Paul Revere and the World He Lived In

by Esther Forbes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

Paul Revere and the World He Lived In was published during the height of World War II, and the author’s tone and occasional asides suggest that the book was heavily influenced by the United States’ entrance into the war. There is no question where Forbes’s sympathy lies: Although she will acknowledge that the British were baited and maligned in Boston, and the Tories abused, she is on the side of those Bostonians struggling for liberty and a just society. They will not kneel to tyrant or kaiser or führer, she cheers. In addition, her implied comparisons between the ways in which Boston and Berlin treated those who disagreed with the majority allows her to excuse the vilification of the Tories and British as rather harmless excesses.

Her sympathy extends most especially to Revere himself. In Forbes’s hands, he becomes a true Renaissance man. He was first an artist, and Forbes’s intricate descriptions of his silverwork suggest the quality of his craft. He was also a dentist, whose work allowed the identification of Joseph Warren’s body. He was a coppersmith who sheathed the bottom of the Constitution (known as “Old Ironsides”) and the dome of the new statehouse. He was a bell maker whose experiments produced bells still being rung in New England. He was the kind and gentle master who paid his apprentices very well, who took in a single mother, who provided for an insane son-in-law, and who supported the renowned Sarah Bishop.

In all these roles, Revere is portrayed as an individual of courage, of stubbornness, of common sense, of practicality, and of generosity. He tended to the task before him, so that even as the Battle of Lexington was taking place, he was carrying John Hancock’s trunk of state papers. Of all Revere’s jobs, certainly it is his role as a revolutionary that is central to the book. Rarely the initiator of events, Revere is seen as the most prominent agent of the revolutionaries, the one who can speak for much of Boston’s large artisan class. His ride to Lexington is the most dramatic event in Revere’s life that Forbes chronicles, but it is only one ride among many, just as his role as a revolutionary figure is only one role among many.

While much of Paul Revere and the World He Lived In focuses on the exciting and sometimes desperate events that consumed the interests of Boston society, especially those events leading to the revolutionary war and the War of 1812, again and again Forbes returns to the everyday events of Revere’s domestic life. Boston may have been enraged by the Intolerable Acts, and Revere might have been as well, but he was also at work crafting a silver tea service for the Hancocks. Boston might have been vociferating against British impressment of American sailors, but Revere was learning to roll copper and cast bells. Revere is shown as the commander of a fort in Boston Harbor, but he also has his son with him and is writing home to ask for food and overseeing the financial affairs of his household. The effect is a balance between a popular conception of Paul Revere in his midnight ride and Paul Revere as a Boston artisan who tended for his family, who married two loving wives, who fathered a hoard of children, who attended church, and who frequented pubs with his friends.

The city of Boston is also depicted in this manner. While Boston’s revolutionary zeal is presented at the Tea Party, at Lexington and Concord, and at the Boston Massacre, Boston is also presented as a rather provincial city. Forbes describes its streets (and their renaming after the American Revolution), its apprentices, its crafts, its newspapers, its buildings, and its high and low figures. This portrait explains why the book has enjoyed a continued readership. It has all the drama that Forbes would also include in her Newbery-winning Johnny Tremain (1943), but it also has all the real life of those who were born and lived in Boston, who were buried by King’s Chapel or across Tremont Street in the Granary burial yard. It is the stuff of high adventure mixed with real life. The result is a full and intimate portrayal of one individual and one society in extraordinary times.

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