In 1909, when he was eight years old, William Culver Roberts, Jr., whose nickname was "Bobs, " published his first book called The Boy's Account of It -- the "It" being the grand tour he took with his father to Europe, the Mediterraean and the Middle East. He wrote in his introduction that "I have just got back home ... and I must get busy writing before I forget some of the things that happened. Besides, there is another reason to hurry; for I do not want any other eight-year-old boy to get ahead of me in writing a book about a trip to the Mediterranean (I can't spell that name, but I'll count on the printer to fix it up all right.)"
And, to judge by Bobs' original manuscript, a page of which was printed with the book itself, his "Patient Printer" must have had quite a job sorting out his imaginative spellings. But I think there was probably little fear that some other boy would beat him to the story -- the opportunities for such trips for eight-year-olds back then were pretty rare.
Yet what inspires a child to want to write in the first place, and then to write a book like this, and even to illustrate it with his own photographs, including several of himself in his sailor suit? Travel writing was a flourishing literary genre -- indeed Bobs tells us that his father had shelves of such books. But it was the thought of a boy writing about a journey like his own that seems to have impressed Bobs, at eight, as being truly unique. He is aware, from the beginning, that he can do and say things that adults can't and won't. When he nearly misses the boat in Portugal, he gets cheered by their travelling companions instead of scolded. At the Parthenon he grouses like a small Mark Twain wondering what all the fuss is about because "it is in very bad repair, has no roof on it, and a gread deal of it is tumbled down." In Constantinople, he thinks they should take all the jewels he's seen in a museum and "build sewers and such useful things with the money."
And Bobs, the Innocent Abroad, leaves his mark overseas in unusual, funny, and touching ways. On a previous trip to England, he'd lost a baby tooth, and he and his father gave it a burial in Westminster Abbey. Bobs wedged the tooth into a crack in the stones of the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots. On this trip, he and his father return to the Abbey so that Bobs can "weep over the grave of my tooth." Miraculously, they find it still in place, and Bobs adds, "I may never be famous enough to be buried in Westminster Abbey when I am dead, but a part of me is buried there while I am still alive; and I don't suppose there are any other American boys that can say this." No there aren't, Bobs. Hats off to you, your tooth, and your wonderful little book.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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