Tom Sawyer

Extract from a post originally published by Wordsworth Editions…

…Children’s literature was already an established genre on both sides of the Atlantic, the so-called ‘First Golden Age of Children’s Fiction’ heralded by the English translation of Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (1812). Wyss had written the book for his sons to deliver Christian moral lessons about self-reliance, prudence, acceptance, and cooperation, and this inspired a long line of morally improving stories peaking with R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island in 1857. In the US, the principal exponent of the form was without a doubt Horatio Alger (1832–1899).

Alger, a former Unitarian minister, specialised in ‘rags to riches’ novels for young adult readers, having broken through with Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks in 1868. The fourteen-year-old ‘Ragged Dick’ the homeless shoeshine boy smokes and drinks, but never steals. He is nonetheless determined ‘to grow up ’spectable’. Impressed by his honesty and ambition, some of his gentlemen clients help him out. One introduces him to church, while another gives him five dollars with which he opens a bank account and rents a room. A fellow tenant teaches him his letters, and he prudently saves. In the climax of the novel, Dick rescues a drowning child and the grateful father rewards him with a new suit and a job in his firm. At last, Dick is ‘cut off from the old vagabond life which he hoped never to resume’, becoming ‘Richard Hunter, Esq’. Ragged Dick, originally serialised in the children’s magazine The Student and Schoolmate, was an instant success, as was the subsequent novelised edition. Seeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, Alger had found his formula and he stuck to it, writing forty-odd juvenile novels with titles like Fame and Fortune, Struggling Upward, Luck and Pluck, Up the Ladder, Strive and Succeed, Tattered Tom, and Paul the Peddler. All of these essentially recycled the plot of Ragged Dick, promoting temperance, honesty, hard work, and cheerfulness in adversity. Alger’s influence on American society was huge in the ‘Gilded Age’ of rapid economic growth before the turn of the century (yes, the term was taken from the novel by Twain and Warner), perpetuating the ethos so central to the ‘American Dream’ that the path to wealth and success across the social classes is a combination of honesty, hard work, self-reliance, and determination. In fact, his admittedly virtuous working-class heroes usually triumph as the result of luck: being in the right place at the right time to save drowning middle-class children, snatch them from the path of runaway streetcars, or drag them from an overturned carriage, attracting the gratitude or attention of a wealthy patron.

Prior to writing Tom Sawyer, Twain had sent Alger up something rotten in two comic sketches entitled ‘The Story of the Good Boy’ and ‘The Story of the Wicked Little Boy’ in which, like Sade’s Justine, the ‘good boy’ is never rewarded and ends up dying before he can declaim the last words he has carefully prepared, and the ‘wicked little boy’ lies, cheats and steals with impunity, becoming rich and successful in the manner of Sade’s Juliette. Tom Sawyer builds upon this worthy foundation: ‘He was not the Model Boy of the village. He knew the model boy very well though – and loathed him.’

Although the most famous of ‘bad boys’, however, Tom Sawyer was not the first. That honour belongs to ‘Tom Bailey’, the hero of T.B. Aldrich’s semi-autobiographical novel The Story of a Bad Boy published in 1870. Unlike Twain’s creation, Tom Bailey has not stood the test of time and is now only of interest to literary historians, but the similarities are striking. Tom Bailey lives in the port town of ‘Rivermouth’ (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), and, like Tom Sawyer, his ‘badness’ is neither criminal nor cruel, but a series of elaborate and episodic pranks, born out of a restless and imaginative nature. With his gang, he pinches an old cart and runs it into a Fourth of July bonfire, instigates an epic snowball fight, fires an old canon off the pier, and runs away to an island. Like Tom Sawyer, Tom Bailey is another ‘trickster’, like Loki or the Joker, an archetypal figure who crosses societal boundaries, playfully violating rules and conventions, disrupting ‘normality’ and remaking the world in their own image. Aldrich does not go all the way though, and his Tom eventually accepts adult responsibility and goes to work for his uncle in a New York counting house in a third act that would not look out of place in a novel by Horatio Alger. And therein lays the difference. Aldrich’s novel was certainly an influence, though Twain was critical of it in correspondence – possibly dropping chaff to disguise how influential it was – and Tom Sawyer is in some ways a satirical reply, as was often Twain’s way with other popular writers and genres. (In that regard, he was a similar writer to Thackeray.) But in replying, he goes much further than Aldrich in taking his Lord of Misrule to his natural conclusion. Tom Sawyer never accepts adult responsibility, and his fantasies do make the world…

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is also episodic. This form obviously suited Twain the sketch and short story writer, and the narrative has the tightness of a stage play, with a limited cast of characters, one main setting (‘St Petersburg’), and action taking place over one summer. There’s even an opening monologue spoken by the long-suffering Aunt Polly:

‘Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ’pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks. Well-a-well, man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble, as the Scripture says, and I reckon it’s so. He’ll play hookey this evening, I’ll just be obleeged to make him work, tomorrow, to punish him. It’s mighty hard to make him work Saturdays, when all the boys is having holiday, but he hates work more than he hates anything else, and I’ve got to do some of my duty by him, or I’ll be the ruination of the child.’

And so, the story starts, with the famous scene in which Tom uses reverse psychology to trick his mates into completing his punishment task of whitewashing his aunt’s fence. There follows a series of set-piece gags, cons, tricks, and adventures, bound together by a meandering story arc involving Tom, Huck and the novel’s antagonist, the thief and murderer ‘Injun Joe’.

Tom is a dreamer and a romantic, and in the children’s world of play his imagination, enthusiasm and audacity make him a natural leader. In the adult world of church, school, and home, he is in a state of permanent rebellion. There are memorable scenes of him suffering through church sermons and school lessons involving stray dogs and beetles while the preachers and teachers obliviously drone on as their controlled spaces descend into chaos. ‘Church ain’t shucks to a circus,’ says Tom, and through his hero, Twain’s attitude to organised religion throughout the novel is playfully subversive. Despite scamming a free bible for learning scripture, Tom cannot commit a single verse to memory. (He doesn’t care about the bible, rather the glory of the prize-giving ceremony. This is rather awkward when he is called upon to recite.) But as with many kids, it is a question of interest rather than intelligence; he can quote his Robin Hood book word for word for the purposes of accuracy when the gang are playing outlaws. And although not religious – when a ‘revival’ comes to town he is the only one to reject it – he is credulously superstitious. All his and Huck’s problems with Injun Joe spring from an attempt to cure warts with a dead cat and a freshly dug grave at midnight; the graveyard, like the ‘haunted house’ and ‘McDougal’s Cave’, adding a gothic charge to the main plotline in contrast to the daytime games and pranks of the long summer vacation. And beneath the veneer of a deceptively light-hearted and easy-going narrative, this reverence for outlaws and pagan ritual is an equally sharp contrast to the strict Protestant conformity of the town…

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