Stephen Carver looks at Tom Sawyer

‘Church ain’t shucks to a circus’: Tom Sawyer and the literature of subversion.

Tom Sawyer is one of those transcendent literary characters who go beyond the simply iconic and enter the realm of myth. His statue stands alongside his best friend, Huckleberry Finn, in Mark Twain’s childhood home, Hannibal, Missouri (erected in 1926, it’s one of the first, if not the first, statues of a non-religious fictional character), and together these larger-than-life figures tower over the development of the modern American novel. He’s been portrayed in 25 films and TV shows to date (the last as recently as 2016), and when the producers of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wanted an American fictional icon to join Alan Moore’s pantheon of British literary heroes, he was the instant and obvious choice. Then there are the plays, the comics, the videogames, the musicals, and, even, the ballet…

For boys, especially, he’s the hero of the book you read and loved as a kid because your dad recommended it, as his probably had before him. (Mine certainly did.) And you might have started out wondering what a novel set in the American South of the 1840s could possibly have to do with your life, until you started to read and were instantly drawn in. This is because, at heart, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a celebration of childhood – well, boyhood – and that’s a universal human experience, whenever and wherever it happens. You can read it as a kid and identify with Tom and Huck, Sid, Mary, Becky Thatcher and the rest of the gang. You can read it again as a parent and see your own children in them: the elaborate imaginative play, the fluid, capricious allegiances, the hilariously half-understood adult world, the crushing and instantly forgotten heartbreaks, the vital trivia, and, above all, the anarchy. Maybe he’s been supplanted by Harry Potter these days, but it should be remembered that they’d likely be no Harry without Tom.

As with its more complex sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, here is so much academic ink spilled over Tom Sawyer, especially in the US, that one would be hard pressed to read it all in a lifetime. But, as is generally the case, the best way to get around this monolithic critical heritage is to just go back to the original novel, its author, and its age. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was Twain’s first solo attempt at a novel, having previously co-written The Gilded Age (1873) with his friend Charles Dudley Warner, a satire on land speculation and political corruption. Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens – ‘Mark Twain’ was the leadsman’s call for ‘safe water’) was by this point well established as a humourist and travel writer, after an eclectic employment history that had included typesetter, riverboat pilot, Confederate militiaman, and silver miner, before he drifted into journalism in his mid-twenties in the early 1860s. He had gained national recognition with his short story ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ in 1865, a richly told comic anecdote, and was popular on the knockabout US lecture circuit, which was more akin to stand-up comedy than its stuffy English equivalent. His first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869) – a humorous and deceptively deep account of a five-month sea voyage through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American tourists – had been a bestseller, challenging, as it did, the grandiose accounts of conventional contemporary travelogues. He followed this with Roughing It (1972), a semi-autobiographical account of his adventures in the Wild West in the 1860s, and the memoir Old Times on the Mississippi (1876). The latter work formed the basis of his later autobiography, Life on the Mississippi (1883), which notably preceded the completion of Huckleberry Finn. While writing the original Mississippi memoir, Twain regularly corresponded with his childhood friend, Will Bowen, and this had evoked powerful memories of his youth in Hannibal towards the end of the antebellum or ‘plantation’ era that had ended in civil war. In need of another hit to support his growing family and having already started the transition from a writer of short and non-fiction to novelist, Tom Sawyer was the result.

The novel is in many ways a creative nonfiction, although whose childhood is being recounted will be forever open to question, not that it particularly matters. As we age, tales get taller with every telling anyway, and Twain was always a consummate raconteur. The name ‘Tom Sawyer’ belonged to a friend of Twain’s in San Francisco, a flamboyant fire chief and local hero who had once rescued dozens of passengers after a shipwreck. Like Twain, he was a great talker, and the two men frequently swapped childhood stories over drinks and cards. Twain’s hero was an amalgam of himself, the original Tom Sawyer, Bowen and another childhood friend, John B. Briggs (although in later life he claimed he was a complete invention). The novel’s setting, ‘St. Petersburg’, a port and border town on the banks of the Mississippi, over the water from Illinois, is recognisably Hannibal, with familiar landmarks that have since become mainstays of the local tourist industry disguised only by slight changes to the names. The layout and disposition of the ‘one-horse towns’ are pretty much identical. Twain was born down the road in Florida, Missouri in 1835, but his family moved to Hannibal when he was four. He remained there until he was eighteen, when he left to work as a printer in New York. (At the time of composition, he was living with his family in Hartford, Connecticut.) The portrait of the town is vivid and evocative, as well as largely affectionate, although Twain does not shy away from the darker aspects of a frontier town of this period: the drunkenness, poverty, and explosions of violence, and the accepted practice of owning slaves. The voice of the novel is that of an adult third person narrator looking back to a vanished world, although whether this is one of the characters is unclear. The impression is that of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the omniscient narrator of nineteenth-century realism crossed with Twain speaking in his own voice, giving the text an anecdotal feel that adds to its authenticity. It is knowing, gently satiric and essentially upbeat, and from this and Twain’s Mississippi memoirs it’s clear that these recollections of a childhood spent on the river were his happy place, warts and all. By Huckleberry Finn, the memories were less idyllic, the social satire sharper, and Twain had opted for the more immediate and emotionally complicated first-person narration of his protagonist. But Huckleberry Finn is an adult novel; Tom Sawyer was always for kids. It was, said Twain in his Preface, ‘intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls,’ though he does add that: ‘I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try 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.’

