What are the themes of Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper?

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This novel is a quintessential "road to success" sort of story, typical of the early 1900s life in America, where people from humble beginnings were all dreaming of finding great success and wealth. This outlines these themes as idealism, fame, and the wealth gap are threaded throughout this story.

Sam Patch, the title character, is from a humble town and is born into relative poverty and obscurity. He, like so many others, wishes to be wealthy and famous. He pursues the typical American Dream: that you can make a name for yourself if you work hard enough and find a way to break through. His perseverance leads to him becoming well known and beginning to find some success in his efforts as a jumper. Sam succeeds in pursuing his ideal, finding wealth and fame as the acclaimed jumper, and people begin to flock to see him. He has started from a very humble origin and becomes extremely famous.

In the end, he even personifies other ideas—becoming the symbol of the "Everyman," fighting for the rights of the lower class. When a developer plans to put down a bridge to build a sanctuary for the wealthy and elite, he jumps on the property—bringing awareness to the endeavor and making him a champion for the working class.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 21, 2019
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Themes in Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper include the disparity between poverty and wealth, showmanship, and the personification of ideas.

Sam Patch grew up in a town where he was destined to be a mill worker. There was very little social mobility, and the difference between the lives of the wealthy and the lives of the poor was very evident. This is clear throughout the book as the author describes the way people live and what types of opportunities are open to people of different social classes.

Showmanship is another theme in the book. Patch has an inherent eye for showmanship. It's one of the things that helps him make a name for himself. Before he dies, he amasses significant wealth. This knack for showmanship may be why Sam Patch appears as a character in various literature.

Patch also becomes the personification of an idea when he jumps to protest a man who was creating a reserve for the wealthy. The land he used had been available for anyone to use in the past but would now cost money. On the day the developer had been planning to put down a bridge, Patch jumps and wins the acclaim of the working class. Even though he was jumping only for fame and fortune, that personification of him as a working-class hero lived on.

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One possible theme is social mobility—or the lack thereof—in early nineteenth century America. Sam Patch hails from a background that is about as poor as it gets, even by the standards of the time. As a boy, Sam is forced to work for a living alongside his mother and siblings in the mills of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It is while toiling away in the factory that Sam first becomes fascinated by the waterfalls that provide power for the mills. Once he starts jumping from waterfalls, he is instantly hooked, and he soon gains a reputation for reckless courage and daring in his death-defying leaps.

Sam Patch quickly becomes something of a celebrity, earning the acclaim of millions of Americans for his daredevil feats. But Sam's meteoric rise—and equally sudden fall—is presented as a withering commentary on the American class system at that time, a point on which the author dwells at considerable length. It says a lot about social class in early nineteenth-century America that a working-class man can only achieve prominence by turning himself into a public spectacle, risking his neck for the delectation of the so-called respectable classes. In that sense, despite his widespread fame, Sam never really ventures that far in life from his poor background as a child laborer. As both a mill worker and as a daredevil, Sam is exploited by those who consider themselves his social superiors.

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There are several critical themes articulated in Paul Johnson's Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper. 

Johnson relates how Sam Patch grew up in the mill town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, exploring his early start spinning cotton in a mill as a child laborer. Patch's father (Mayo Greenleaf Patch) lost his business as an artisanal shoemaker. These events emphasize several reoccurring themes: the rise of wage labor and the demise of land-holding, as well as the ways in which masculinity and patriarchy were changing and being undermined because of these changes. These matters, of course, were all a product of the larger historical context/theme at hand: the rapid industrialization of America.

Patch's jumps themselves are a reflection of theme of recreation for the working class, as he repurposed the waterfalls he jumped off of for his own entertainment. This, of course, is only what Patch could afford to do as a member of the working class; the middle class viewed this type of behavior as distasteful and a violation of the natural sublime and their place of leisure. 

We also cannot deny that there is a thematic element of the self-made celebrity here, with Patch serving as the first true American daredevil who operated off constant self-promotion.

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