He was, of course, not a very bad boy at all, and therein lies much of the story’s charm. Boyhood, as any boy knows, looks best from the vantage point of maturity, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich tenderly and charmingly renders typical scenes of mischief and misdemeanor, friendship and puppy love.
THE STORY OF A BAD BOY is one of the most fascinating and amusing accounts of the life of an American boy in the early part of the nineteenth century. Acknowledged by the author to be largely autobiographical, it is an adult recapture of childhood experience. The fictional Rivermouth is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the author’s childhood home.
The novel rises to no overall dramatic impact, but it is not without moments of heightened intensity. The tale of little Binny Wallace washing out to sea in a rowboat, never to be seen alive again, is narrated deftly enough to fetch a tear to the eye of the susceptible reader. There are memorable portraits of Tom’s barnacle-ridden crony, Sailor Ben, and of that almost forgotten institution, The Oldest Inhabitant. Many of the adventures of Tom and his friends have that authentic ring of what nostalgia would like boyhood to have been.
The genteel sensibility which informs THE STORY OF A BAD BOY helped insure Aldrich’s literary prominence—he was editor of Every Saturday magazine while writing the novel and was to take over the reins at the prestigious Atlantic Monthly when William Dean Howells resigned in 1881. Other characteristics of the novel—the coy archness of its accomplished yet uninspiring prose style, the romanticizing of its subject matter, its loose, semiautobiographical structure, and lack of dramatic intensity and moral force—all help indicate why Aldrich gained prominence first as an editor and poet, second as a short-story writer, and only later as a novelist. Indeed, perhaps chief among the book’s virtues is that it touched off among post-Civil War New England writers a whole series of “books about boys.” Prominent among those that surpassed it in both popularity and literary merit are Howell’s A BOY’S TOWN (1890) and Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (1876) and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1884).