Although seemingly incongruent, historians can deepen and enhance their research by reading novels and other works of fiction composed during periods of their study. In particular, contemporaneously written fiction offers “participant” insights into attitudes and perceptions that augment those found in diaries and memoirs. Further, as novelist are writing for a wider audience, their depiction of people’s views are more reflective of the overall society than an individual diarist.
For the Revolutionary Era, a good example is a novel entitled The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob – Loyal American Refugee published in London.[i] Penned by an anonymous author, the 1787 book chronicles the Revolutionary exploits of a Massachusetts born Jonathan Corncob from the beginning of the rebellion through war’s end. While the author is unknown, several analysts have postulated that a British naval officer or ships purser wrote the book due to the many technical nautical terms and detailed descriptions of 18th Century sailing.
Written in a lighthearted tone, Corncob is a parity of the American Revolutionary spirit from the vantage point of a Britain. First, the British used “Jonathan” as a derogatory name for Americans and “Corncob” denoted a level of rustic unsophistication. Much of the book is devoted to Jonathan’s interest in and lascivious relationships with women. For example, the author mocks the New England practice of bundling in which two courting people lie trussed up next to one another in bed. Of course Jonathan defeats the bonds, and impregnates the young woman. Faced with the choice of marrying or paying a fine, he runs away to Boston and signs up with an American privateer ship. Quickly he switched sides and joins the British cause. Throughout the rest of the war, Jonathan travels to New York, Barbados and Rhode Island on various adventures and mishaps.
From an historian’s perspective what is most interesting is how the British public viewed Americans. Corncob is portrayed as an oversexed, ribald country bumpkin with no allegiance other than to have a good time. Without any revolutionary fervor or patriotic allegiance to the King, he certainly is not interested in the war or its outcome. Other than several quotes from classical authors, Jonathan is viewed as a comedic figure and a second-class citizen and not the equal to the British intellect. It’s no wonder that only a few copies of this book made its way to 18th Century America. Only during the 1976 bicentennial celebration was the novel published in the United States.
At 120 pages, the novel is a quick, light, though sometimes bawdy read. I recommend the book to those who are studying British perceptions of Americans and to those interested in an entertaining and adventurous tall tale. For a scholarly evaluation and interpretation, see an article in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America.[ii] There are only a handful of Revolutionary Era novels penned during the War for Independence and this one stands out for its unique characterizations and lively style.
For those interested in reading here is a link to a free ebook The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee.
[i] Noel Perrin, ed., The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee, Written by Himself (Boston: D. R. Godine, 1976).
[ii] R.W.G. Vail, “Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee – A Commentary,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 50, no. 2 (Second Quarter 1956): 101–14.