On reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Opening page of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

In a Mark Twain state of mind.  Having finished Ron Power’s biography, I moved into rereading the classic Twain text (which I last fully read – maybe…maybe… – twenty years ago).  In the years since I’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn maybe half-a-dozen times (because of teaching it).  HF looms large, and in many ways I’ve always been dismissive of TS , though that is largely from reading so much criticism of Twain that largely reduces TS to being a good story, but not in the same league as HF.  However, it is one thing to not be in the same league as, another to not bother with it because of its inferiority.  Does one forsake other Beatles albums because they are not in the same realm as Sgt. Pepper or Revolver?  Other Pink Floyd albums because they are not Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here (aside: which we listened to a few nights ago, sitting in the living room and just listening.  Gail, Jake, Jake’s friend Kim and me.  Kim had just seen The Wall performed by Roger Waters at Yankee stadium.  I digress).  Anyway, I wanted to reconnect with the book, having remembered some key scenes (the obvious fence painting, the cave scene (which I remembered incorrectly I realized.   Thanks memory).

One pleasure of the text: the ease of boyhood life that Twain depicts in his fictional town on the banks of the Mississippi – largely based on his boyhood in Hannibal, MO, in the early 1850s.  Twain – writing TS, Life on the Mississippi, and HF – brings the reader back to the world of his lived and imagined boyhood.  The 1870s and 1880s were a time rife with change (the failed Reformation, the industrial revolution).  Writing from his study in his newly built home in Nook Farm in Hartford (see previous post) as well as his sister-in-law’s home in Elmira, NY, Twain closed his eyes and visited the threshold of memory and imagination.  Twain writes to Will Bowen, a close boyhood friend, on Feb. 6, 1870: “I have rained reminiscences for four & twenty hours.  The old life has swept before me like a panorama; the old days have trooped by in their old glory again.”  Twain digs in deep and goes back to the Hannibal of his boyhood: the imagined, romanticized Hannibal of his early days.  In doing so he waxes nostalgic for a time that has passed, and as a man in his late 30s of a boyhood that has long passed.  It’s amazing – this is what literature does – to realize that nostalgia knows no particular era.  We as humans are always nostalgic for what once was.  The past is always present.  The present is always the past.

One of the pleasures of the text for me this go round: Tom Sawyer and the boys appreciating the act of being idle.  Idleness is a lost art: the art of doing nothing.  But nothing is never ever really nothing.  I can’t seem to be doing nothing, though someone looking at my life (especially in the summer when I’m not teaching) could say I’m “doing nothing.”  But our 2012 lives are crammed.  Jake and Kevin’s lives are crammed.  Their idleness seems to be in sleeping (though Jake has had a good loafing weekend this weekend (I’m writing this post on a temperate but cloudy Sunday afternoon while sitting out back on the porch.  And I ain’t loafing, I’m writing.  Though to some people this might be loafing.  Who am I fooling?).  Yesterday – my…ahem…53rd birthday – Jake took Kim to the airport at nine a.m., came home with bagels and lox for all (yeah Jake!), and after Gail left to go to a brunch, we sat around, played Twixt, then I played some old vinyl.  Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising.  Jake was asleep on the sofa, his read nearly resting on his open computer, by side 2.  How could anyone fall asleep to Hüsker Dü?

But I digress.  Loafing.  On of the pleasures of the text.  Romanticizing of a rural time gone by.  Certainly a time of innocence and imagination.  A time in which kids could run free with their imaginations, pre television, pre air conditioning, pre computer games, pre internet and social media, pre parental involvement (but also pre medical advances and racial equality).  Shit, if kids didn’t come home after awhile, the adults simply dragged the river hoping their bodies would float to the surface! But the boys – Tom especially (it is his story) – had a rich inner life that showed a sensitivity and awareness of their awesome place in the scheme of life.  Followed is one of my favorite passages from Chapter 13 in which Tom, Huck and Joe run away to Jackson Island:

  • They found plenty of things to be delighted with but nothing to be astonished at.  They    discovered that the island was about three miles long and a quarter of a mile wide, and that the shore, it last closest to was only separated from it by a narrow channel hardly two hundred yards wide.  They took a swim about every hour, so it was close upon the middle of the afternoon when they got back to camp.  They were too hungry to stop to fish, but they fared sumptuously upon cold ham, and then threw themselves down in the shade to talk.  But the talk soon began to drag, and then died.  The stillness, the solemnity that brooded in the woods, that the sense of loneliness, began to tell upon the spirits of the boys.  The fell to thinking.  A sort of undefined longing crept upon them.  This took dim shape, presently – it was budding home-sickness.  Even Finn the Red-Handed was dreaming of his door-steps and empty hogsheads.  But they were all ashamed of their weakness, and none was bave enough to speak his thought.

I love how Twain allows all these young boys to be aware of the “sense of loneliness” of being away on the island for a few days.  This feeling will be heightened in HF; in the later book Huck seems to continually remark – in that powerful first-person pov – how lonely he is.

Another pleasure of the text is the illustrations.  I felt reading this facsimile of the first edition of TS, much as I felt reading the facsimile of the first edition of HF, that the success of the book owes a tremendous amount to True Williams’ illustrations.  Nearly every other page has some type of illustration.  It brings the reader into the world of the book in a way that Brian Selznick’s beautiful illustrations of The Adventures of Hugo Cabret did.  As a reader, it is so pleasurable to linger over the illustrations and let the images help inform and  color the world of Twain’s text.  Twain himself was very happy with Williams’ work, and though he composed without pictures – they were added with Twain’s enthusiastic consent in publishing – they are indispensable to me.  I can’t imagine feeling the same way in reading the book without the pictures (ditto for HF).  And most readers who approach the text have read it in budget versions that do not include illustrations as all!  A great injustice!  I found a 99 cent version online which replicates the original text (but on my Kindle in some kind of bastardized form – maybe better on an IPad?)  There is hope that future readers can all see replications of the original publication.  I am so happy to have these facsimile versions (and sad to see this series – published by Oxford UP – is now out-of-print).  I am proud to have four of their 20+ volumes on my bookshelf.  It was tremendous to read TS in this way in which it was originally published.  What follows are three of my favorite illustrations that truly capture the sense of place and space, something in which this blog is devoted to:

The above three images are some of my favorites of True Williams’ illustrations to Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer taken from a facsimile of the first edition of the text.


On a New York island (part one – visiting Ellis Island)

Looking northward from the dock at Liberty State Park

Friday was a cool, rainy, wind-swept day.  Perfect weather for a ferry trip from Liberty State Park to Ellis Island.  Gail had been there four, five, or six times previously with 70 eight and nine year olds in tow.  This trip was to prove to different in many ways.  Driving up to Liberty State Park is an experience.  You drive on a congested two-lane offshoot of the turnpike toward Bayonne and Jersey City.  You’ve got Death Cab for Cuties Plans CD playing loud because you just saw them then night before at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, and that is your favorite of their albums.  You get off the slow-moving highway into what looks like nowheresville, NJ.  Sure Manhattan is looming right in the background, but you’re in this quasi industrial/rural-like forgotten part of New Jersey.  But there are signs that lead you.  Make a left.  Then another left.  The road surface goes from okay to neglected to – what’s this – cobblestones?  You don’t dare take the Honda out of second gear.  But you’re on a long straight road (could have been built by our forefathers, but realistically it was built in the past 25 years when this whole area was completely cleaned up and.  You drive the road and you see what looks like a grand ghost to an industrial age long past.  A huge railroad terminal at the river’s edge.  Maybe a dozen tracks feeding into it leading… nowhere now.  We parked the car and walked to the rusting steel fence.  The tracks are all covered but the weeds – many of them as big as basketball poles – have taken over.  We walk alongside the tracks maybe 500 feet until we get to the main terminal that feeds/once fed  the tracks.  This main terminal has been completely renovated/rebuilt and now houses the ticket purchasing and security to take visitors to Ellis and Liberty Islands.

Beware of ghosts: inside the main terminal remnant signs from an earlier era

Gail remarked what a difference a rainy day in July makes.  She had never seen the terminal so empty.  She bought our tickets, we walked outside to the grey to wait for our ferry.

Ghost slips waiting for the ferries from days gone by

Visiting Ellis Island is truly visiting a another world – doors are opened to a past 100 years before.  The main building has been completely restored, and walking through the hall and all the rooms you are reminded of visiting Alcatraz: it’s been fixed up to accomodate the throngs, but the past is always looking down upon us.  It’s all about learning and appreciation: Learning that it was just the steerage passengers who  were sent to Ellis Island; the first and second-class passengers were processed toward the end of the Atlantic crossing.  When their vessels docked in Manhattan, they were free to leave.  The masses in steerage had to then board ferries to take them from the docks of Manhattan to Ellis Island.

upstairs looking down upon The Great Hall, where thousands milled around waiting for their name to be called to start the processing.

Probably the most powerful display was on the third floor of the images taken before the restoration.  Looking at Ellis Island in all its dilapidated glory was truly a visual experience.  Rooms covered with torn sheets of peeling paint. Broken windows.  Grime. Dirt.  Decay.  It helps you realize what was once there years after what is being celebrated and before all the restoration began. The ruins are fabulous, but it can’t stay that way.  To make it a destination, revitalization has to come in.  And it makes sense.  The island was revitalized throughout its history: the main building was a wooden structure that burned to the ground five years after it was built.  The new “fire proof” building was built in the late 1880s (maybe?  fact checker?)

Okay. I didn’t take this shot. However, it gives you a good visual representation of the island and the huge circular wall of names.

The circular wall of names outside the Great Hall

Here are the Lazaroffs. None of these are my direct relatives. My great grandfather Michael Lazaroff came over previous to Ellis Island. He came into New York via Clinton Gardens (now referred to as Castle Clinton). There will be more about this in a future post.

Gail’s grandfather Sam is listed here – thanks to her Aunt Sandy and Aunt Alice for (probably) making the listing happen.  Shael is her great grandfather (she thinks).

on reading Sam Clemens, on visiting his home


Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT

Welcome tp the 21st Century Mark Twain. Visitor’s to the Welcome Center outside the Mark Twain house are greeted by a life-size statue of the infamous author constructed out of Legos!

There are so many places and sights to celebrate.  You can travel far, far, far, or you can drive a few hours.  The next few posts will celebrate a trip I took with my nephew Geoff to Hartford, CT to visit and walk in the footsteps of two truly American writers.

Please look at the image above – Mark Twain’s house where he, his wife, and ultimately his three daughters lived for about 15 years during the “happiest” days of Mark Twain’s life (roughly 1875- 1890)   I learned a lot from the tour of the house, which was reinforced by reading Ron Power’s excellent and deep biography of Twain.  On the tour, Geoff and I learned that MT’s wife came from money, that she bankrolled the designing/building of the house, that they both loved to entertain in the lavish downstairs (though the upstairs was much more spartan and to the Clemens’s liking.  This was the house where Twain worked on his greatest books: Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (though much of the writing was done in a gazebo in his sister-in-law’s house in Elmira, NY where Twain and family loved to visit in the summer).  Sam Clemens loved technology.  The house was one of the county’s first to have a telephone (who would the person with the first telephone call?).  It also had an intercom between rooms/kitchen.  It had a burglar alarm (?)

