Friday, October 14, 2011
Tom Sawyer (1876)
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?