Analysis

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Last Updated on January 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

In the preface to Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper, Paul E. Johnson confronts the question of his book’s genre. He cannot, he explains, write a biography of Sam Patch, for the historical record of Sam and his family is “spare and uneven.” Modern historians have only a series of stories, “dim and spotty,” mere episodes in the life of a man. What Johnson ends up writing is not a biography, the complete life of a person, but a microhistory of a man and his times.

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Microhistory zooms in on an individual or a group of connected individuals, tells their stories as fully as possible, and then uses those stories to illustrate larger aspects of history. Through the lens of Sam Patch, Johnson explores such broad historical themes as the struggles of the working class, political conflicts between Whigs and Democrats, the concept of celebrity, the question of personal identity, and the human conflict with the natural world. Johnson also includes other historical characters, using them, too, to reflect on larger trends and ideas. 

Johnson’s account of Timothy Crane reveals the ambition of a man to rise to a higher social class and embrace a new and “better” ideology. Crane also exemplifies the desire of men to tame nature and make it serve their own purposes. Of course, Crane’s attempts largely failed, and that, too, makes a statement about the fragility of human aspirations and how quickly and dramatically one’s grandiose plans can fail.

Johnson’s discussion of Colonel William Leete Stone is another key part of his microhistory. Stone represents a particular group of upper-class Americans: the “Fashionables,” scenic tourists who sought the sublime in nature, good taste in other people, and aesthetic pleasure in life. Stone also illustrates the trend in satirical writing that was popular in the 1820s. Writing as Hiram Doolittle Jr., Stone excoriated Sam Patch, Jacksonian Democrats, low entertainment, bad grammar, universal suffrage, and the common mob. Using Stone and his biases, Johnson expands his discussion to reflect on politics, the ideology of nature, the “Yankee” literary character, class conflicts, and the commercialization of Niagara Falls. This is indeed an effective example of the microhistory genre.

Johnson exemplifies other aspects of the historian’s craft. To reconstruct the story of Sam Path and his family, Johnson draws from a number of historical sources, including vital records (births, deaths, and marriages), deeds, wills, church records, tax registers, town government books, and court records. Yet he also recognizes that these records necessarily leave gaps in the narrative, gaps that need to be filled in through historical interpretation. For instance, court records reveal conflicts between Greenleaf Patch and his neighbors. Town records show that Greenleaf boarded the schoolmistress for a time and then no longer did. Another court record and a tax list reveal that Greenleaf was a tenant on a property not listed on any deeds belonging to the McIntire family. Johnson logically concludes that Greenleaf Patch had fallen out of favor with his in-laws, lost the respect of his community, and entered into a downward spiral that left him jobless and eventually imprisoned.

Later, Johnson highlights the historian’s need to be critical of and creative with their sources. Journalistic and literary accounts of Sam Patch and his jumps nearly always featured a positive or negative bias. The historian must recognize this tendency, examine the reasons behind it, and explore its broader historical context. Johnson does this, focusing on the political identities of writers (Whig or Democrat), their position in the class structure, and their adoption of Sam Patch to illustrate their own ideas. In so doing, Johnson shows how to access an extensive historical picture, even through a faulty, one-sided source.

In terms of literary and rhetorical style, Johnson makes use of both narration and contrast. He tells an engaging series of stories, bringing his characters to life through vivid details and narrative arcs that rise and resolve. Readers, for instance, are invited to imagine the Fantasticals in their outlandish and colorful gear fighting mock battles with broomsticks and rolling pins in protest of mandatory militia laws. Further, every time Sam approaches a new and more outrageous jump, Johnson builds tension, making readers wonder if this will be Sam’s last leap. When that last leap finally does arrive, Johnson pays special attention to his narrative approach, describing Sam’s appearance and actions in detail and drawing out the suspense of Sam’s incoherent speech and strange behavior. He even pauses for a moment to discuss various opinions about how much alcohol Sam had actually consumed that day. Finally, readers watch in anxiety and then horror as Sam stands swaying on the platform before making his final, fatal jump. Johnson uses the literary techniques of detail and careful pacing to place his audience in the scene.

Johnson also draws meaning from contrasts. He juxtaposes different people and groups—Sam Patch with Timothy Crane, for instance, or scenic tourists like Colonel Stone with the crowds that flocked to watch dramatic shipwrecks and Sam Patch’s jumps. Johnson contrasts ideas about nature and art, showing the difference between the working-class idea that art as a person’s skill in a particular trade and the upper-class notion of art as improvement upon nature or technological advancement. He contrasts the lifestyles of the middle-class “respectables” with the fun-loving, easy-going conduct of the Rochester “sportsmen.” In doing so, Johnson evokes the rich milieu of his subject and illustrates its historical value.

Like many histories, Johnson’s Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper leaves readers with lingering questions that the historical record cannot answer. No one will ever know exactly what happened to Greenleaf Patch, for instance. No one will ever know what Timothy Crane actually thought about his descent from ambitious, high-minded developer to poverty-stricken outcast, nor whether he ever regretted his choices and actions. Perhaps most importantly, no one will ever know for sure why Sam Patch’s last jump was fatal. Indeed, history leaves much to the imagination.

Commentary

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper by Paul E. Johnson is the non-fiction account of a daredevil who became a working class folk hero, but is also a rich portrait of Jacksonian 1820s America and the effect industrialization had on working people.

Sam Patch was born into poverty in Rhode Island and predictably ended up working in the mills of Pawtucket. Like most of the town, Sam was a member of the working-class poor at a time when industrialization was an unstoppable force. Capitalist greed was devastating to workers everywhere, and Sam became a symbol of the fight against elitism. He represented (and still represents) the rebellious and resilient spirit within those affected by the injustice of poverty.

It was in this context that Sam Patch became one of the first "celebrities." In his time away from the mill (and most often drunk), Sam and some friends would jump from the top of Pawtucket Falls, a long and daring leap. These young men found adventure and escape from the monotonous despair of their lives through their jumps, and became admired for their bravery. Sam Patch later moved from Rhode Island to Paterson, New Jersey and began jumping for fame and money. He even jumped from the mighty Niagara Falls twice and lived to tell the tale.

But Sam's greatest moment was an act of resistance against the wealthy elite. When a man named Timothy Crane turned part of a forest often used and enjoyed by the working class into a reserve for the wealthy, Sam saw his chance to protest in a public way. On the day Crane was having a bridge to his newly exclusive section of forest installed over Passaic Falls, crowds gathered to watch. Instead of seeing Crane basking in the glory of his accomplishment, however, what people witnessed was Sam Patch. Sam Patch jumped from the top of the falls and successfully stole Crane's big moment. The crowd cheered for his act of rebellion, grateful to have a hero unwilling to be subservient to the powerful.

Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper is a tale of the cruelty of poverty, but more importantly it is a tale of spirit in the face of oppression. Although Sam died after only three years of professional jumping, his willingness to risk his own life to find a way out of a suffocating existence is inspiring.

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