WHEN BOYS WERE BOYS
Oct 20, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 06 • By DAVID FRUM
It didn't use to be this way. Not so long ago, as these things go, the boy's adventure story was a genre as lively as the detective story or the romance novel is now. The musty old library of my rattletrap Toronto school had a great cache of these books stowed away toward the back: enduring classics like Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, but also more perishable works in which characters not much older than the intended reader defied death on Arctic explorations and chased cattle rustlers on the Western plains, unearthed ancient treasures in Mesopotamia and crouched behind the rocks on the Northwest Frontier as the bullets of the ghazis' rifles went pocka-pocka-pocka into the dust. The most lurid of them were all written by the same man: the prodigiously productive Victorian writer G. A. Henty.
Even at the time, I recognized that Henty's books weren't exactly great literature. The hero was a stick figure, always 16, always plucky, and always encountering the same types of minor characters: the treacherous sneaky boy, the grownup unaccountably hostile to him, the kindhearted great man of history who always makes an appearance, and so on. Even the titles were formulaic: With Clive in India, With Wolfe in Canada, and so on. And always lurking in the background was a literary treatment of the exotic locale that was patronizing at best and appallingly racist at worst. None of that made Henty's battle scenes any less gripping, his summary of the history any less clear, his depiction of teenage bravery any less inspiring. I read every one of them my school possessed, and as many more as I could find in the catalogue of the main city library. And 20 years later, I found myself haunting used book stores, searching (without success) for copies of Henty to put in my son's bookcase.
Then, in one morning's mail, there arrived at THE WEEKLY STANDARD a curious flyer. Somebody in Florida had started a company to republish these "lost classics" of the boy's literature of the last century. One of the first to be published was Henty's Civil War novel, With Lee in Virginia. I telephoned the number on the flyer and got through to the company's owner, George O'Neill, a part-time businessman, part-time sculptor, and full-time collector of antique adventure books for children. Soon afterward, a parcel with the Lost Classics Book Company's first nine titles arrived on my doorstep: two reading primers and two history primers from the 1890s, and five novels.
In some ways, these books make reassuring reading for the worried modern parent. As cloying and didactic as modern books for children are, those of the 19th century could be every bit as bad. In Oliver Optic's 1866 story " Hope and Have," naughty Fanny Grant steals money and runs away from home. She reaches New York and learns humility by spending her money to save a poor woman from being foreclosed and then watching the woman's too-pure-to-live daughter die of one of those mysterious 19th-century literary diseases that spread themselves over three tear-soaked chapters. But before she departs this vale of tears, the dying girl leaves behind a note, asking Fanny's relatives "Please to forgive Fanny, for the sake of her dying friend." Fanny of course promptly becomes just as good as can be. This is the sort of yuckiness that explains why American and British writers spent the next 75 years in the grip of the condition somebody has called Horror Victorianus.
But if the Victorians hectored and lectured girls, they let the minds of boys run a great deal freer. Reading Henty again -- as well as two Revolutionary War novels by the prolific Edward Stratemeyer (who, under one of his many pseudonyms, also created the Hardy Boys series) -- one is plunged into an era utterly unlike our own. This is a world in which instead of being caring, gentle, and open with their feelings, boys are encouraged to be brave, inventive, and uncomplaining.
Of all these attributes, it is the emphasis on bravery that is the most astonishing to us now. Stratemeyer's Minute Boys of Lexington ends with Our Hero, 16-year-old Roger Morse, chained up in a cabin loaded with gunpowder, to which the British Redcoats and their evil Tory sympathizers have lit a slow match. Will he somehow snuff it out? The seconds tick away desperately . . . and of course at the last moment, he does. Roger Morse at least sometimes feels pangs of fear. Henty's characters never do. They are shot at, cut with swords, have their ribs broken by shrapnel, and remain as undaunted and plucky as ever. It's utterly unlife-like, of course, even comical. And yet there's something valuable about it even so -- and especially valuable now.