, which brought the waters of Old River for mill power through the heart of the town, from a Big Reservoir and a Little Reservoir; the Big Reservoir was as far off as the Second Lock, and the Hydraulic ran under mysterious culverts at every street-crossing. All these streams and courses had fish in them at all seasons, and all summer long they had boys in them, and now and then a boy in winter, when the thin ice of the mild Southern Ohio winter let him through with his skates. Then there were the Commons; a wide expanse of open fields, where the cows were pastured, and the boys flew their kites, and ran races, and practised for their circuses in the tan-bark rings of the real circuses.
There were flocks of wild ducks on the Reservoirs and on Old River, and flocks of kildees on the Commons; and there were squirrels in the woods, where there was abundant mast for the pigs that ran wild in them, and battened on the nuts under the hickory-trees. There were no other nuts except walnuts, white and black; but there was no end to the small, sweetish acorns, which the boys called chinquepins; they ate them, but I doubt if they liked them, except as boys like anything to eat. In the vast corn-fields stretching everywhere along the river levels there were quails; and rabbits in the sumac thickets and turnip patches. There were places to swim, to fish, to hunt, to skate; if there were no hills for coasting, that was not so much loss, for there was very little snow, and it melted in a day or two after it fell. But besides these natural advantages for boys, there were artificial opportunities which the boys treated as if they had been made for them; grist-mills on the river and canal, cotton-factories and saw-mills on the Hydraulic, iron-founderies by the Commons, breweries on the river-bank, and not too many school-houses. I must not forget the market-house, with its public market twice a week, and its long rows of market-wagons, stretching on either side of High Street in the dim light of the summer dawn or the cold sun of the winter noon.
The place had its brief history running back to the beginning of the century. Mad Anthony Wayne encamped on its site when he went north to avenge St. Clair’s defeat on the Indians; it was at first a fort, and it remained a military post until the tribes about were reduced, and a fort was no longer needed. To this time belonged a tragedy, which my boy knew of vaguely when he was a child. Two of the soldiers were sentenced to be hanged for desertion, and the officer in command hurried forward the execution, although an express had been sent to lay the case before the general at another post. The offence was only a desertion in name, and the reprieve was promptly granted, but it came fifteen minutes too late.
I believe nothing more memorable ever happened in my Boy’s Town, as the grown-up world counts events; but for the boys there, every day was full of wonderful occurrence and thrilling excitement. It was really a very simple little town of some three thousand people, living for the most part in small one-story wooden houses, with here and there a brick house of two stories, and here and there a lingering log-cabin, when my boy’s father came to take charge of its Whig newspaper in 1840. It stretched eastward from the river to the Canal-Basin, with the market-house, the county buildings, and the stores and hotels on one street, and a few other stores and taverns scattering off on streets that branched from it to the southward; but all this was a vast metropolis to my boy’s fancy, where he might get lost—the sum of all disaster—if he ventured away from the neighborhood of the house where he first lived, on its southwestern border. It was the great political year of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” when the grandfather of our President Harrison was elected President; but the wild hard-cider campaign roared by my boy’s little life without leaving a trace in it, except the recollection of his father wearing a linsey-woolsey hunting-shirt, belted at the waist and fringed at the skirt, as a Whig who loved his cause and honored the good old pioneer times was bound to do. I dare say he did not wear it often, and I fancy he wore it then in rather an ironical spirit, for he was a man who had slight esteem for outward shows and semblances; but it remained in my boy’s mind, as clear a vision as the long cloak of blue broadcloth in which he must have seen his father habitually. This cloak was such a garment as people still drape about them in Italy, and men wore it in America then instead of an overcoat. To get under its border, and hold by his father’s hand in the warmth and dark it made around him was something that the boy thought a great privilege, and that brought him a sense of mystery and security at once that nothing else could ever give. He used to be allowed to go as far as the street corner, to enjoy it, when his father came home from the printing-office in the evening; and one evening, never to be forgotten, after he had long been teasing for a little axe he wanted, he divined that his father had something hidden under his cloak. Perhaps he asked him as usual whether he had brought him the little axe, but his father said, “Feel, feel!” and he found his treasure. He ran home and fell upon the woodpile with it, in a zeal that proposed to leave nothing but chips; before he had gone far he learned that this is a world in which you can sate but never satisfy yourself with anything, even hard work. Some of my readers may have found that out, too; at any rate, my boy did not keep the family in firewood with his axe, and his abiding association with it in after-life was a feeling of weariness and disgust; so I fancy that he must have been laughed at for it. Besides the surfeit of this little axe, he could recall, when he grew up, the glory of wearing his Philadelphia suit, which one of his grandmothers had brought him Over the Mountains, as people said in those days, after a visit to her Pennsylvania German kindred beyond the Alleghanies. It was of some beatified plaid in gay colors, and when once it was put on it never was laid aside for any other suit till it was worn out. It testified unmistakably to the boy’s advance in years beyond the shameful period of skirts; and no doubt it commended him to the shadowy little girl who lived so far away as to be even beyond the street-corner, and who used to look for him, as he passed, through the palings of a garden among hollyhocks and four-o’clocks.