Children’s literature was already an established genre on both sides of the Atlantic, the so-called ‘First Golden Age of Children’s Fiction’ heralded by the English translation of Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (1812). Wyss had written the book for his sons to deliver Christian moral lessons about self-reliance, prudence, acceptance, and cooperation, and this inspired a long line of morally improving stories peaking with R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island in 1857. In the US, the principal exponent of the form was without a doubt Horatio Alger (1832–1899).

Alger, a former Unitarian minister, specialised in ‘rags to riches’ novels for young adult readers, having broken through with Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks in 1868. The fourteen-year-old ‘Ragged Dick’ the homeless shoeshine boy smokes and drinks, but never steals. He is nonetheless determined ‘to grow up ’spectable’. Impressed by his honesty and ambition, some of his gentlemen clients help him out. One introduces him to church, while another gives him five dollars with which he opens a bank account and rents a room. A fellow tenant teaches him his letters, and he prudently saves. In the climax of the novel, Dick rescues a drowning child and the grateful father rewards him with a new suit and a job in his firm. At last, Dick is ‘cut off from the old vagabond life which he hoped never to resume’, becoming ‘Richard Hunter, Esq’. Ragged Dick, originally serialised in the children’s magazine The Student and Schoolmate, was an instant success, as was the subsequent novelised edition. Seeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, Alger had found his formula and he stuck to it, writing forty-odd juvenile novels with titles like Fame and Fortune, Struggling Upward, Luck and Pluck, Up the Ladder, Strive and Succeed, Tattered Tom, and Paul the Peddler. All of these essentially recycled the plot of Ragged Dick, promoting temperance, honesty, hard work, and cheerfulness in adversity. Alger’s influence on American society was huge in the ‘Gilded Age’ of rapid economic growth before the turn of the century (yes, the term was taken from the novel by Twain and Warner), perpetuating the ethos so central to the ‘American Dream’ that the path to wealth and success across the social classes is a combination of honesty, hard work, self-reliance, and determination. In fact, his admittedly virtuous working-class heroes usually triumph as the result of luck: being in the right place at the right time to save drowning middle-class children, snatch them from the path of runaway streetcars, or drag them from an overturned carriage, attracting the gratitude or attention of a wealthy patron.

Prior to writing Tom Sawyer, Twain had sent Alger up something rotten in two comic sketches entitled ‘The Story of the Good Boy’ and ‘The Story of the Wicked Little Boy’ in which, like Sade’s Justine, the ‘good boy’ is never rewarded and ends up dying before he can declaim the last words he has carefully prepared, and the ‘wicked little boy’ lies, cheats and steals with impunity, becoming rich and successful in the manner of Sade’s Juliette. Tom Sawyer builds upon this worthy foundation: ‘He was not the Model Boy of the village. He knew the model boy very well though – and loathed him.’

Although the most famous of ‘bad boys’, however, Tom Sawyer was not the first. That honour belongs to ‘Tom Bailey’, the hero of T.B. Aldrich’s semi-autobiographical novel The Story of a Bad Boy published in 1870. Unlike Twain’s creation, Tom Bailey has not stood the test of time and is now only of interest to literary historians, but the similarities are striking. Tom Bailey lives in the port town of ‘Rivermouth’ (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), and, like Tom Sawyer, his ‘badness’ is neither criminal nor cruel, but a series of elaborate and episodic pranks, born out of a restless and imaginative nature. With his gang, he pinches an old cart and runs it into a Fourth of July bonfire, instigates an epic snowball fight, fires an old canon off the pier, and runs away to an island. Like Tom Sawyer, Tom Bailey is another ‘trickster’, like Loki or the Joker, an archetypal figure who crosses societal boundaries, playfully violating rules and conventions, disrupting ‘normality’ and remaking the world in their own image. Aldrich does not go all the way though, and his Tom eventually accepts adult responsibility and goes to work for his uncle in a New York counting house in a third act that would not look out of place in a novel by Horatio Alger. And therein lays the difference. Aldrich’s novel was certainly an influence, though Twain was critical of it in correspondence – possibly dropping chaff to disguise how influential it was – and Tom Sawyer is in some ways a satirical reply, as was often Twain’s way with other popular writers and genres. (In that regard, he was a similar writer to Thackeray.) But in replying, he goes much further than Aldrich in taking his Lord of Misrule to his natural conclusion. Tom Sawyer never accepts adult responsibility, and his fantasies do make the world…

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is also episodic. This form obviously suited Twain the sketch and short story writer, and the narrative has the tightness of a stage play, with a limited cast of characters, one main setting (‘St Petersburg’), and action taking place over one summer. There’s even an opening monologue spoken by the long-suffering Aunt Polly:

‘Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ’pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks. Well-a-well, man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble, as the Scripture says, and I reckon it’s so. He’ll play hookey this evening, I’ll just be obleeged to make him work, tomorrow, to punish him. It’s mighty hard to make him work Saturdays, when all the boys is having holiday, but he hates work more than he hates anything else, and I’ve got to do some of my duty by him, or I’ll be the ruination of the child.’

