Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, 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.
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, preface (Originally in Hartford, 1876)
Just today, I finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, AKA Samuel Langhorne Clemens. I’ve seen a lot of references to it in TV shows and never once saw the movies based on it. (Probably for the best. How faithful would those movies be to the story, anyway?) But I’m glad to know what the story’s about now. The quote above sums it up so well, because it’s about Tom Sawyer, a boy living in the fictional St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the Mississippi River in the 1840s.
I know a few of Tom’s antics reminded me of my own childhood (and even adolescent) antics. Even if Tom’s adventures are less adventurous than most, they clearly charmed a lot of readers – including me looking back at my own childhood. It also highlights the kind of childhood Twain likely had, especially because he also says this in the preface:
Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual— he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture.
The Fascinating Story of Mark Twain
Mark Twain was born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835. He and his family soon moved to Hannibal along the Mississippi River. Samuel spent a good chunk of his childhood playing in his father and uncle’s slaves’ rooms and listening to their stories. Those tales may have influenced his writing.
After his father’s death in 1847, then eleven-year-old Samuel started work as a printer’s apprentice. He arranged the type for all the stories, which was a plus because he could keep up with the news while working. This led to Samuel working on different newspapers in New York City and Philadelphia as an adult.
In 1857 he went back home worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. When the Civil War ended that job, he (very briefly) joined the Marion Rangers, a volunteer Confederate unit. At his brother Orion’s suggestion, Samuel went to Nevada by stagecoach. Along the way, he first met Native American tribes and many unique people, events, and setbacks. Eventually in Nevada, Samuel ended up doing what he did best – writing, this time for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City.
This was the first time he used his pen name, Mark Twain – which came from his days as a riverboat pilot. On steamboats, the leadsmen would shout “mark [measure] twain [two],” meaning the water was twelve feet deep and thus safe for the steamboat.
Finally, in 1865, Mark Twain’s short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” came out in national papers. It was also known as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog,” as seen above. After coming back from visiting and reporting on Hawaii (then called the “Sandwich Islands”), he went on his first lecture tour. This year was Mark Twain’s breakout year. “Jim Smiley” and his Sandwich Islands reports got very popular, and the lecture tour gave him a reputation as a good performer. It was all uphill from there – at least until his final years.
Samuel continued to travel to New York City in 1867 and further east to Europe and Israel. His chronicles along the way were well-received and written in to his first book, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869. On his travels, he met his future wife, Olivia Langdon. They married in 1870 and moved to Buffalo, New York, and eventually settled in an elaborate 25-room house in Hartford, Connecticut.
Roughing It came out in 1872, chronicling Mark Twain’s time on the road to Nevada. The Gilded Age came along in 1873, criticizing corruption, big business, and obsession with riches (yes, even though Samuel had his big, expensive house the next year). The Clemens would have three daughters, Susy, Jean, and Clara, and one son, Langdon, who sadly died of diphtheria at just two years old.
Samuel’s time in Hartford (1874-1891) was the most fruitful time in his career. He would go on to create The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, Life on the Mississippi in 1883, The Prince and the Pauper in 1881, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884. Huckleberry Finn was published by Samuel’s own publishing company, The Charles L. Webster Company, founded in 1884. The company published former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, which earned a major profit for the publisher and Grant’s widow.
Unfortunately, Mark Twain’s luck didn’t last long. The bad investments he made in new inventions caught up with him and put him in debt. The family moved to Europe in 1891, and Samuel started a worldwide tour in 1894 after his publishing company went under. More bad news came when Susy Clemens, 24 years old, died of meningitis at the Hartford home.
The Clemens traveled the world, and Samuel grew increasingly angry at imperialist countries and their abuse of weaker governments. This included Europe and the United States. Samuel came back to the U.S. in 1900 a proud anti-imperialist, serving as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League until his death. This would threaten his livelihood again, as his writings and speeches explored the dark side of mankind and got him quite a bit of blowback from the publishing industry.
Samuel and Olivia went back to Italy for a while, where Olivia died of heart failure in 1904. He went back to New York City until 1908, and finally to his last home in Redding, Connecticut. In 1909, Clara Clemens got married. But she would be Samuel’s last surviving child, since Jean died the same year from an epileptic seizure.
Samuel Clemens would meet his own fate on April 21, 1910, at age 74. But he left behind a legacy of well-loved stories and closely held principles.
Except for a few certain traits and events, Tom Sawyer is just your average schoolboy for his time and place. He gets into quite a bit of mischief, upsetting his Aunt Polly or getting disciplined by his teacher. He gets a crush on Becky Thatcher, the new girl in town and the daughter of a judge, and “marries” her at one point. He fights with his half-brother, Sid, who usually tattles on him when he does something behind Aunt Polly’s back. He’s very imaginative and wishes to be a pirate, and then a robber towards the end of the story. Sometimes Tom will retreat from the house when he’s quite upset, only to come back. I admit, his adventures started out less adventurous than I expected. But things get interesting soon enough.
