So you think you know Tom Sawyer?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2009 - Kids and teachers will focus on Tom Sawyer this year even more than usual and you can, too. For 2009-10, Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" has been selected by organizations in St. Charles and St. Louis for the National Endowment for the Arts annual Big Read program.
If you re-read the book along with your kids, you can re-think an American classic and show them what they may have missed: the oddness of that all-American boy, Tom Sawyer.
The first problem with Tom Sawyer is that there are two of him -- the first in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876) and the second in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884-85).
Another oddity is that people tend to read "Tom Sawyer," not as the juvenile love story it is, but as "part one" of the adventures of Tom and Huck. The second book, however, only happened by accident because Huck stole the show in "Tom Sawyer," badly upstaging Becky Thatcher, who would be ignored in Huck's sequel.
The first Tom Sawyer, in his own book, is the beloved good-bad boy of American daydreams: He plays hooky from Sunday school to swim; he despises goody-goodies like his snooty half-brother Sidney; he happily cons other boys into paying him to do his work; and maybe best of all, he admires his social inferior, Huck, for his gaudy outlaw independence.
One reason Tom so admires Huck's lawlessness is that Tom himself mostly plays by the rules. Tom is an American role-model for just how far to push. He may break Becky's heart, but he wins her back soon enough. He may skip Sunday school on a warm summer day, but he goes often enough to win a Bible, through questionable means, of course.
Huck goes to Sunday school almost never. He does voluntarily enter an empty church building once on a secret mission and calmly points out that people generally go only on Sundays, but hogs will go anytime because it's cool inside.
Evidence that Tom is merely a part-time outlaw comes from his own mouth at the end of "Tom Sawyer," when he and Huck recover stolen treasure and become two of the richest people in town. Of course, once Huck is rich he needs to be 'sivilized' and saved, so the kindly Widow Douglas adopts him, which Huck endures for three weeks, then escapes.
After Tom finds the refugee, in an empty wine barrel behind the abandoned slaughterhouse, Huck presents his arguments for staying away, summarizing them in a way we can still understand: "The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell -- everything's so awful reg'lar a body can't stand it."
To this, Tom replies, "Well, everybody does that way, Huck." What? Tom Sawyer as the voice of conformity? Ultimately, yes.
Huck's rejoinder is simple, honest and opposite: "Tom, it don't make no difference. I ain't everybody, and I can't stand it."
Sadly, Huck capitulates to the Widow's smotherhood when Tom the tempter quickly points out that he cannot allow Huck, as is, into his new robber gang: "Huck, we can't let you into the gang if you ain't respectable, you know."
Huck has been trapped by Tom who knows all the rules, usually his own, and only allows himself to break them. But most times, he's following some plan he read in a book.
Near the end of "Huck Finn" (Ch. 35), when the boys are "helping" Jim escape a flimsy jail, Huck suggests a quick, easy plan. Tom sneers:
"Well, if that ain't just like you, Huck Finn. You can get up the infant-schooliest ways of going at a thing. Why, hain't you ever read any books at all? -- Baron Trenck, nor Casanova, nor Benvenuto Chelleeny, nor Henri IV., nor none of them heroes?"
That's right, school-hating Tom is a bookworm. He's the most Sidney-fied boy in Huck's story and takes his cues from European romances and adventures. The boy has read, half-understood and even memorized chunks of "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Man in the Iron Mask," Lord Byron and even Casanova!
Another way to look at Tom's outlaw ways is to see him, not so much as a genuine anarchist like Huck, but as a charming trickster who spins dazzling stories, making up his own rules as he goes along.
That approach makes him pretty much like every U.S. president of note and thus an important role model in our history. Mark Twain himself was fond of saying about Tom that "some believed he would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging."
Tom spills over with self-confidence -- and lies. He most often lies for the sole purpose of getting to center-stage where he can show off. He lies to get a Bible at Sunday school and stand next to Becky, he lies to surprise everybody at his own funeral, and worst, he dangerously lies throughout the escaping-adventure with Huck and Jim down south.
Huck, of course, lies all the time, but never to show off. Huck lies almost exclusively to get out of trouble, even to get others out of trouble, and then "light out" of town. He assumes that lying is always the shrewd choice.
When for once he is briefly trapped into telling the truth, Huck is astonished that being honest works just as well as lying. He actually stops to think it through with the reader, as if pondering a weird philosophical puzzle.
Don't be surprised to hear that Huck can be philosophical. He always is. He thinks about everything and is unfailingly original. His ruminations on the inefficacy of prayer, the possible origins of the stars in the sky, and how to keep peace on a raft are little gems of sharp thinking. When Tom tells him about Aladdin's magic lamp, Huck decides to do a simple test. He gets a lamp, rubs it awhile, then throws it away, quickly deciding the story is just another of Tom's lies.
Tom, by contrast, is rarely original, endlessly quoting "by the book" -- but the book according to Tom, of course.
Tom Sawyer is basically a 10-year-old version of Tom Jones, the charming but randy hero in the early British novel, "Tom Jones," which came to provide a standard plot:
A common (but attractively naughty) boy loves a noble girl, who loves him back, but their guardians object. They choose a blue-blooded (but clearly nasty) boy for her. A love-triangle ensues. In the comic version, the "common" boy is discovered to be the real blue-blood, late in the story. And so the lovers marry.
Rudyard Kipling, the famed author of "The Jungle Books," was only a young reporter in 1890 when he met and eagerly interviewed Mark Twain, already a beloved American humorist. Recounting the scene, Kipling said, "Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher's daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man."
But Mark Twain couldn't stick to the British plot (or any plot, usually) and in place of a nasty blue-blood for the love-triangle, he introduced Tom's wildly charming sidekick, Huck Finn -- and American literature would never be quite as British again.
Then, Huck told his own story in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," immediately dispensing with any need for a sophisticated author-narrator who could look back on a child's life as a set of silly episodes, as Mark Twain had in "Tom Sawyer." Huck even calls the author a liar in the famous opening lines:
"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."
And so the street-talking narrator of modern American literature was born. Ragged Huck, disrespected and abused, does what Tom cannot -- tells his own story, his way. Far from being silly, Huck's child's-eye view of the world is hilarious and disturbing, thoughtful and poetic. "Tom Sawyer" is charming. "Huckleberry Finn" is tragicomic.
Huck is essentially anti-social and his philosophy could hardly be more opposite from Tom's, whose goal is to be the life of the party at any cost, to himself or anyone else. If Tom is too often like Jay Gatsby, Huck is close to being a semi-recluse like Henry David Thoreau.
Re-reading both books is certainly worth the time, especially reading them back-to-back.
And trust me, neither novel is the book you thought it was in school.
Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has been a regular contributor to the Beacon on books and movies.