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.