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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1507

First published: 1925

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: American Revolution

Locale: North Carolina and London

Principal Characters:

Squire Fraser, a North Carolina planter

Mrs. Fraser, his wife

John Fraser, their son

Sir Nat Dukinfield, a sportsman

Captain Tennant, Collector of the Port at Edenton

Eve Tennant, his daughter

Wylie Jones, a plantation owner

Paul Jones, a sailor

Sally Merrillee, a neighbor of the Frasers

The Story

John Fraser lived with his mother and father in the backwoods of North Carolina. Squire Fraser, a strict but kind Scotsman, was determined that his son should have a gentleman's education, and so he sent John to the coastal town of Edenton to be tutored by Dr. Clapton, an English clergyman.

While there, John made many friends. Sir Nat Dukinfield, a young rake, asked John to go riding with him one afternoon. They parted close friends. Through Dr. Clapton, John met Captain Tennant, the Collector of the Port at Edenton. Captain Tennant took John home with him and introduced him to Eve, his daughter, who overwhelmed John and embarrassed him with her coquettish manners. Captain Flood, a riverboat skipper, was another of his friends. The old man taught him some sea lore and, on his trips up and down the river, acted as a messenger between John and his parents.

John went often to visit Captain Tennant and Eve. One evening, two other gentlemen arrived at their house, Mr. Hewes, a shipbuilder, and Mr. Battle, a young lawyer. A bitter argument began among the gentlemen over the new tax on tea. Autumn came, and Squire Fraser sent for John to come home for a short vacation. Captain Flood took John up the river to Halifax. There he stayed overnight at the plantation of Wylie Jones, a rich young landowner.

After three years of schooling from Dr. Clapton, John became a young provincial gentleman. The only cloud on his horizon was the report of troubles with the British in Boston. Many people were angry; some predicted violence. John thrust dark thoughts aside, however, for tomorrow was the day of the races. Sir Nat was to match his horse against a thoroughbred from Virginia. Everyone seemed to be excited over the holiday except Mr. Hewes, Mr. Battle, and Wylie Jones. The three sat apart at a table in the tavern and talked seriously among themselves while the rest of the company sang songs. At last, Wylie Jones rose and announced that the ministers in Parliament had requested the king to declare the American Colonies in a state of rebellion.

The next day, John rode to the races with Sir Nat; Eve was going with fat Master Hal Cherry, a repulsive but rich boy. Sir Nat's horse was in perfect condition; his jockey, who had been drunk the night before, was not. He lost the first heat to the horse from Virginia. Then Sir Nat turned to John and asked him to ride. John rode the next two heats and won both of them. His friends celebrated the victory he had won for North Carolina.

Spring came. Sir Nat, putting no stock in rumors of war with the Colonies, volunteered for the English cavalry; he wanted to fight the French. The day after Sir Nat left for England, John learned of the battle fought at Lexington.

Squire Fraser sent a letter to his son with instructions to come home at once if British authority were overthrown at Edenton. John went to say goodbye to Captain Tennant and Eve, and then, following his father's instructions, he took leave of Dr. Clapton and went up the river with Wylie Jones. At Wylie's plantation, he met Paul Jones, an adventurous seaman who had taken Wylie's last name. Mr. Battle, Paul Jones, and Wylie discussed a naval war against the British. They urged John to decide soon which side he would take. He rode sadly home from Wylie's, but he brightened when he met Sally Merrillee, an old playmate. He suddenly decided that he liked her backwoods manners, so different from those of Eve Tennant. Later, a company of militia camped on the Merrillee property, and the officers were billeted in Sally's house. John became angry at Sally's attentions to the militia officers and ceased courting her. Finally, Squire Fraser sent John to England to put the family money in a safe bank. John was happy at a chance for an honorable escape from his problem. When he went to say good-bye to Sally, however, she had only contempt for him. Her brother had gone with the militia.

In London, John became the clerk of an importing firm and again met Eve and Captain Tennant. He received a letter from Wylie Jones, who asked him to deliver some money to Paul Jones's mother in Scotland. John was staying at an inn on the Scottish coast the night American sailors made a shore raid. Suddenly homesick for America, he went back with them to their ship. The captain was Paul Jones. Grateful for the favor that John had done for him in Scotland, he signed John on as a crew member.

After a naval engagement, the ship anchored in the French harbor of Brest. Then came long months of waiting while Paul Jones tried to get a larger ship from the French. Sir Nat arrived from England to visit John. One evening, the two became involved in a tavern brawl, and Sir Nat was killed. At last, Paul Jones obtained another ship, the Bonhomme Richard.

The ship put to sea with a motley crew and captured several British merchant vessels. Then, in a running fight with the Baltic Fleet, John was wounded in the left elbow. No longer fit for active duty and still feverish from his wound, he sailed home to North Carolina on a Dutch ship. As soon as his arm had healed, he volunteered in the militia, but they wanted no stiff-armed men. He helped Sally's mother on her farm. Sally had gone north to nurse her brother, who had smallpox. Mr. Merrillee had been killed in the war.

When Sally returned, John went to call on her. Yet, when he tried to tell her that he loved her, she wept. Thinking she was rejecting his love, he left disconsolately. He volunteered again for the militia and was accepted. In a skirmish with British troops, he was wounded a second time.

His arm now useless, John spent his days sitting on the front porch. One day, Sally's mother came to call on him and scolded him for neglecting her daughter. Sally was in love with him; he had mistaken her reason for crying. John suddenly felt much better. He felt better still when his father heard that the British were retreating. As he sat on the porch, General Greene's victorious army passed along the road. John stumbled down to the fence and raised his stiff arm in an Indian salute as the last man of the rear guard came to the crest of a hill. The distant soldier, silhouetted against the sunset, raised his rifle over his head in answer. The war was over. In a few days, he would be strong enough to visit Sally.

Critical Evaluation:

At a time when major American novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were involved in expatriate experience for its test of character and enlargement of their social and artistic consciousness, James Boyd sought similar enrichment closer to home. Upon publication in 1925, DRUMS was hailed as one of the finest novels written about the American Revolution; it launched Boyd, who had been a moderately successful short-story writer, on a major career as a historical novelist. MARCHING ON (1927), another war novel (this time about the Civil War in the South), was followed by THE LONG HUNT (1930), ROLL RIVER (1935), and BITTER CREEK (1939). The later novels continued to explore the evolving American character.

In many ways, DRUMS is a conventional historical romance: a morally sound young hero weathers the temptation of superficial but charming aristocrats, lovers, and friends and discovers his democratic soul in the heat of battle. His bravery in the battle between the BONHOMME RICHARD and the SERAPIS recalls the fictional treatment of the same fight in Melville's ISRAEL POTTER and is the kind of ordeal by fire that American youths have endured from Crane to Hemingway.

Boyd was trying to do more than simply write a traditional historical novel with the usual trappings of adventure and romance. He wanted to suggest some of the things that went into the making of the American Revolution itself. John Fraser's assuming of the American cause is the psychological and moral equivalent of the emergence of what Boyd felt was the American identity. The indifference of the English aristocrats to the dying vagabond, and Sir Nat's coming to the defense of American honor despite his basic social detachment, are the kind of examples that gradually educate John Fraser to the strong emotional response to the democratic army that marches across the horizon at the end of the novel.

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