director of tutoring
by Nat Crawford
Mark Twain, Americas greatest novelist, wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 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.
Toms queer enterprises include fighting, running away from school, pretending to be sick, staying out past midnight, and manipulating his loving aunts feelings.
But is Tom Sawyer just a bad boy? No. He is an American boy of the 1800s, with all the lawlessness, energy, and goodness of our young country.
As many modern commentators have observed, the Aunt Pollys of the 21st century would have put on spectacles and a fierce look, marched Tom to the doctor, and arranged for him to take a pill every day to curb his attention deficit disorder.
An SAT tutor would have replaced Huck Finn. And so, rather than finding his way out of a cave and into the heart of Becky Thatcher, Tom would instead receive an acceptance letter from Washington University in St. Louis and look forward to a successful career trading pork futures on Wall Street.
A fine tale, a golden moral, but so golden there would be no added value in writing a novel about it.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer describes a typical Missouri childhood before the American Civil War in the 1860s. It is a tale of murder, revenge, and buried treasurea great read from Americas greatest novelist.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer grows funnier and reveals more wisdom as its readers pass from year to year. Twain understands how children think; he is especially good at showing how quickly they shift from one outlandish project to another. When Joe Harper and Tom become angry at their families for mistreating them, they decide to run away from home. Joe initially plans to be a hermit, but he decides that Toms plan is more exciting:
Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate.
Twains sense of the ridiculous is on full display when he shows Tom frustrated by conventional education. His cousin Marys attempt to teach Tom a biblical verse is hilarious on paper, and a riot if you pick a partner and read it as a stage play.
Tom chooses the shortest verse he can find:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,|
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Tom: Blessed are theaa
Tom: Yespoor; blessed are the pooraa
Mary: In spirit
Tom: In spirit; blessed are the poor in spirit, for theythey
Tom: For THEIRS. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for theythey
Tom: For theya
Mary: S, H, A
Tom: For they S, HOh, I dont know what it is!
I think that teachers everywhere admire Marys patience.
Toms story also reminds us of how boys amused themselves before the invention of video games. After selling off chances to whitewash a fence (for more details, see chapter 2), Tom has gained twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldnt unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collarbut no dogthe handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash. Try handing a bag of these to your son the next time he complains of boredom.
Twains descriptions of adults are also very funny. He gently mocks Aunt Polly for her belief in what we today might call alternative medicine:
She was a subscriber for all the Health periodicals and phrenological frauds; and the solemn ignorance they were inflated with was breath to her nostrils. … and she never observed that her health-journals of the current month customarily upset everything they had recommended the month before. She was as simple-hearted and honest as the day was long, and so she was an easy victim.
By calling her simple-hearted and honest, Twain makes his satire easier to bear. In fact, he was often willing to see the good of people, despite their foolishness. At one point in the novel, Toms town is ready to condemn the alcoholic Muff Potter for murder, having strong evidence for his guilt. When Tom saves the accused by revealing the real murderer, the town abruptly begins treating Muff better: As usual, the fickle, unreasoning world took Muff Potter to its bosom and fondled him as lavishly as it had abused him before. But that sort of conduct is to the worlds credit; therefore it is not well to find fault with it.
One thinks of Twain as a humorist, but he is also excellent at portraying the beauty and power of the natural world. Here he tosses off a description of a thunderstorm:
Under the ceaseless conflagration of lightning that flamed in the skies, everything below stood out in cleancut and shadowless distinctness: the bending trees, the billowy river, white with foam, the driving spray of spumeflakes, the dim outlines of the high bluffs on the other side, glimpsed through the drifting cloudrack and the slanting veil of rain. Every little while some giant tree yielded the fight and fell crashing through the younger growth; and the unflagging thunderpeals came now in ear-splitting explosive bursts, keen and sharp, and unspeakably appalling. The storm culminated in one matchless effort that seemed likely to tear the island to pieces, burn it up, drown it to the treetops, blow it away, and deafen every creature in it, all at one and the same moment.
That last sentence shows one of Twains characteristic stylistic techniques, a technique one might call piling. Sometimes he piles description up to the heavens and then, with the reader smiling in admiration at the construction, twists it slightly with an amusing follow-up. These examples are too long to quote but fun to find.
Twain embraced the world as he saw it, and when he could not embrace, he found a way to laugh. That laughter is his gift to his readers; readers of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will find themselves grinning, chuckling, smiling, and laughing aloud. A big laugh is still the best medicine, or, as one of Twains wise characters puts it, money in a-mans pocket, because it cut[s] down the doctors bill like everything. Here we are today, a century after Twains death, no better behaved than in the time of that writer but every bit in need of the laughter that is his legacy. Click through two pages, and call him in the morning (I hear that the report of his death was an exaggeration).
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