And so, the story starts, with the famous scene in which Tom uses reverse psychology to trick his mates into completing his punishment task of whitewashing his aunt’s fence. There follows a series of set-piece gags, cons, tricks, and adventures, bound together by a meandering story arc involving Tom, Huck and the novel’s antagonist, the thief and murderer ‘Injun Joe’.

Tom is a dreamer and a romantic, and in the children’s world of play his imagination, enthusiasm and audacity make him a natural leader. In the adult world of church, school, and home, he is in a state of permanent rebellion. There are memorable scenes of him suffering through church sermons and school lessons involving stray dogs and beetles while the preachers and teachers obliviously drone on as their controlled spaces descend into chaos. ‘Church ain’t shucks to a circus,’ says Tom, and through his hero, Twain’s attitude to organised religion throughout the novel is playfully subversive. Despite scamming a free bible for learning scripture, Tom cannot commit a single verse to memory. (He doesn’t care about the bible, rather the glory of the prize-giving ceremony. This is rather awkward when he is called upon to recite.) But as with many kids, it is a question of interest rather than intelligence; he can quote his Robin Hood book word for word for the purposes of accuracy when the gang are playing outlaws. And although not religious – when a ‘revival’ comes to town he is the only one to reject it – he is credulously superstitious. All his and Huck’s problems with Injun Joe spring from an attempt to cure warts with a dead cat and a freshly dug grave at midnight; the graveyard, like the ‘haunted house’ and ‘McDougal’s Cave’, adding a gothic charge to the main plotline in contrast to the daytime games and pranks of the long summer vacation. And beneath the veneer of a deceptively light-hearted and easy-going narrative, this reverence for outlaws and pagan ritual is an equally sharp contrast to the strict Protestant conformity of the town.

Beyond the scenes of domestic comedy and gentle social satire, it is also these gothic elements that are, like the genre itself, the most textually subversive. These are more like Halloween than summer games, which then become real. Tom’s romanticism is, in fact, completely vindicated. When, feeling sorry for himself, he imagines how people would react if he died, concluding that ‘Ah, if he could only die temporarily’, he goes on to achieve just that by attending his own funeral. The ‘haunted house’ really is haunted – well, sort of – and when ‘There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure’, he and Huck really find some stashed by a riverboat pirate and appropriated by Injun Joe. Finally, in saving Becky Thatcher from a terrible fate, ‘Bad Boy’ Tom becomes the town hero, much as he daydreamed in the early chapters of the book when Becky caught his eye. This is a long way from Alger and Aldrich. There’s neither self-help nor patronage; it’s all just blind luck. And Tom’s storybook dreams have made the world: he played pirates and outlaws, and imagined rescuing damsels in distress, and then it all happened for real. This is ultimately the most subversive aspect of the novel in relation to the usual fare of children’s literature: all Tom’s fictional expectations are validated, and he is rewarded and celebrated in the real world of the text, his hometown. He has not only turned Alger’s work ethic on its head, but even the Quixotic dreams of literary heroes like Scott’s Edward Waverley or Schiller’s Carl von Moor, who mistake romantic ideals for reality and then learn their error through bitter experience. And having mastered this dreamscape, does Tom accept his riches, marry the heroine, or take up the grateful Judge Thatcher’s offer to get him into West Point? Does he hell! He’s off arranging the next elaborate game. To make the Alger move would be to embrace the social norms and values it is in his nature to resist. His hero’s journey has left him no different to when he started. He is an eternal kid, locked in the endless summer of the text, which is, I suspect, a large part of the character’s continuing appeal. Tom is changeless, whereas Huckleberry Finn will learn and grow in his own much more complex narrative.

But this is not to say that Tom Sawyer is not complex. It is, and elegantly so, for its deceptive simplicity. For children, it is wish-fulfilment satisfied, as Tom the rebel gets the better of all the adults in the room and has fantastic adventures that end in triumph. For the adult reader, there is still all that, as well as the knowledge that Tom is not simply in revolt against small town white southern conformity, but against the contemporary literary conventions within which Twain is apparently working and which his readers would recognise and accept. Twain has, in effect, tricked Alger and Aldrich and their fans into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence.

Stephen Carver

Image: Statue of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn near Mark Twain’s boyhood home, Hannibal, Missouri.

Credit: North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo