Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Follies of the Lobster-Boy

Title page of Zechariah Mudge's book The Lobster-Boy
One of Rauner's most fascinating little collections is the the Class of 1926 memorial collection, which was established in 1960 by the Dartmouth Class of '26 to honor its deceased members. Currently totaling nearly three thousand volumes, the collection consists of examples of illustrated books published throughout the New England states during Dartmouth's first century, 1769-1869. The collection is filled with wonderful little pamphlets and books that run the gamut of topics, from biography to natural history to almanac. However, one of the most prolific genres in the collection is what can best be described as didactic children's literature. Numerous pamphlets, tracts, and little books attempted to convey moral tales that emphasized middle-class religious values to a young readership.

A hand-colored engraving of the Nolan's yacht on fire and a boy reacting to the scene from the door of a house.One of my personal favorites is a book by Zachariah A. Mudge (1813-1888), an American Methodist Episcopal clergyman who was also a prolific writer. Mudge wrote more than a dozen books on various subjects, secular and religious, in addition to being a pastor in Massachusetts and an editor of a religious periodical called The Guide to Holiness. Mudge seemed to have a particular passion for writing moral tales intended to instill respect, self-discipline, and moral duty in the hearts of young children. For example, some of Mudge's book titles include The Fisherman's Daughter, The Soldier's Son, The Boy in the City, and The Forest Boy. For some of his children's stories, he found a willing partner in the American Tract Society, which was (and still is) a conservative evangelical publishing organization. The ATS's Boston office published several of Mudge's texts for children, including The Fisherman's Daughter in 1865 and The Lobster-Boy.

An engraving of Frank Nolan leaning out of a small boat to steal lobsters from a lobster-trap in the bay along with a partner in crime.
Mudge's Lobster-Boy; or, The Son Who Was A Heaviness To His Mother, is perhaps my most entertaining discovery from the didactic children's literature genre, if only for the alternate title alone. Another reason I love our copy of the book is because it is dedicated on the flyleaf to a boy named Willie from his teacher, R. M. Gage, presumably with the hope that the young lad will heed the cautionary tale that lies within. The protagonist of the story is a young boy named Frank Gage whose drunken abusive father sends him out to harvest "a full dory of lobsters" or receive a beating upon his return home that night. Faced with a nearly impossible task, Frank soon falls in with the wrong crowd and begins to steal lobsters from other fishermen's lobster-pots. The story follows a predictable course, with Frank eventually confessing his multitude of sins and feeling better for having done so (and gaining the respect and affection of his family in the process). Along the way, his father commits to sobriety, the family loses its fishing boat (or 'yacht'), and they discover that their "peace in Christ is not dependent upon prosperity."

To flip through this fascinating window into conservative Christian thought during the 19th century, come to Rauner Special Collections Library and ask to see 1926 Collection M834L.

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