(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reposted here illegally.)The CCLaP 100:
In which over a two-year period I read a hundred so-called "classics," then write essays about whether I think they deserve the label
This week: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
, by Mark Twain (1876)
Book #6 of this essay seriesThe story in a nutshell:
Designed specifically to be a popular example of the then-new American Pastoral novel, Tom Sawyer
is Twain's look at an impossibly idyllic small-town childhood that never was, that never could
be, in fact, based very loosely on a handful of real events that happened in his own childhood in Hannibal, Missouri (on the banks of the Mississippi River, about a four-hour drive north of St. Louis), but with each story sharpened and honed until they become too impossibly magical to be anything but fictional. As such, then, the book mostly concerns those subjects regarding childhood that adults most fondly look back on with nostalgia -- the sense of societal freedom, the sense of playful rebellion, the simplicity and elegance of pre-pubescent romance -- couched in an insanely whimsically perfect rural environment, one designed specifically to recall a kind of idealized frontier existence that most people even in 1876 had never actually experienced, much less all of us 132 years later.
In fact, our titular hero Tom pretty much stands for each and every element of a "noble childhood" that we all secretly wish we could've had -- a constant irritant to his legal guardian who is nonetheless clearly loved and constantly forgiven by her, clever hero to the rest of the neighborhood boys while still being a simple-minded romantic to the girls he's got a shinin' for. Throughout the first half of the novel, then, we follow Tom and his cohorts as they get in and out of a series of short-story-worthy jams; there's the Story of How Tom Convinced The Other Boys to Whitewash His Fence For Him, the Story of the Dog That Got Bit During Church And Made a Huge Racket, the Story of the Boys Who Ran Away and Played Pirates for a Week on a Mid-River Island But Then Found Out That Everyone In Town Thought They Were Dead So Decided To Attend Their Own Funeral. Yeah, impossibly romantic little stories about impossibly idyllic small-town life
, pretty much the definition of a Pastoral novel. Add a more serious story to propel the second half, then, in which a couple of local drunks actually do commit a murder one night, with Tom and his badboy friend Huck Finn being the only secret witnesses, and you've got yourself a nice little morality tale as well, not to mention a great way to end the story (buried treasure!) and a fantastic way to set yourself up for further sequels.The argument for it being a classic:
As mentioned, one of the strongest arguments for Tom Sawyer
being a classic is because it's one of the first and still best examples of the "American Pastoral" novel, an extremely important development in the cultural history of the Victorian Age that has unfortunately become a bit obscure in our time
s; for those who don't know, it was basically an artistic rebellion against the Industrial Age of the early 1800s, a group of writers and painters and thinkers who came together to decry the dehumanization of mechanized urban centers. Ironically, it was these same people who established what are now many of the best things about our modern cities, things like parks and libraries and zoning laws and all the other "radical" ideas that many people first laughed at when first proposed; as a complement to these forward-thinking theories, though, such artists also put together projects about rural small-town life that were designed deliberately as political statements, as little manifestos about how much better it is when you live in the countryside and breathe fresh air and grow your own food and make your own clothes.
The Pastoral movement first really caught on over in England*, where urban industrial growth proceeded a lot more quickly than in America, and where the detrimental effects of the age could be more rapidly seen; nonetheless, by the mid-1800s (and especially after the horrific Civil War of 1860-65), more and more Americans had started pining for this unique brand of entertainment as well, and pining for a "good ol' days" that had never really existed. This is what Twain built the entire first half of his career on, fans say, and it really doesn't get much better than Tom Sawyer
for pure delightful small-town escapist entertainment; his later books might be better known, they say, more respected within the academic world, but it is these earlier Pastoral tales that first really caught on with the public at large, and made him the huge success he was.The argument against:
Of course, you can turn this argument straight around on its head; there's a very good reason, after all, that this book's sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(written ten years later) is the much more studied and analyzed of the two. And that's because Twain only grew into his role as "America's Greatest Political Satirist" over time, critics of this book argue; if you take a close look at his career, they say, you'll see that the majority of work he wrote in the first half of his career is either kitschy nostalgic housewife pabulum or smartass travelogues about how Americans pretty much hate everything and think they're better than everyone else. We've lost sight of this over the last century, the argument goes, but Twain wasn't really considered a "serious" writer until late in life and already a big success; I suppose you can think of it in terms of Steven Spielberg pre- and post-Schindler's List
, with Tom Sawyer
being the 1800s version of the popular but ultimately intellectually empty E.T.
So let me first admit that I am probably too close to this book to be able to be completely objective about it; after all, I grew up just three hours away from the town of Hannibal where these events took place, have visited the town many times over the years, connected deeply with the book when a child precisely because of it taking place so close to where I lived, and in fact have probably now seen and read a dozen movie, television, comic-book and stage-play adaptations of the novel by now as well. (Why yes, even as late as the 1970s, in rural Missouri you could still find plenty of stage-play versions of Tom Sawyer
each year, mostly Summerstock and other community productions.) I will always love this story because it will always remind me of my childhood, just as is the case I imagine with a whole lot of people out there; of nighttime barefoot runs through woods, of bizarre superstitious rituals held in the bottoms of muddy creek beds.
That said, it was certainly interesting to read it again as an adult for the first time, I think maybe the first time I've ever actually read the original novel from the first page to the last without stopping, because what its critics say really is true -- there really is just not much of substance at all to Tom Sawyer
, other than a collection of amusing little stories about small-town life, held together with just the flimsiest of overall plots. In fact, the more I learn about Twain, the more I realize that his career really can be seen as two strikingly different halves; there is the first half, where Twain was not much more than a failed journalist but great storyteller, who started writing down these stories just because he didn't have much else better to do; and then there's the second half, when he's already famous and finally gets bitter and smart and political, as we now erroneously think of his entire career in our hazy collective memories. This doesn't prevent me from still loving Tom Sawyer
, and still confidently labeling it a "classic" for its American Pastoral elements; it does give me a better understanding of it, though, in terms of Twain's overall career, and how we should see it as merely one step along a highly complex line the man walked when he was alive.Is it a classic?
*And in fact, the term "Pastoral" has actually been around since the 1500s (or the beginning of the Renaissance) and originally referred to stories specifically about shepherds; these anti-city writers of the Victorian Age sorta co-opted the term from the original, with the American wing then co-opting it from the Brits.