Getting Back to Them Good Ol’ Days

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

“Testing the Limits”

 Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910), like many beginning writers, recounted in his early writing career , through the vernacular of Mark Twain, what he had experienced: his travel stories (Innocents Abroad, 1869), the rowdy life in the maybe-strike-it-rich Territories (Roughing It, 1872).  His earliest fiction The Gilded Age, a social satire written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, showed the problem of narration through two distinct voices; however, Mark Twain’s voice is noticeable and he learned how to incorporate history and events, past and present, in the process.  When he realized the witty narrative persona of Mark Twain, he gave free will to his imagination and expression.  Before The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Clemens, as Mark Twain, struck a rich vein with some short fiction and especially his hilarious social commentary.  As a newspaper man, he also published some of his stories or yarns through journalistic presses, e.g. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” one of his early hits.  When I taught English Lit. (1970s), this short story could still be found in certain college literary anthologies.

 From the start the well-travelled Clemens had much natural skill with stylish folk-storytelling, discovering his genius as raconteur especially when he went on stage before the ordinary folk.  Wit and humor, his fame dependent on them, informed his artistic medium, and though he aspired to write more seriously, i.e. in a more refined style, he still wanted to incorporate humor, believing it the way he knew best to expose hypocrisy, deride shams, and eliminate stupid superstitions.  The purpose of his satire and parody, he felt, was to raise consciousness about human rights and human liberties. He worked hard to make his writing look deceptively simple.  In this effort to reach the masses, Twain began his longer fiction by turning to stories of his Missouriboyhood.  In Tom Sawyer Mark Twain’s narrative voice, reveling in his childhood mentality, carries most of the storytelling, especially where the dramatic, dialectical dialog occurs.  However, that voice does grow more serious as the adventures develop and the crises become heavier. Sam Clemens omniscient editorial voice intervenes at times. For example: At the end of the church school scene when Tom guesses “David and Goliath” as Jesus’ disciples, Clemens quickly calls for an end to further failed antics of play: “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.” (End Ch. 4, Penguin Classics, (2005), p.40.) 

 [Sidebar:  Most of us, I’d assume, have seen Hal Holbrook’s expert yarn-spinning impersonation of Clemens’s Mark Twain performances.  Who are other contemporary versions?  Club member Ron Powers felt that Twain had his early 20th-century avatar in Will Rogers.  I think that’s right on the mark.  Perhaps George Carlin had some of the crackling, street-wise commentator in his stage persona when he told satirical stories.  Certainly Garrison Keillor of “LakeWobegon” fame has perfected a modern Twain-ish persona in his wry narratives. As early as the mid-1860s, Mark Twain, the stage performer, became not only a national celebrity but a world-renowned personality; his fame was global.]

 At our discussion, RMBC member Richard Smaby raised the question about how Sam Clemens got his publications out.  Larzer Ziff’s book (*see below) points out that Twain’s early works became published through a subscription method by which door-to-door canvassers took samples into towns and outlying counties and got orders before a printer put books together.  Big-city bookstores offering trade issues were available to sell to the cultured public.  Feeling beyond the fringe of the snooty cognoscenti who might learn of books through reviews, Clemens found success as his works spread throughout the wider population eagerly receptive of Twain’s style and genre of storytelling.  As it is today, women were mainly the novel readers in Clemens’s time, but the works of Mark Twain found audiences equally among men, women and children.  He remarked: “I have never tried … to help cultivate the cultivated classes.  I was not equipped for it either by native gifts or training.  And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game—the masses.” [*Ziff, p. 28. A short work, Mark Twain by Larzer Ziff, in the Lives and Legacies series (Oxford, 2004) contains some of the data I found about this aspect of Clemens’s life. ]

 A decade or so ago, in a writing workshop I was taking, it was recommended we write something about ourselves, how it was when we were children.  I recall one of the women readers said, after reading one or two pieces about boys’ lives, “Ugh! I never really wanted to know what horrible mischief boys got up to.”  Mine were about vicious stone fights among rival gangs, about strategies to escape from attending church service or Sunday school, about being discovered rifling the immature berries and vegetables in community gardens.  Like the above response of the woman in my class, in early reviews of Tom Sawyer, similar prudish objections can be found by those who felt children would be influenced to imitate adventurous Tom and his pals. By my time, perhaps the genre had become shopworn; no matter, I found myself caught up in fun-filled rascally acts for which I, as an amoral original, deserved and received punishments.  Unlike Twain’s Tom Sawyer, my unwitting personas were never to obtain fame or glory, but they were good mediums to journey back through the mists of time to a simpler age.  The benefit was to have a known subject, through which to lose myself in reminiscences and to have something familiar to practice composition on.  

Antique villages, hidden in woodlands, or surrounded by moorlands, ponds and lakes, or nestled in hills and dales, can be, as Agatha Christie proved in her repertoire of popular mysteries, just as deadly boring at times as they are deadly environments where murders and violence quite regularly occur.  When a village, like Mark Twain’s St. Petersburg, borders a mammoth river, spotted with sandbars and uninhabited islands and has networks of caves the reaches and depths of which “No man knew,” [a Homeric reference perhaps?] not to mention the wasteland territories that beckon adventurers to go beyond the accepted culture, then the expectation of adventures of danger and violence is greatly heightened by the very mythic dimensions of the landscape.  Sleepy St. Petersburg was more than a place for whitewashing fences, going to school for whippings and Sunday school for acting-up.   

 Twain established Tom Sawyer’s role as a juvenile rascal, a playful sui generis, hungry for action, games, and play that released him from the constraints of village boredom, that allowed him to rebel against rules of authority and accepted mores.  Through many of Tom’s adventures, playing the little devil and getting away with it sufficed for entertainments that might cheer up and delight the boys and girls the book was purportedly aimed at.  However, as many critics came to see in time, there are serious undercurrents in the games played and substructural layers of meaning in the imagery, and as the adventures proceed, the overall design leads the reader to encounter complex psychological crises, with consequences that shake up the lives of the young “heroes” (I mean “heroines,” too) and the nature of the community.

 In the steel town of Corby in the Midlands of England where I grew up, there was, or seemed to my young mind, a vast rustic territory to explore, no more than a few hundred yards from our semi-detached council house.  A street gang of children formed as we grew up, adventurous enough to hie out for places we were told to avoid—the bankless clay-hole water-filled quarries of immense depth in which monstrous ancient pike were said to lurk, the lines of slag heaps by the works which contained the detritus of the open-hearth furnaces, the seemingly-clear, rippling brooks and leech-ridden slimy sloughs that were fed by who-knows-what other running waters, and many distant fields and hills too far from home where the farmers would not have been looking out for wandering children.  Like Tom Sawyer, we sensed that freedom and adventure lay beyond, out there somewhere beyond the garden hedge, across from the tarred roads, the stone walls, and the pasture hedgerows in places we had not yet searched out or partially tromped through to inaugurate a track for a tribal pathway.  The stories I might recount of these adventures, if I were lucky to meet some old street pal in a pub, would probably come forth as myth-dreams, outrageously re-elaborated with illustrations way beyond the reality of events.  Mark Twain had his Hannibal community of characters to draw on for Tom’s adventures and the landscape may have become somewhat far-fetched, e.g. the caves of never-ending labyrinths. Just so, memoirs are made up of myths, our own and the collective’s, whenever we want to attract an audience.

Sometimes one does not have to be far-out to get caught up in adventure.  Tom was “lost” or “gone” to Aunt Polly in the very opening of the novel, but we find he’s right under her nose, sneaking jam treats in the closet.  Later he is hiding inside his home again, in a most intense scene when he returns from pirating on Jackson’s Island to hear Aunt Polly’s worries over the loss or possible death of Tom and the other boys.  From the very beginning scene of Tom Sawyer, I can throw myself back to my childhood in England.  One of my own dream-myths occurred in the pantry of my godparents’ kitchen where I found myself lost, paralyzed in hiding, because, so conscious of the punishment to come, I was unable to comfortably reveal myself as anything but a rotten thief.  The story was told for years afterwards, repeated almost as folktale for a good laugh by our family circle, but at the time, shades of nightmare, fears of complete loss, perhaps by my drowning in one of the aforementioned clay holes, caste a pall over any humor or lightheartedness of the situation.  

It goes as follows: Out of curiosity or perhaps boredom, I had wandered into Aunt Annie’s open pantry, a dropped-floor room off the kitchen, in which foods were placed to stay cool in those days of the 1940s before electricity and refrigerators were common in the cottage-like dwellings down on old Corby village outskirts.  There I spied the dessert for Sunday tea; my aunt had made a large egg custard in a copious casserole bowl.  As one of my favorite dishes, this pudding she had obviously made because she knew I was coming to tea.  The bronzed, nut-megged crust invited me—no, seduced me–to sample the pudding, and in savoring it, I was lost, drowned, in ladling the glorious, golden, creamy custard.  Before I awoke to my crime, I had made quite a divot or ditch in the bowl, and sat petrified in the pantry corner, imagining what dread punishment I’d receive for such a serious theft.  Not showing myself, I heard a pandemonium of concern grow outside the door—name-calling, shouting and hallo-ing, sending for the constable to help scout for me, a hullabaloo of ooh-ing and oh-no-ing, grim mentioning of the worst possible places—“He wouldn’t have gone down by the clay hole, would he?”  Eventually I came forth, showing myself safe inside the house, never having ventured outside.  I’m sure, out of relief, I must have cried my eyes out for what I’d done and how much trouble I’d caused, spoiling everybody’s Sunday teatime.  In time, the folk-tale of Lost David and the Spoiled Egg-custard cast me as a folktale hero, but at the time of occurrence the action did not allow me much showing-off.   I dread thinking back how much I must have paid for that high-jinks whether in spank-counts or in miserable seclusion.  The point is, I did all this mischief in rascally abandon, right within the kitchen walls, without going beyond the physical bounds of authority, hardly aware of the serious consequences of my actions.  The kitchen pantry was my dark cave that Sunday teatime.

 From enjoying Tom Sawyer’s adventures, perhaps several of us readers had some reflections of dream-myth adventures of their childhood years.  Samuel Clemens, on the cusp of turning 40, was busy reviving and embellishing memories of his past in Hannibal; he fictionalized characters and events, as he says in his introduction, in the ways of architectural combination.  To impose a design on the novel, what he had to use of past traditions was perhaps very different from a novelist’s approach in our times.  Twain had a number of Bad Boy stories by authors of his era: he had Charles Dickens’ stories, tales of Robin Hood, James Fenimore Cooper’s adventures, Walter Scott’s knightly romances, and a host of folktales and myths to think back on for imitation or refashioning.  I wonder how many common readers today could actually detail the literary, folktale or mythological motifs Clemens employed. 

In the matter of structure, which our member Sid Whaley brought up for consideration, ever since Walter Blair’s article in the journal Modern Philology (August, 1939), Tom Sawyer’s adventures have been accepted as having some artistic design: the narrative thread of Tom and Becky’s romance moves from immature show-off beginnings, through Tom’s brave intervention on Becky’s behalf to take the punishment for tearing the school master’s anatomy book, and finally the outcome of the cave experience for which Tom is regaled as heroically courageous.  Likewise, when conscience burns more responsibly in Tom, he is concerned that Muff Potter be revealed as innocent in court and the true murderer named.  His courage to act in spite of great fear is highlighted.  Also, his agitation is exacerbated by keeping his oath not to disclose Huck’s having witnessed the crime.  This crisis is managed successfully as Tom accepts the balance between speaking the truth and his fear of the consequences.  Other crises are not so successful.  Tom’s conscience motivates him to return to Aunt Polly’s from the Jackson’s Island adventure once he realizes the families and townsfolk think the boys are dead.  However, like the confidence man he is, he prefers to exploit the situation.  Thus he shows off in his accustomed ways in a mock resurrection at the town funeral.  In this part, he plays the schemer parodying heroism and his clever games get the better of him.  The climactic success of the story–the saving of Becky from the caves, the discovery of Injun Joe’s cache of treasure, and the grand reception by the community, especially the praise from Judge Thatcher–bathes Tom more truly in heroic light than in any other success of his less virtuous actions. 

At our discussion, I suggested the term “rite of passage” as a measure of character growth or change from one station or role in community to a new level.  Used as a term for rituals of transformation by anthropologists, “rites de passage” was defined by Arnold van Gennep as having three parts.  The stages are separation, liminality, and re-aggregation.  These stages of coming of age or status change can be shown in modern communities; many myths and stories contain the three stages.  Basically the idea is the hero (or heroine) must leave his community (separation stage), the comfortable realm where he is taken care of, if he is to learn how to grow up.  Then he sets out for a place-between, limbo, the liminal or marginal world.  This realm is a place of new experience, for discovering one’s wits, skills, and resources in order to survive and thrive.  Finally, the hero returns to—re-aggregates with–his community, who, when the ritual passage has been successful, welcome him back as a transformed being, and promote him to a new station in life.  We can see signs of such a passage in Tom Sawyer’s career, but the adventures are mostly situations which allow Tom to exercise himself in surmounting obstacles.  Success in solving crises does not necessarily change one’s identity.  The courtship with Becky is a checkered affair, the limbo of exhilaration and melancholy represents an emotional venturing in the normal childhood ways, and has its climax in the nightmare limbo of the caves from which Tom, constantly searching and applying his skills, is born anew out of the hillside opening.  The reception in town is celebratory and grand plans for Tom’s bright future are expressed.  Nevertheless, he is still the juvenile Tom Sawyer, for years of imaginative scheming and romantic play lie ahead before he will realize his youth or manhood.      

 The three stages can also be described for the Jackson’s Island escapade, where the tri-part ritual shows itself a form of play-acting.  Eventually after the boys’ return, Tom’s imaginative brilliance is shown to be tarnished after his schemes are exposed.  In the Muff Potter affair, he receives due admiration, for his court testimony was the action of a responsible citizen to save an innocent from hanging.  Without doubt, Tom wrestled successfully with crises and solved a dilemma or two.  He achieved much of the fame and glory his schemes aimed at through the spring and summer of his adventures; however, his boyhood is still intact.  At the tale’s end, Tom is persuading Huck, who dislikes the proper life of the Widow Douglas, to try out longer his new circumstances; he encourages Huck to join the Sawyer gang of merry robbers, who after initiations of blood oaths, will enjoy games much more exciting than playing pirates.                                                 

 Reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer for its thematic core, though there may be many moral lessons expressed throughout the course of the narrative, one might see patterns of one or two predominant myths or folk-tales.  For example, the rags-to-riches folk-tale motif one can find throughout world literature, especially in romances, comedies, and other melodramatic works.  Robert Regan in his monograph Unpromising Heroes: Mark Twain and His Characters (U. of California Press, 1966) sought to explain how Tom Sawyer fits squarely in the traditional pattern of a Folktale Hero.  In a nutshell, the story of the Unpromising Hero tells how the poorest or worst becomes the richest or best.  One might consider Cinderella a heroine of this type.  However, Regan sees nearly all facets of this folk-tale motif in Tom’s life:  “sibling rivalry, the derisive community, the moral test, even the descent into the underworld for the ritual of courage, at length the rewards, the hand of the princess, the favor of her father, and the plaudits of the citizenry.”  Also present:  “the giant to be conquered, the treasure to be discovered, the special equipment required for the descent to the treasure’s hiding place.” (Regan, p. 110)  Clemens may have initially conceived of his boyhood adventures to entertain as comic anecdotes, showing off the smarty-pants games and schemes of his day, with a childhood romance of the simple kind detailed in Tom’s and Becky’s first encounters.  The first half of the work illustrates this original plan.  Then, over the course of composition, the romance became serious and played into the greater tale of the hero’s successful quest for treasure and fame. (pp. 110-111)   Regan’s detailed account of Tom Sawyer as an Unpromising Hero is one insightful study I’d recommend for those of you who wish to look under the surface of Mark Twain’s storytelling.  How the folk motif applies to Clemens’ other works makes fascinating reading.   In recent years, many other critical articles and monographs have brought to light features of Adventures of Tom Sawyer that open one’s eyes to Twain’s literary genius.

 What is noteworthy today is that we still read Mark Twain, especially the adventures of Tom and Huck, and the reader believes the motivation and action of the characters and plots.  One does not have to sit with one’s feet in the sand talking about pirates and Robin Hood to feel that Tom or Huck’s adventures were based on real happenings.  Vicariously they are possible for us.  By the nature of his writing, Samuel Clemens cajoles or convinces us that even in these modern times such escapades are still possible, for his iconic characters are still recognizable in our day.  And it wouldn’t matter if we lived in Borneo orIndia.   

Appendix: A Look Back at The Kid

[Spoiler alert for those who have not read Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin]

 In Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin (the Retired Men’s Book Club choice for December 2011) many of us picked up on the allusions to earlier literature of young boys’ adventures, comparing or contrasting them with the Kid’s pathetic existence.  Banks did not conceal the references with great subtlety:  the idea of treasure maps and pirates was brought into play by the sociology Professor’s explicitly naming Robert Louis Stevenson’s *Treasure Island.*  Add to that the open-air bar of Benbow and his sidekick Trinidad Bob.  Another explicit reference occurs in the following:

 “The Kid reminds the Professor of Huckleberry Finn somehow.  Here he is now, long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go, camped out alone, where the continent and all the rivers meet the sea and there’s no farther he can run to.” [Lost Memory of Skin (HarperCollins, 2011), p. 105]

 Captain Kydd of pirate history and folklore is referred to and becomes a somewhat fantastic dream of treasure-hunting on theBarrierIslandsfor the Kid to imagine and focus on, to lead his mind forward, beyond his pornographic memories, his “crime,” and the miserable life incarcerated among the homeless under the Claybourne Causeway.  Also, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn arise from memory’s cave when the Kid dares to go floating on a houseboat to his Barrier Island with his sidekicks Annie and the parrot, thinking of finding pirates’ buried treasure.  Like Tom, the Kid fishes and stays on the island until boredom sets in, then returns to the docks he floated from.  In the bizarre strategies of the monstrously large Professor, the Kid receives a large sum of money as a treasure he can live off for quite a long time.  This treasure is “buried” in the Professor’s basement safe, not in a cave, and it is deliberately handed over to the Kid.  In the end, like Injun Joe behind the iron gates of the cave, the Professor is found “buried,” drowned in a concrete canal, trapped in his van, locked to the wheel of his SUV.

 Enough said, for perhaps this material is best to include in comments related to Banks’ book.

David Gilmour (January, 2012) 






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