During my days at Malibu Park Junior High School, some of my classmates decided that I should go by the nickname of John Boy.
I am almost certain that there were only two John Boys—one portrayed by Richard Thomas on TV’s The Waltons and me. Neither one of us could have been expected to fit in very well at a school so near the beach. You see, John Boy Walton was from Appalachia amid the Great Depression and I might as well have been.
In hindsight, I think I may have overreacted to all this because just about every time I was called John Boy I ended up in a fight. I probably shouldn’t have been so sensitive; something much easier to say when you’re not fourteen.
Despite the antagonisms and occasional physical altercations, I was able to improve myself during a single year at MPJHS as a result of an introduction to James Michener. Recognizing that I had few friends, a thoughtful teacher provided me with the gift of a paperback version of “Hawaii.” If you are familiar with Michener, you know that he specialized in these historically accurate, yet fictional accounts of place: “Alaska,” “Texas,” “Centennial,” and more. For a troubled adolescent dealing with the twin disruptors of Air Force and divorce—not to mention the disaffections of my peers—I pored through “Hawaii” as a very satisfying means of escape.
I have since read all of Michener’s epic histories and was never once bothered with the fiction he inserted. The trick, I believe, is for the historian to explain himself; to lay out for the reader the foundation upon which the story rests. While introducing a fiction into an otherwise historically accurate account certainly leaves the historian exposed a bit, my experience has been that this device can be used to understand the vast majority of human experience that has not been written down.
To me, this was Michener’s greatest gift. I can say with confidence that “Hawaii” made of me a reader, established my trajectory as a history teacher, and now, has me proudly referring to myself as a not-so-famous historian, large things in my eyes… and all from a book.
I think of all this now because I have just finished reading “The Dante Club” by Matthew Pearl, my first encounter with literary historical fiction. It is a murder mystery set in Boston in late 1865. The members of the Dante Club—in the book and in reality— included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., among others.
Also part of the story is a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., only recently returned from the battlefield where he served with honor. It is the younger Holmes with whom I am more familiar as he went on to serve thirty years on the U.S. Supreme Court (1902-1932) where he famously reminded us that the freedom of speech has its limits; especially if one is inclined to scream fire in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire (Schenck v. United States, 1919). To wit, the First Amendment was not intended to protect speech that creates a “clear and present danger.”
In addition to gaining some insight into the younger Holmes, and despite the fiction of the murders within “The Dante Club,” I have come away from the reading with a broader appreciation for nineteenth century American poets; a sense of the despair that engulfed the entire nation in the wake of the Civil War; and a terrifying account of fourteenth century poet Dante Alighieri’s descent into Hell. That’s a full loaf no matter how you slice it.
On top of all that, reading The Dante Club has somehow left me thinking and writing about John Boy – to whom I now return.
I’m pretty sure that it was Chad who, as I boarded the school bus on day one, anointed me John Boy. However, my recollection may be influenced by the fact that Chad had really cool Hollywood celebrity parents (Whether fiction or not, the story is always better when one’s adversaries are of sound pedigree).
Anyway, it seems that if you get into a fight on the school bus, they don’t let you ride the school bus. While Chad and I faced the same punishment, our respective consequences were quite different. In Chad’s case, he found alternative transportation in the form of his step-mom’s Mercedes and a movie star for a chauffeuse.* I, on the other hand, had my thumb, which, as I had learned that summer, is an amazingly efficient form of transportation.
So, only a day after Chad called me John Boy and I attacked him on the bus, there we were riding to school together again. There was no mention of my new nickname; nice cars can have this effect on people.
As to the original John Boy, he may not have been the coolest character on TV with whom to be associated. I have begun to wonder, however, why I made such a fuss about the nickname. You see, John Boy Walton, in a wise and simple manner, actively chronicled his days on Walton Mountain; not a bad way to go about it if you ask me.
Good Night, Chad. Good Night, John Boy.
*A female chauffeur is a chauffeuse.