The year 1943 saw the publication of two American books about liberty. Both books sold well at the time and are still in print, and two books could not be more different. Both The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, and Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, are novels describing struggles for freedom. Only one reflects a moral compass indicating true north as outside one’s own ego.
The reader can be forgiven for forgoing a slog through Rand’s five thousand pages (exaggeration for emphasis) and opting instead for more congenial summaries, such as the abridged audiobook recorded in 2003 by Edward Herrmann or the film from 1949, with screenplay by Rand herself, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. At least the film has a memorable scene where a smug leftist critic asks Gary Cooper’s character, Howard Roark, to tell him exactly what he thinks of him, and Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”
Roark is a twentieth-century American architect, designing buildings that defy conventional standards. He goes to work in a stone quarry rather than compromise his creative vision. Dominique Francon, a newspaper columnist engaged to an architect from Roark’s class in college, a compliant conformist, sees Roark and falls in love, and it is clear Rand was also in love with him. “His body leaned back against the sky,” Rand breathlessly sketched him, adding, “It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes.” If Roark sounds like a stylized hero from a two-dimensional Art Deco sculpted relief, he is.
“Read a certain way,” observed William F. Buckley, Jr., no fan of Rand, The Fountainhead “is a profound assertion of the integrity of art.” Read another way, The Fountainhead is about a man driven by egoistic immaturity and his throbbing libido to become a champion of the recurring philosophical error of Nominalism, where, like Humpty Dumpty, each person determines what words mean and what is right and wrong.
Whereas Roark, a college-educated professional, is in many ways thirty-five going on fifteen, Johnny Tremain is fifteen and, as a silversmith’s apprentice, has to grow up fast. In 1943 Forbes won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography from the year before, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. In Johnny Tremain, she explored that same world using a fictional character, Tremain, and, as befits characters in historical novels, he gets to interact with actual figures from history, such as Paul Revere and John Hancock.
Forbes intended her novel for young people, with main characters their age, and it won a Newbery Medal for children’s literature. All the same, a reader today is surprised by Anglo-Saxon words enhancing a young person’s story published just a few years after movie-goers were scandalized by the gratuitous profanity in Gone with the Wind. Probably apprentices in eighteenth-century Boston used words that were blunt and earthy, but it remains a marvel they got past Forbes’ editors.
In 1957 Walt Disney produced a film version of Johnny Tremain, starring Hal Stalmaster as Tremain and Luana Patten as Cilla, with Sebastian Cabot as Jonathan Lyte, a wealthy Tory. Tom Blackburn adapted Forbes’ novel for the screen, and along with sanitizing its vocabulary, he streamlined its plot by eliminating several scenes and characters. Moreover, Forbes’ thin, fair-haired, blue-eyed Tremain became brown of hair and eye in the person of the athletic Stalmaster.
A reviewer for The New York Times (11 July, 1957) praised the film’s “pictorially lovely period settings radiant in color, and a plot told with utmost simplicity of dialogue and incident.” Still, he judged the film “pretty good,” calling it “simple, clean, and colorful,” yet answered his own question, “Who could ask for anything more?,” by saying, “Why, any kid who read, or was read, its distinguished source.”
The thought of Johnny Tremain the novel as children’s story time reading gives one pause. Have children changed that much in nearly eighty years? It may be that back then teens and pre-teens took heart from Tremain, needing some quick growing up as well, with the spectre of National Socialism shackling Europe.
An orphan, Tremain lives in an attic and starts out coarse of tongue and also of manners and mind. His work as an apprentice ends when an accident mars the boy’s right hand. Adrift towards a life of crime, Tremain meets an apprentice printer, Rab Silsbee, slightly older and much more self-contained. Rab becomes a father figure for Tremain, steadily challenging his vulgar self-righteousness and self-pity.
Through the newspaper he helps print and the men associated with it, Rab guides Tremain’s reading and his entry into a wider world of political intrigue. Both boys become involved with the various doings of the Sons of Liberty, a clandestine group of merchants and artisans.
Nearing military age, Rab aches for a modern firearm, saying, “A man can stand up to anything with a good weapon in his hands,” since “without it, he’s but a dumb beast.” In passing, Forbes gives one of the clearest explanations of the era’s political divide: “The Whigs declaring that taxation without representation is tyranny,” while Tories were “believing all differences could be settled with time, patience, and respect for government.”
A stirring scene in the film, absent from the book, is when Samuel Adams and other Sons of Liberty gather at night and hang hundreds of glowing lanterns on an old elm called the Liberty Tree. As screenwriter Tom Blackburn wrote in the June, 1957, issue of Walt Disney’s Magazine, before too long British soldiers cut down that tree for firewood, “but it became a symbol of Freedom and Liberty, and symbols do not die as long as the ideas behind them live.”
For Rand’s hero, Howard Roark, violence becomes justified to protest how his building’s design has been adulterated. While Rand, refugee from Soviet Communism, was rightly concerned about man’s enslavement to a soulless statist collective, she veered to the opposite error of enshrining as an idol man himself.
In contrast, Forbes shows Rab and Tremain and the militia called the Minute Men joining together in the fight for each other against threatened state control. Their time for staying home and staying safe is past, and their violence and risk are for one another and their posterity, not merely themselves. What Johnny Tremain learns, and teaches us, is that forever more important than self or safety is liberty.