Tom is also really clever. We see him get out of punishment or win something – like the part where he gets the kids to pay him to paint a fence (yes!) and gets enough tickets from other Sunday school students to win a Bible. Sometimes his plans do backfire. One day, he tries to fake sickness to be able to stay home from school, only to have Aunt Polly catch on to the act.
On that same day, Tom Sawyer goes to school and stops to talk with Huckleberry Finn. Huck is dressed in rags and the outcast son of a drunk, yet he’s admired and envied by the kids for his free lifestyle. He has some warts on his hands and tells Tom an interesting theory on removing warts, involving devils in a graveyard and a dead cat he’s carrying. He wants to try out the theory at the graveyard before midnight, where someone they know of has just been buried.
That night is when the tension in the story really ramps up. When Tom and Huck get to the cemetery, they witness a murder. Injun Joe is the murderer, and he becomes the main antagonist. Fearing murder at his hands if they tell anyone, the boys make a blood oath not to say anything. In between more adventures, this weighs heavily on Tom and Huck. It only gets worse when Muff Potter, who was there with Injun Joe, is accused of being the murderer and held in jail before his murder trial. At practically the last minute, Tom finally tells Potter’s attorney the truth and testifies in the trial the next day, naming Injun Joe as the murderer. Injun Joe bursts out the courtroom window and escapes.
While their consciences are clear, we can still see poor Tom and Huck grappling with fear of Injun Joe coming back for them. So they don’t go out at night for a while. But Tom’s sudden craving for finding treasure eventually leads them to find Injun Joe in disguise. Long story short, he meets his fate soon enough. The boys finally find his treasure – Scrooge McDuck-esque gold coins and everything! – and become unbelievably rich overnight. An old woman in town, Widow Douglas, adopts Huck, and this is where the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, begins. But that’s for another post.
As far as adventures go, Tom Sawyer had a different structure than I expected. While you’d usually expect a prominent main storyline with protagonists fighting villains, the plot here comes across as a series of Tom and Huck’s mischiefs. But I don’t mind that. Let’s remember that this is about a child. More importantly, there’s still a thread that masterfully ties these subplots together – the murder, the dilemma Tom and Huck face from speaking out about Injun Joe, and the eventual resolution. Even the parts before Huck first appears show Tom’s character as a mischievous and clever child, who follows the rules but daydreams of adventure. Through some fun and perilous experiences, Tom matures to the point where he encourages Huck to stay with Widow Douglas when he runs away from her.
We also get to see Aunt Polly, Mary, Sid, and some of the other characters’ personalities and what drives them. For one, Aunt Polly struggles with balancing being too strict with Tom and being too lenient. She loves him and just wants to be appreciated. Mary, Tom’s cousin, is genuine and does what she does out of genuine concern. Sid, however, is the goody-two-shoes who just seems to delight in getting Tom in trouble. He snitches on him every chance he gets and proves to be mean. Tom even confronts him about it, saying:
You can’t do any but mean things, and you can’t bear to see anybody praised for doing good ones. There— no thanks, as the widow says […] Now go and tell auntie if you dare— and tomorrow you’ll catch it!”
The subplots also show Huck’s character. He’s very streetwise and more of a realist than Tom, from having taken care of himself for so long. But just like Tom, he’s imaginative, adventurous, and superstitious. And he’s so used to his free-range life that when Widow Douglas adopts him, he’s in total agony from her bathing him, making him wear nice clothes, and just making go through the routines everyone else did. He finds that he’d rather be free than give up that freedom for stability. It looks like this was Mark Twain’s way of exploring the pros and cons of living in society.
Even though modern society is a lot more tolerant and flexible compared to Twain’s time, there’s still rules and rituals that most people are made to follow. Most of them are reasonable, but there are some that seem pointless and even unfair. But I think Twain would say that people should find a balance between independence and conformity, since he had his own principles that he stuck to and promoted in his works – even those conflicting with the prevailing views of his time.
Related to that, there’s points in the novel where Twain inserts his characteristic criticism of society and authority. In one instance, it was revealed that some people started a petition to pardon Injun Joe. I had to laugh at this quote here because you can just feel his frustation oozing out:
The petition had been largely signed; many tearful and eloquent meetings had been held, and a committee of sappy women been appointed to go in deep mourning and wail around the governor, and implore him to be a merciful ass and trample his duty under foot. Injun Joe was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon-petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky water-works.
To sum it up, Tom Sawyer does a great job at telling Tom’s story, and showing his growth through his experiences and close scrapes, and his friendship with Huck Finn. The ending made me want to read Huckleberry Finn to see where Huck ends up from here. I’ve even heard that the book is about Huck fighting for a slave’s freedom, which should be very interesting to see if that’s the case!
Thanks for reading, everyone! What did you think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Mark Twain himself? Share your thoughts below!
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