Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tom Sawyer

I am actually rather surprised that Mark Twain, in the preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, wrote that "my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls" although "I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account," since they too may have had similar mishaps in their own childhoods. On the one hand, Tom's daring spirit and great fun is indeed appealing to young readers as he gets himself in and out of various scrapes, some of them quite dangerous. The overall tone, however, is a strikingly sophisticated blend of bucolic nostalgia and hard reality that will likely go over a child's head while offering more subtle interpretations to the adult.

Since finishing Roughing It a short time ago, I've become very fond of Twain and decided to read more of him. (I was assigned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school but remember little.) Part of what I loved about Roughing It, in addition to its vivid portrayal of the American Wild West and Hawaii, was Twain's acerbic wit and brilliant, methodological deconstruction of the frontier myths that were prevalent even in his time (and have yet to go away). Tom Sawyer, however, is best described as deliberately idyllic while at the same time offering glimpses of the dark side of antebellum Missouri. The famous whitewashing incident (in which Tom convinces his friends that whitewashing his aunt's fence is a privilege worth paying for) is certainly a great take on P.T. Barnum's famous assertion that "there is a sucker born every minute," but then there's the appearance of a young black boy who is concerned about his "ole missis" who has threatened to "tar de head off'n me." It definitely gives the modern reader pause.

I am not trying to argue that Tom Sawyer is first and foremost a work of social commentary. What it is instead is a portrait of a culture as seen through the eyes of a boy, so the implications of some aspects of that culture are necessarily lost on the youthful protagonist. Huck Finn, for example, is a pretty sad story despite his bravado, but to Tom and his peers, his life is the paragon of freedom: he does not have to go to church or school and he can do just about anything he wants. Where do you sleep? Tom asks him at one point.
"In Ben Roger's hayloft. He let's me, and so does his pap's nigger man, Uncle Jake. I tote water for Uncle Jake whenever he wants me to, and any time I ask him he gives me a little something to eat if he can spare it. That's a mighty good nigger, Tom. He likes me, becuz I don't ever act as if I was above him. Sometimes I've set right down and eat with him. But you needn't tell that. A body's got to do things when he's awful hungry he wouldn't want to do as a steady thing."
Twain's dexterity with dialect aside, that paragraph speaks volumes. And we later learn that it is Tom who is embarrassed to be seen with Huck when members of "polite society" are present. Of course, there is also "Injun Joe," a singularly psychopathic villain who nevertheless engenders some sympathy, at least today, as those of us reading this in the twenty-first century cannot help but wonder if his mistreatment as a "half-breed" is largely responsible for his life of theft and murder. (Injun Joe himself speaks frequently of "vengeance" for being "horsewhipped in front of the jail, like a nigger!")

All that aside, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is great book for parents and children to read together for both its sheer entertainment value (Tom's escapades) and its weight as an historical document. There is always more to Twain than meets the eye, and I can imagine many men and women who enjoyed this book as children have returned to it as adults, and been surprised at how much more was written into a fun and exciting tale of antebellum boyhood.

Up next: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!


Mrs. C said...

I look so forward to your comments on ...Huck...--It is the book that brought me down off my high horse and informed me that the American author and the American voice and persective have merit (I was such a Euro lit snob in high school; it was both Tolkien and Hemingway's fault). I have many, many peers who will not teach Huck because "it is such a racist text." Me? I teach it with relish each year to as many kids as I can possibly stuf it into...

Mrs. C said...

Oh, and I have a (rhetorical) question for you: How the heck does one achieve "Blog of Note" status around here?! Please to go check out "On the Tip of My Fingers" in that category--for Feb. 23rd, I think. Just read a couple of postings; it won't take more than that. Am I being a middle-aged snark bitch? Well, maybe. But before you judge, notice in her self description that she has a thing for glittery vampires. I'm just saying.

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