recess radio program

11/18/04
Thomas Bailey Aldrich
    by Rita Smith

In his day, Thomas Bailey Aldrich was a respected literary man, an editor and a poet ranked with James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier. He also had a good sense of humour. When his dog chewed up a paper on which was written a sonnet, Aldrich mused, “How did he know it was doggerel?” But if Aldrich is remembered at all today, it’s not for his poetry or for his sense of humor. Today he is remembered only for his one children’s novel, The Story of a Bad Boy.

The Story of a Bad Boy is a slightly fictionalized autobiographical story. The hero, Tom Bailey, is not a really bad boy, of course, heÂ’s just badder than any previous boy found in American children’s literature. That is to say, he was bad, to quote one critic, “when compared to the sanctimonious young moral robots who had passed for boys in most earlier American fiction.” It is not about the proper unbringing of a young man, but about the real and mischievous actions of a real boy, and it undoubtedly influenced other writers, such as Aldrich’s friend Mark Twain, who six years later wrote a similar, although much more complex, story about a similar boy, also named Tom. Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy is significant because it provided the first realistic treatment of a boy in American children’s literature.

It is a charming novel, told by a narrator looking back on his boyhood. Its characters, setting and action are vividly portrayed and genuine. Tom studies hard and tries fairly successfully to live up to the expectations of his peers and the adults in his world. He frequently gets into scrapes because of insufficient experience, poor judgement and high spirits, but he is not immoral, only immature. The book is episodic and has little social criticism or thematic complexity. It focuses largely on clever pranks, comic plunders and other pleasant amusements, but one chapter, “The Cruise of the Dolphin,” is among the most moving I have ever read in a children’s book.

Tom and three friends sail to the last island in the river before it widens out into the ocean. When a storm arises, one of the boys drifts off in the boat toward the open sea, never to be seen again. This chapter, brief and understated, is a tribute to Aldrich’s narrative and imaginative skill, because this is one scene he made up entirely. The Story of a Bad Boy is to be valued for its vivid details and for its place in the history of realistic novels for children. Aldrich invented a character type which would flower in the hands of writers such as Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington and J. D. Salinger. Although he did not harvest the crop or even tend the field, he did plant new seed.

Sources:

Cosgrave, Mary Silva, The Life and Times of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in The Hornbook Magazine, April, June, and August, 1966.

Wolf, Virginia L. Thomas Bailey Aldrich. In "American Writers for Children before 1900", Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 42, Glenn E. Estes, ed. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. p. 42-52.

Copyright 2004 © Rita Smith

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