The Young People may have heard it said that a savage is a grown-up child, but it seems to me even more true that a child is a savage. Like the savage, he dwells on an earth round which the whole solar system revolves, and he is himself the centre of all life on the earth. It has no meaning but as it relates to him; it is for his pleasure, his use; it is for his pain and his abuse. It is full of sights, sounds, sensations, for his delight alone, for his suffering alone. He lives under a law of favor or of fear, but never of justice, and the savage does not make a crueller idol than the child makes of the Power ruling over his world and having him for its chief concern. What remained to my boy of that faint childish consciousness was the idea of some sort of supernal Being who abode in the skies for his advantage and disadvantage, and made winter and summer, wet weather and dry, with an eye single to him; of a family of which he was necessarily the centre, and of that far, vast, unknown Town, lurking all round him, and existing on account of him if not because of him. So, unless I manage to treat my Boy’s Town as a part of his own being, I shall not make others know it just as he knew it.
Some of his memories reach a time earlier than his third year, and relate to the little Ohio River hamlet where he was born, and where his mother’s people, who were river-faring folk, all lived. Every two or three years the river rose and flooded the village; and his grandmother’s household was taken out of the second-story window in a skiff; but no one minded a trivial inconvenience like that, any more than the Romans have minded the annual freshet of the Tiber for the last three or four thousand years. When the waters went down the family returned and scrubbed out the five or six inches of rich mud they had left. In the meantime, it was a godsend to all boys of an age to enjoy it; but it was nothing out of the order of Providence. So, if my boy ever saw a freshet, it naturally made no impression upon him. What he remembered was something much more important, and that was waking up one morning and seeing a peach-tree in bloom through the window beside his bed; and he was always glad that this vision of beauty was his very earliest memory. All his life he has never seen a peach-tree in bloom without a swelling of the heart, without some fleeting sense that
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”
Over the spot where the little house once stood, a railroad has drawn its erasing lines, and the house itself was long since taken down and built up brick by brick in quite another place; but the blooming peach-tree glows before his childish eyes untouched by time or change. The tender, pathetic pink of its flowers repeated itself many long years afterwards in the paler tints of the almond blossoms in Italy, but always with a reminiscence of that dim past, and the little coal-smoky town on the banks of the Ohio.
Perversely blended with that vision of the blooming peach is a glimpse of a pet deer in the kitchen of the same little house, with his head up and his antlers erect, as if he meditated offence. My boy might never have seen him so; he may have had the vision at second hand; but it is certain that there was a pet deer in the family, and that he was as likely to have come into the kitchen by the window as by the door. One of the boy’s uncles had seen this deer swimming the Mississippi, far to the southward, and had sent out a yawl and captured him, and brought him home. He began a checkered career of uselessness when they were ferrying him over from Wheeling in a skiff, by trying to help wear the pantaloons of the boy who was holding him; he put one of his fore-legs in at the watch-pocket; but it was disagreeable to the boy and ruinous to the trousers. He grew very tame, and butted children over, right and left, in the village streets; and he behaved like one of the family whenever he got into a house; he ate the sugar out of the bowl on the table, and plundered the pantry of its sweet cakes. One day a dog got after him, and he jumped over the river-bank and broke his leg, and had to be shot.