Friday, October 14, 2011

Tom Sawyer (1876)

     One of the first real books I can lay claim to having read – mind you, the entire class was required to read the book and it took several months for us to finish it – was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).  I actually still own the copy from that 5th grade class, with my mother marking it as mine (apparently we bought the book in September of 1985, which is noted both by my mother and by me in different places).  When going back to reading it this time, I did not take up the weathered Scholastic edition – which I am somewhat surprised was not an abridged version – but rather went for the DTE copy that was sitting on the downstairs bookcase; the only real difference is that because of dimension and font differences, the DTE can fit the story on 184 pages instead of 319.  (Actually, if one has seen where I live, they are well aware that there are multiple bookcases downstairs, but there is one still reserved for works for the reading projects.)
The old Scholatic copy.  Not sure if it or the DTE have cover art that really fits the story.  But there is my mother's handwriting (it still looks largely the same these many years later) noting when the book came into my possession.  Lastly, there is the back cover, with my name (as T.A. McNeil) written by me – at a time when I still dotted my i's – a SEP written next to the book, and a whole made through the cover just above Scholastic (where the logo would be) that I traced out with a pen.  I actually remember doing that in class when we were supposedly discussing the book.
     I don't know what meaningful statements I can make about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that have not been explored at depth elsewhere by people more dedicated to the study of 19th Century American Literature.  There are some points that I would like to touch on, and hopefully these will be taken in the goodhearted spirit they are intended.  The fact of the matter is that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is on the reading list for this year's project, and I was not going to take up the book without having refreshed myself with the story that introduced Huck Finn to the world.  As such, my intent was more to read the story for enjoyment that to deconstruct its elements.
     Having written that, I would like to note that the central theme I divined from the novel was that children are liars, and incapable of behaving in a manner that would mark them as being fit for society.  I do not feel that I am misrepresenting Twain's sentiments when I write that, and not just because he himself was not a fan of what his contemporary Americans considered "civilized".  In Tom Sawyer, children lie because they are ignorant; they simply are trying to better understand the world and have only the gossip of superstitions held by the adults to guide them.  Likewise, they lie to the adults because the adults seem to be often cruel and mercurial beings who only exist to place impediments on the experiences of youth.  The children, especially Tom, have no real conception of the larger world.  The have fantasies of the glory of piracy or banditry, something more glorious than the meager lives the adults have in the rivertown of St. Petersburg, Missouri.  Civilization seems to mean to tie oneself to an unremarkable task for life and be quickly thought of as being somewhere from middle-aged to elderly by the next generation of children.
     That message seems to be lost from the part of Tom Sawyer that seems to still exist in the zeitgeist.  Tom and Huck being friends endures, which is odd because Huck is very much a friend of convenience.  Tom is much closer with Joe Harper through most of the book.  Tom and Becky being boyfriend and girlfriend endures even though, as written, Tom is more than a little bit of a hurtful manipulator; one can assume that Tom was good looking enough for the ladyfolk to take kindly to his degree of mischief.  Likewise, Twain goes off on a tangent where he rails either against women as writers or just about writing on the subject of faith and salvation in general.  I think he actually means both.
     One of the things that a modern reader, especially a child, will find completely out of place with contemporary America is the sense of charity given to the ne'er do wells of the town.  It isn't just Huck Finn, the son of one of the local drunks – in what may have been a dry town – who receives many kindnesses in order to survive.  Muff Potter, wrongfully accused of murder (but guilty of conspiracy to commit grave robbery) also makes do on the good will of the citizens.  It is a place where most people don't have much – and some, apparently, have tons – but they do not sit content with the notion that those who are worse off are there as the result of a general defect.
     I enjoyed my re-reading of this book.  Granted, it only took three days – which makes me wonder how much we, as grade school students, were able to appreciate Twain's working the major events of the adult world into the vagaries of childish thought and pursuits.  That is the real accomplish with the novel as far as I am concerned.  Twain makes a few months time in the lives of a handful of children into a story that seems to span a lifetime, or at least the whole breadth of childhood.  This is, by nature of the style with which it is written, one of the few books that may merit a revisit every twenty years or so.  I imagine that the shrinking glow of youth can be momentarily remembered to still burn bright while within the pages, but experience gives the reader a much different understanding of the world Twain represents.
     I was also extremely happy that Twain does not dedicate himself to the bitterness and bile that dominate many of his short stories.  Not unlike his piece about his brief time as a recruit for the Confederacy, Twain has a way of imbuing his personal experiences with a fondness that comes more from telling the tale than for what the story may represent.  Even the most evil character Twain puts in the tale is far less maligned than the average citizen would be in the short stories.
     Yes, I enjoyed the book.  Who thought I was going to come out and rail against the beloved story?

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