Tuesday, June 9, 2015

That ain't the way it is in the book - some Tom Sawyer goo - there was no getting around the authorities

The great surprises for me in revisiting Tom Sawyer were the narrator’s varied rhetorical modes, away from boy’s book storytelling and aside from the inset humor writing.  Passages like:

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step…  Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

So begins Chapter 2, the home of the famous fence-painting episode, the first strong dose of Tom Sawyer’s ingenuity, imagination and ruthlessness.  There is no way that the above language belongs to Tom.  It is the narrator almost mocking Tom, laughing at him because he has to waste this wonderful day doing chores.  Tom Sawyer’s sentiments, but someone else’s language.

A lot of this is parody, mild but targeting the conventional language of Twain’s competition, although as parody it is too pure, slack language that knows itself to be slack, as when Tom is mooning over a girl who will not come to her window: 

And thus he would die – out in the cold world, with no shelter over his homeless head, no friendly hand to wipe the death-damps from his brow, no loving face to bend pityingly over him when the great agony came.  And thus she would see him when she looked out upon the glad morning – and Oh! would she drop one little tear upon his poor, lifeless form, would  she heave one little sigh to see a bright young life so rudely blighted, so untimely cut down?  (Ch. 3)

Then the maid pours a bucket of “water” over Tom and he throws a rock through a pane of glass.  That’s more like it.

Perhaps some of that really is meant to be Tom’s language, though, or the language to which he aspires.  It is Tom Sawyer who is the great reader in the novel, for Twain the real reader, the one who fully absorbs his books about robbers, pirates, and Robin Hood:

So they “went it lively,” panting and perspiring with the work. By and by Tom shouted:

“Fall! fall! Why don't you fall?”

“I shan't! Why don't you fall yourself? You're getting the worst of it.”

“Why, that ain't anything. I can't fall; that ain't the way it is in the book. The book says, ‘Then with one back-handed stroke he slew poor Guy of Guisborne.’ You're to turn around and let me hit you in the back.”

There was no getting around the authorities, so Joe turned, received the whack and fell.  (Ch. 8)

Maybe it is Tom who is the sentimental reader, the one who has sponged up all of that drivel like “upon the glad morning.”  If Mark Twain could and obviously did, why not Tom Sawyer?  Even if it is hard to attach a line like “The marvel of Nature shaking off sleep and going to work unfolded itself to the musing boy” (Ch. 14) to Sawyer, he is the one to “sat still as a stone” watching the worms, ants, and ladybugs with the focus of an entomologist, sponging it all up.

I was also surprised to see how much of the content of Huckleberry Finn was present in the final chapter of Tom Sawyer – the possibility of that book, an ethically thinner version, was already on Twain’s mind – including the sour taste that Tom would leave at the end of the later novel.  But that third person narrator, if there was any getting around the authorities he had to go, and Twain knew it.


  1. twain seems to paint a kind of standard picture and then slowly and characteristically warps it out of shape to fit his own vision(s). sometimes it appears as if he himself doesn't know where this warping is going to end up. hence the humor that comes close to savagery. whatdoyouthink...

  2. Yes, sometimes Twain is likely using some of these devices because he does not know what else to do, even if he knows they are ridiculous. This was only his 1 1/2th novel, after all.

    He really does warp Tom Sawyer a bit. Strange to see someone do this to their own creation.

  3. Perhaps the surprises you encounter can be attributed to Twain's relative inexperience and weakness as a writer of the novel form. All those sketches and stories do not necessarily prepare a writer for sustained narrative; even the highly praised _Huck Finn_ (e.g., Hemingway was thoroughly smitten) suffers from his weaknesses.

  4. Yes, this was only Twain's 1 1/2th novel, after all. Huckleberry Finn was # 3 1/2. Twain had completely solved the rhetorical problem at that point. His solution was so strong that it permanently changed American literature.