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.


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