History/Legal Hist. III
Kansas Territory I
Kansas Territory II
Kansas Territory III
Kansas Territory IV
Kansas Territory V
Kansas Territory VI
Kansas Territory VII
Kansas Territory VIII
Cicero Lives! (I)
Cicero Lives! (II)
Cicero Lives! (III)
Cicero's Griefs (I)
Cicero's Griefs (II)
Cicero--On Old Age
Cicero's Letters (I)
Cicero's Letters (II)
Cicero's Letters (III)
Simon Greenleaf I
Greenleaf (new) II
Greenleaf (new) III
Greenleaf (new) IV
Greenleaf (new) V
Greenleaf (new) VI
How to Behave I
How to Behave II
Early Ct. Legal Hist I
Ct. Legal Hist. II
Ct. Legal Hist. III
Ct. Legal Hist. IV
Oregon Wagon Rd I
Oregon Wagon Rd II
How to Behave III
Bill Long 8/2/08
Mark Twain Stands the Tradition on its Head
In the preceding two essays we learned that the "conduct book" was an important genre of literature in colonial and early national America. Written from a Christian (Protestant) perspective, these manuals/books would instruct the child, woman or man on behavior calculated to earn eternal felicity and, increasingly as time went on, temporal success. After the founding of the American Sunday School Union in the mid-1820s, which had a very active publication arm, stories of virtuous boys/girls, and their virtuous conduct, circulated widely in the United States. The purpose of the "conduct" literature was clear--it was to inculcate patterns of obedient and diligent behavior so that boys and girls could fit into societal roles that were opening for them while, at the same time, being faithful to the Christian religion.
Almost all of these books are written with a most serious air, as if the topic being dicussed was the most important one in the world. Some of the stories were heart-rending, but most of them tended to be maudlin or even, from our 2008 perspective, repulsive. For example, one of the stories in the 1839 guide, How to be Useful, entitled "Frederick's Dying Gift," resurrected, if you will, the old motif of a dying child exhorting from his deathbed someone to do something faithful towards God or virtuous toward humans. Here is the story, as told by the narrator:
"Not long since I was called to visit an afflicted mother. Her only child had fallen into a barrel of boiling water, and, when I arrived, it was in the most excruciating agony, and near to death. She had often prayed over this son--her only child--that God would make him a missionary of the Cross. His little heart was full of the missionary spirit, although but three years old. Just a moment before his death, his mother brought the property he owned, at his request, and placed it by his bedside. All he owned of any value was sixty cents. It was the last gift that remained. But he could just speak. Said his mother, 'What shall I do with the money?' He reached out his little hand, and with a dying voice, said, 'Mission-ary,' and died," (quoted in Newton, Learning to Behave, p. 26).
The Humorizing Response of Mark Twain
The preceding story leaves itself so obviously open to ridicule (ya sure he was three years old and not two?) and allegations of emotional manipulation that it was inevitable that the tradition would, at some time, run into opposition. The more you strive beyond reasonability, the more you leave yourself open to ridicule. It wasn't until 1875, however, that America's premier humorist, Mark Twain, decided to address this tradition through two funny short stories, entitled "The Story of the Good Little Boy" and "The Story of the Bad Little Boy." True to the form of the genre he was mocking, Twain would tell stories about the good boy's and bad boy's life but, in both cases, the results were exactly contrary to what the "conduct literature" said should happen. Let's join Twain in his story of the good boy.
Twain's "Good Boy"
He starts by describing the good little boy, Jacob Blivens.
"He always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were; and he always learned his book, and never was late at Sabbath-school. He would not play hookey, even when His sober judgment told him it was the most profitable thing he could do. None of the other boys could ever make that boy out, he acted so strangely. He wouldn't lie, no matter how convenient it was. He just said it was wrong to lie, and that was sufficient for him. And he was so honest that he was simply ridiculous. The curious ways that that Jacob had, surpassed everything. He wouldn't play marbles on Sunday, he wouldn't rob birds' nests, he wouldn't give hot pennies to organ-grinders' monkeys; he didn't seem to take any interest in any kind of rational amusement."
In other words, Jacob got an A+ in dutifulness and obedience--traits most beloved of the conduct book tradition. Twain, however, isn't satisfied with describing such a boy. He has to make the boy's piety look so incredible that he is the paragon of the tradition. His great ambition was to be described in one of the Sunday School books. What an ambition!
"Jacob had a noble ambition to be put in a Sunday-school book. He wanted to be put in, with pictures representing him gloriously declining to lie to his mother, and her weeping for joy about it; and pictures representing him standing on the doorstep giving a penny to a poor beggar-woman with six children, and telling her to spend it freely, but not to be extravagant, because extravagance is a sin; and pictures of him magnanimously refusing to tell on the bad boy who always lay in wait for him around the corner as he came from school, and welted him over the head with a lath, and then chased him home, saying, "Hi! hi!" as he proceeded. This was the ambition of young Jacob Blivens."
But, as it turned out, things never seemed to go right for little Jacob Blivens. Life never turned out like it said it should "in his books."
"They (the good boys, in the stories he read) always had a good time, and the bad boys had the broken legs; but in his case there was a screw loose somewhere; and it all happened just the other way. When he found Jim Blake stealing apples, and went under the tree to read to him about the bad little boy who fell out of a neighbor's apple-tree and broke his arm, Jim fell out of the tree too, but he fell on him, and broke his arm, and Jim wasn't hurt at all. Jacob couldn't understand that. There wasn't anything in the books like it."
One more story illustrates Jacob's unfortunate condition:
"Once, when he was on his way to Sunday-school, he saw some bad boys starting off pleasuring in a sailboat. He was filled with consternation, because he knew from his reading that boys who went sailing on Sunday invariably got drowned. So he ran out on a raft to warn them, but a log turned with him and slid him into the river. A man got him out pretty soon, and the doctor pumped the water out of him, and gave him a fresh start with his bellows, but he caught cold and lay sick a-bed nine weeks. But the most unaccountable thing about it was that the bad boys in the boat had a good time all day, and then reached home alive and well in the most surprising manner. Jacob Blivens said there was nothing like these things in the books. He was perfectly dumb-founded.
He tried again and again, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, when he was out "hunting up" bad boys, he found a lot of them in an old iron foundry "fixing up a little joke on fourteen or fifteen dogs," whom they had tied up. Jacob most sternly confronted their leader, one "wicked Tom Jones," but just at that moment an Alderman (city council member) stepped in, the bad boys fled and good Jacob was left with the tied up dogs. Jacob was hit with such a whack that it sent him through the ceiling, along with the dogs, and he was scattered in pieces all around. Twain says, mocking the "deathbed" tradition cited above,
"and, as for young Jacob Blivens, he never got a chance to make his last dying speech after all his trouble fixing it up, unless he made it to the birds; because, although the bulk of him came down all right in a tree-top in an adjoining county, the rest of him was apportioned around among four townships, and so they had to hold five inquests on him to find out whether he was dead or not, and how it occurred. You never saw a boy scattered so."
Thus, the good little boy ended up scattered to the four winds with nothing to show for his righteousness. I could take time to tell the "Bad Boy" story, but you already know how it will turn out. Suffice it to say that I think you now understand why the American Sunday School Union never asked Twain to be one of its literary contributors..
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long