March 19 was the natal day of James Otis Kaler, pen name “James Otis” (1848-1912), author of some 200 books for young people, most notably (and relevantly, to us) Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus (1880). There are a zillion editions of this time-honored kids’ classic floating around the internet; we chose the cover above to highlight for we saw that it was illustrated by Everett Shin, whose theatre and vaudeville inspired paintings we paid to tribute to here. Kaler was a Mainer, and the first superintendent of schools in the city of South Portland, where there is still a school named after him to this day.
As coincidence would have it, my son is employed by the city of South Portland even as we speak. It’s a small world — an especially small one in Maine! Anyway, I had enormous anxiety about reading Toby Tyler to him and his brother when they were small, because it’s kind of the key book about a small boy running off to join the circus. As I mentioned in my book No Applause, I had run away from home at the age of five, inspired by Huckleberry Finn and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, so I knew better than most parents seem to what effect stories can have on the minds of young people. (Nor was that the last time I was led astray by fool notions I got out of books and movies! I think I am more impressionable than most). To give the devil his due, in the great American tradition of exploitation melodrama, in Kaler’s story the boy learns his lesson and returns home in the end, so that the reader gets to have his cake and eat it too: lots of cool adventures, followed eventually by regret and repentance. Like Oliver Twist, Toby suffers at the hands of a mean boss. Life under the big top isn’t all skittles and beer. And like Pinnocchio, he also makes questionable acquaintances, in this case a chimp named Mr. Stubbs.
Kaler penned a couple of sequels to his most popular book. Some of his more promising sounding titles include The Clown’s Protege (1883), A Monkey Kingdom; or, Ninety Days in Apeland (1884 — 30 years before Tarzan), Jack the Hunchback (1892), The Adventures of a Country Boy at a Country Fair (1893), Found by the Circus (1909). I don’t know if he was related to his namesake (and, good lord, you had BETTER know who James Otis was), but Kaler seems to have actively sought to encourage such a connection with his pen name. A good chunk of his works, scores of them, are set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, as well as similar themes having to do with the life in the American Colonies. He also wrote tons of pirate stories, as well as several in the Horatio Alger vein about New York City ragamuffins who make good.
I don’t need to tell Baby Boomers that in 1960, Walt Disney got his paws on the property and adapted it into a live action film starring Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, Bob Sweeney, Gene Sheldon, Tom Fadden et al. Naturally, this boosted the popularity of the book yet again, and is undoubtedly how most folks know it.
At any rate, I’ve mentioned this book like a dozen times on this blog, so in case ya don’t know it, now ya know it. And for 300 more circus related posts on Travalanche go here.
And for still more on the variety arts, including circus, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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