It was tremendous to visit the house, to gaze upon rooms, to gaze out of windows, to gaze, gaze, gaze upon vistas the Twain himself had gazed upon nearly 150 years previously.  It is glorious that the house still stands.  The neighborhood used to be known as Nook Farms, and it was a very well-to-do intellectually curious community (Harriet Beecher Stowe was the Clemens’s next-door-neighbor).  We visited the library, Sam and Livy’s bedroom (with the infamous Venetian bed in place – Sam and Livy liked to sleep with their heads at the foot of the bed so they could gaze at the beautifully carved headboard), and Sam’s study where he did his writing.  Huge billiard table occupying much of the floorspace (and on the third floor no less… how did they get it up there?  How hot must it have been in the third floor in the summer – but they spent a lot of the summer in Elmira).

here’s an image of Mark Twain in his third floor study playing billiards at the huge table that took up much of the room (and must have been a bitch to move it there)

Finished Power’s book last night, and it had to end how it ended… Mark Twain had to die. It’s a huge problem with biographies of dead people; the book’s end when the subject under study dies.  It happened with Truman Capote (bio read during the winter) and it happened with Gram Parsons (the biography I finished about five weeks ago and Did Not Want It To End – loved the book and was deeply troubled about Gram  and his willingness throughout his life to throw it all away). Midway through each of these books the subject, whether he realizes it or not, is going to making the greatest art – contributing the most he is ever going to contribute in his life.   The biographer is the puppeteer – he’s the one guiding the reader, telling him it’s just going to keep getting better or it’s just going to keep getting worse (yes, kinda like those VH1 Behind the Music documentaries from years back. (Voiceover) “and if things weren’t bad enough, they were soon to become drastically worse (cut to commercial).”

There are many brilliant passages in Power’s book that I hope to revisit/relate to in future posts.  Clemens was deep inside himself, even though he spent so much time in social situations (and investing in truly madcap ideas.  The amount of time, money, and energy he     put into other people’s losing ventures was extraordinary).  But he was often revisiting the charms and the troubles of his youth.  In the midst of writing Life on the Mississippi and Huck Finn he returned to the river and to Hannibal and both his words – and Powers – are noteworthy concerning the returning visit many years later.

Back to the house: As mentioned earlier in its day the area was for the rich – those rich in the pocket and rich in ideas.  Now the neighborhood looks more like Hackensack (which is not to say there aren’t people “rich” in the same way.  Just lots of garden apartment complexes, chuches, restaurants, laundromats.  Twain’s house is literally the house on the hill.  The grandeur of it in an otherwise hardscrabble neighborhood is pretty stunning in the juxtaposition.

110 years ago. Today.

ImageIt’s mid-July – s scorcher of a day.  No, scorcher’s not the right word.  It’s thick and sticky, but inside with an air conditioner in the window whirring away and the shades pulled down to block the sun it’s pretty comfortable.  All hail Willis Carrier.  It was this day in 1902 that air conditioning, kinda, sorta, as we think of it today, kinda sorta came into being.  In a printing plant in Brooklyn.  This wasn’t the day a unit got turned on, but was the date inscribed on Carrier’s blueprints.

We drove last night into the city in our air conditioned Honda Civic.  It felt so good on such a hot night to be cruising down the West Side Highway with the AC pumping.  Two years ago we would have been in our Subaru Outback that didn’t have AC.  Check that.  It had AC, it just broke about four years previously, and being that a new compressor was ridiculously expensive, we never fixed it.  Just fixed to drive that car mainly when the sun wasn’t shining.  But even then it was too damned hot in the car.  Now, driving the Civic, the rush of cool air feels soooo good in comparison.  Ah relief.  Ah pleasure.

Many of us have a tortured relationship with our air conditioning.  We wish we didn’t have to use it, but we are so happy we have it.  I would much rather have the windows open and the air be manageable throughout the house.  But this is not to be.  There’s a book I want to read: Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air Conditioning by Marsha E. Ackermann.  Mentioned today in an article in the New York Times which informed me about Willis Carrier.

Which doesn’t explain the picture on top.  Tangential relationship.  First post on this blog and I need an image, and this one was at the ready.  It was taken in late May, early June, in Cape May Point, NJ.  Rained all day; once it cleared biked out about five to the state park and it was foggy, misty and awesome looking.  Had to go back for my camera and walk on the one of the hiking trails.  Didn’t need AC back then, six weeks ago.  Nature provided all she needed.