July 5 is the birthday of P.T. Barnum, the man who in the 1870's brought the American circus into its golden age. Over the next 50 years, the circus was one of the premier entertainment venues in America, crossing the breadth of the continent and thrilling the small town audiences with exotic animals, sideshows, and breath- taking trapeze acts. It was a glittering, adventurous, romantic, spectacle and it was the fervent wish and desire of many small boys to "run off and join the circus."
This idea spawned many children's books about boys who did just that. One of the most popular was James Otis' Toby Tyler, or Ten weeks with a Circus, written in 1881. Toby Tyler, an orphan living with his Uncle Daniel, a deacon who raps Toby over the head with a hymnal when he dozes off during church and who continually complains that Toby eats four times as much as he earns. The circus has come to Guilford, Toby's hometown, and he wanders among the workers as they prepare the tent. When Mr. Lord, a candy hawker who travels with the circus, offers him a job as his assistant, Toby jumps at the chance to run away from Uncle Daniel for the glorious life of the circus.
Almost immediately, however, he regrets his hasty action. His employer is cruel and Toby is homesick and feels bad about abandoning Uncle Daniel, who after all had fed and cared for him since his parents has disappeared. "I'm awful sorry I run away. I used to think that Uncle Dan'l was bad enough; but he was just a perfect good Samarathon to what [Mr. Lord is]." (p. 64) "All the fancied brightness and pleasure of the circus life had vanished and in its place was the bitterness of remorse that he had repaid Uncle Daniel's kindness by the ingratitude of running away." (p. 67)
Ironically, his goal now is to run away from the circus and after ten weeks he has saved enough from his wages to buy his passage back home.. One night he runs off and manages to walk to a town and then board a steamer to get back to Guilford and his Uncle, who opens his arms and heart to him, forgiving him at once.
This story, with it's strong overtones of the Biblical story of the prodigal son, is a cautionary tale about running away from home in general and to the circus in particular. Otis wants his readers to absolutely understand that what looks romantic and exciting is often anything but romantic and exciting. Toby learns this lesson the hard way, and declares at the end of the book, that "boys who run away from home do not have a good time, except in stories." (p. 167)
Otis, James. Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1881.
Copyright 2004 © Rita Smith
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