‘Church ain’t shucks to a circus’: Tom Sawyer and the literature of subversion

Originally published by Wordsworth Editions…

Tom Sawyer is one of those transcendent literary characters who go beyond the simply iconic and enter the realm of myth. His statue stands alongside his best friend, Huckleberry Finn, in Mark Twain’s childhood home, Hannibal, Missouri (erected in 1926, it’s one of the first, if not the first, statues of a non-religious fictional character), and together these larger-than-life figures tower over the development of the modern American novel. He’s been portrayed in 25 films and TV shows to date (the last as recently as 2016), and when the producers of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wanted an American fictional icon to join Alan Moore’s pantheon of British literary heroes, he was the instant and obvious choice. Then there are the plays, the comics, the videogames, the musicals, and, even, the ballet… 

For boys, especially, he’s the hero of the book you read and loved as a kid because your dad recommended it, as his probably had before him. (Mine certainly did.) And you might have started out wondering what a novel set in the American South of the 1840s could possibly have to do with your life, until you started to read and were instantly drawn in. This is because, at heart, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a celebration of childhood – well, boyhood – and that’s a universal human experience, whenever and wherever it happens. You can read it as a kid and identify with Tom and Huck, Sid, Mary, Becky Thatcher and the rest of the gang. You can read it again as a parent and see your own children in them: the elaborate imaginative play, the fluid, capricious allegiances, the hilariously half-understood adult world, the crushing and instantly forgotten heartbreaks, the vital trivia, and, above all, the anarchy. Maybe he’s been supplanted by Harry Potter these days, but it should be remembered that they’d likely be no Harry without Tom.

As with its more complex sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, here is so much academic ink spilled over Tom Sawyer, especially in the US, that one would be hard pressed to read it all in a lifetime. But, as is generally the case, the best way to get around this monolithic critical heritage is to just go back to the original novel, its author, and its age. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was Twain’s first solo attempt at a novel, having previously co-written The Gilded Age (1873) with his friend Charles Dudley Warner, a satire on land speculation and political corruption. Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens – ‘Mark Twain’ was the leadsman’s call for ‘safe water’) was by this point well established as a humourist and travel writer, after an eclectic employment history that had included typesetter, riverboat pilot, Confederate militiaman, and silver miner, before he drifted into journalism in his mid-twenties in the early 1860s. He had gained national recognition with his short story ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ in 1865, a richly told comic anecdote, and was popular on the knockabout US lecture circuit, which was more akin to stand-up comedy than its stuffy English equivalent. His first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869) – a humorous and deceptively deep account of a five-month sea voyage through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American tourists – had been a bestseller, challenging, as it did, the grandiose accounts of conventional contemporary travelogues. He followed this with Roughing It (1972), a semi-autobiographical account of his adventures in the Wild West in the 1860s, and the memoir Old Times on the Mississippi (1876). The latter work formed the basis of his later autobiography, Life on the Mississippi (1883), which notably preceded the completion of Huckleberry Finn. While writing the original Mississippi memoir, Twain regularly corresponded with his childhood friend, Will Bowen, and this had evoked powerful memories of his youth in Hannibal towards the end of the antebellum or ‘plantation’ era that had ended in civil war. In need of another hit to support his growing family and having already started the transition from a writer of short and non-fiction to novelist, Tom Sawyer was the result.  

The novel is in many ways a creative nonfiction, although whose childhood is being recounted will be forever open to question, not that it particularly matters. As we age, tales get taller with every telling anyway, and Twain was always a consummate raconteur. The name ‘Tom Sawyer’ belonged to a friend of Twain’s in San Francisco, a flamboyant fire chief and local hero who had once rescued dozens of passengers after a shipwreck. Like Twain, he was a great talker, and the two men frequently swapped childhood stories over drinks and cards. Twain’s hero was an amalgam of himself, the original Tom Sawyer, Bowen and another childhood friend, John B. Briggs (although in later life he claimed he was a complete invention). The novel’s setting, ‘St. Petersburg’, a port and border town on the banks of the Mississippi, over the water from Illinois, is recognisably Hannibal, with familiar landmarks that have since become mainstays of the local tourist industry disguised only by slight changes to the names. The layout and disposition of the ‘one-horse towns’ are pretty much identical. Twain was born down the road in Florida, Missouri in 1835, but his family moved to Hannibal when he was four. He remained there until he was eighteen, when he left to work as a printer in New York. (At the time of composition, he was living with his family in Hartford, Connecticut.) The portrait of the town is vivid and evocative, as well as largely affectionate, although Twain does not shy away from the darker aspects of a frontier town of this period: the drunkenness, poverty, and explosions of violence, and the accepted practice of owning slaves. The voice of the novel is that of an adult third person narrator looking back to a vanished world, although whether this is one of the characters is unclear. The impression is that of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the omniscient narrator of nineteenth century realism crossed with Twain speaking in his own voice, giving the text an anecdotal feel that adds to its authenticity. It is knowing, gently satiric and essentially upbeat, and from this and Twain’s Mississippi memoirs it’s clear that these recollections of a childhood spent on the river were his happy place, warts and all. By Huckleberry Finn, the memories were less idyllic, the social satire sharper, and Twain had opted for the more immediate and emotionally complicated first-person narration of his protagonist. But Huckleberry Finn is an adult novel; Tom Sawyer was always for kids. It was, said Twain in his Preface, ‘intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls,’ though he does add that: ‘I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.’

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