Friday, January 11, 2008

Little Jarvis

Decades challenge (substitution #1) -- 1890
19th-century women writers challenge (Molly Elliot Seawell)

Molly Elliot Seawell, Little Jarvis (1890) (available on Google Books)

In his 1921 essay "A Plea for Old Cap Collier," Irwin Cobb skewered the practice of using selections in readers that "hold[ ] up as examples before the eyes of the young of the period . . . certain popular figures of poetry and prose who--did but we give them the acid test of reason--would reveal themselves . . . as incurable idiots." He illustrated his point by including among the examples Hemans' "Casabianca,” (1826) whose hero’s fatal filial persistence “has been played up as an example of youthful heroism for the benefit of the young of our race.” As Cobb explains:

Let us give this youth the careful once-over: The scene is the Battle of the Nile. The time is August, 1798. When the action of the piece begins the boy stands on the burning deck whence all but him had fled. You see, everyone else aboard had had sense enough to beat it, but he stuck because his father had posted him there. There was no good purpose he might serve by sticking, except to furnish added material for the poetess, but like the leather-headed young imbecile that he was he stood there with his feet getting warmer all the time,

The same mindset that glorified young Casabianca probably adored Molly Elliot Seawell's Little Jarvis -- and apparently did, since it was the prize story for Youth's Companion in 1890.

The epigraph on Little Jarvis’s title page signals the direction and governing philosophy behind the tale: “As his life was without fear, so was his death without reproach.” Jarvis is introduced as “the youngest midshipman aboard the Constellation” – his most important characteristic in Seawell’s eyes. He is also “the most troublesome” midshipman, though Seawell quickly qualifies this comment by adding that Jarvis is “merry, active, honest-hearted and . . . free from anything like meanness”. He is generously gifted with enthusiasm and courage, perhaps to the point of foolhardiness. The crew of the ship view him almost as a pet: they are bemused by his antics, frequently tolerating mischief that merits punishment, admiring Jarvis's tenacity. (He wins one friend, 21-year-old Lt. Brookfield, after challenging him to a duel to the death, which the latter refuses in favor of giving him a sound drubbing -- not once, but three times, since he repeats it each time Jarvis refuses to withdraw the challenge. Brookfield and the others are so impressed by Jarvis’s determination that they then invite him to dinner in the ward-room.)

Ultimately, the Constellation encounters a French frigate, the Vengeance – with Jarvis the first to spot it, of course – and he is sent to his station on the maintop. The captain also sends a sailor to protect him, but to no avail, for when the mast is damaged in battle and about to fall, Jarvis refuses to leave his post and jump to safety despite the sailor’s urging and the others’ prudent departure for more secure spaces. Instead,

little Jarvis with all of his intrepid soul shining out of his unflinching eyes did not move an inch. There was a strange light upon his face and a manly and heroic confidence had taken the place of his boyish excitement.

And there he remains as the mast topples; he is found “wearing still on his young face the brave smile with which he had faced death when glory beckoned him upward.” When the Constitution returns to port with an account of the battle, its captain receives a medal, and Congress “passed a separate and special resolution in honor of little Jarvis.” The story ends there – a brief 64 pages, as short as Jarvis’s life.

Like Hemans’s poem, Little Jarvis lauds courage and a fatal idealism couched as devotion to duty (seen as steadfast, not suicidal, and echoed by the Congressional resolution that honors Jarvis for “gloriously preferr[ing] certain death to an abandonment of his post”). Both pieces reflect the same sensibility – not just of their authors but of the era’s attitudes toward the young (a mindset that had changed by the time of Cobb's piece). Giocante Casabianca was the 10- or 12-year-old son of the commander of L’Orient, who accompanied his father into battle and was killed when the ship exploded. The title character of Little Jarvis is also based on a real boy, 13-year old James C. Jarvis, who died in February 1800 when he would not desert his post on the mast of the Constellation; he was fatally injured or drowned when the mast fell.

I’m still not certain whether external circumstances motivated the story. Hemans poem appeared approximately 25 years after the event it romanticizes; Seawell’s story was published 90 years after Jarvis’s death and 25 years after the Civil War, at a time when historical fiction about battles was flourishing.

Miscellaneous sources and links:

Cobb’s “A Plea for Old Cap Collier is online at Project Gutenberg

“Casabianca” is at numerous sites; Endtime Pilgrim’s has a stunning reproduction of George Arnald’s painting, “Battle of the Nile,” as well as commentary on the poem.

A brief biography of Jarvis is at Destroyer History Foundation’s page for the USS Jarvis. Images of the gold medal Captain Truxton, Jarvis's captain, received – and the text of the congressional resolution -- are at the Dallas Public Library's website. Context for the battle is at “War with Tripoli” at Integrated Publishing.


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