The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain
US, 1876

The congregation being fully assembled now, the bell rang once more, to warn laggards and stragglers, and then a solemn hush fell upon the church, which was only broken by the tittering and whispering of the choir in the gallery. The choir always tittered and whispered all through service. There was once a church choir that was not ill-bred, but I have forgotten where it was now. It was a great many years ago, and I can scarcely remember anything about it, but I think it was in some foreign country. (Chapter 5)

Twain is a humorist, a storyteller, a keen observer of human nature – and clearly knew a thing or two about church choirs. I don’t think anything has changed since his time; save for the tolling of the church bell to “warn laggards,” he could be describing many services I’ve attended!

Tom Sawyer, US commemorative stamp of 1972 showing the whitewashed fence.

But what we really come for in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are the rollicking adventures of a rowdy boy and his chums, free in small-town mid-nineteenth century America to wander at will (or at least sneak out at will—no pesky house alarm systems to fuss with), finding—or creating—adventures of their own amusement. In between those inconvenient chores and school sessions and church services, of course. It is a story that has permeated our cultural conscious: it seems everyone knows the story of whitewashing the fence (which I was surprised to discover was in the opening chapters), or of Tom’s friendship with Huck Finn.

Tom Sawyer is a delightful summer book. It doesn’t quite say when it is set, and school is still in session as it opens, but I’m guessing June, and June is a perfect month to read it in. The days are long, the weather warm, and the reader is readily transported to the small river-town of Tom’s youth, ambling through the dusty streets or crashing “swords” in the forest.

One item that strikes me of interest: although Tom is clearly not into the idea of school, he is clearly a reader. He knows stories of Robin Hood and pirates, and the “proper” way of re-enacting their adventures, ideas all gleaned from books. There is no explanation: does St. Petersburg have a little lending library? Does Aunt Polly stock adventure books on her shelves? Unknown. But I love the idea of all these fairy-tale adventures winding their way somehow into Tom’s hands, then eagerly devoured and regurgitated for countless more hours of adventures and imaginations. He does not just these stories; he consumes them, absorbs them, and recreates them anew.

In a way, Tom’s story is itself a fairy-tale. While at times completely realistic—Twain does not hide from the reader the dark sides of mid-nineteenth century small towns, showing vignettes of poverty, alcoholism, and even grave robbery and murder—the end of the novel plays out like one of Tom’s imaginary adventures brought vividly to life. While it does not seem incredible to me that Tom should manage to get himself in and out of so many scrapes (in this way, he reminds me of a more mischievous Anne Shirley), the very last adventure seems so neatly gift-wrapped in a perfect ending bow, that it takes away for me a bit from the charm of the rest of the novel. I’ve seen the suggestion that what Twain was really doing here was poking at the moralizing tales of the day: instead of only the good little boys being rewarded, this time it is the most daring—but are they “bad”? It does seem telling that Tom Sawyer endures while the moralists are forgotten.

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. (Chapter 2)

I read this as part of my “Realists and Romantics” reading project and for 20 Books of Summer. It also fills the “Classics with a Person’s Name” slot for Back to the Classics.