Monday, June 8, 2015

You would never come across anything like this - Tom Sawyer, Sunday-school book

Mark Twain, early on, had a long-running shtick attacking moralistic stories for children.  See, as examples, humor pieces like “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (1865) or “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” (1875): “And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.”  Half of the joke is the incredulous, naïve narrator who cannot understand why things don’t go like they do in Sunday-school books:

But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn't get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn't get struck by lightning. Why, you might look, and look, all through the Sunday-school books from now till next Christmas, and you would never come across anything like this.

It occurred to me that in his second novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Twain was possibly writing an extended version of his old joke, the story of the bad little boy (and his even worse friend) who prosper and then some.  And I was right, that is likely the core idea of Tom Sawyer, although, eh, where does that get me.

It helps explain the passages where Tom Sawyer disappears and Twain the humor writer takes over, detachable sections mocking patent medicines, church services (“After the hymn had been sung, the Rev. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin board and read off ‘notices’ of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom,” Ch. 5), and school Examination Days – poetry recitation and original oratory performed by twelve year-olds.  The latter had some especially good lines. 

Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had the “interesting” paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a “poem.”  Two stanzas of it will do: [with respect to Twain, one would have “done”]…

This nightmare [not the poem, a speech] occupied some ten pages of manuscript and wound up with a sermon so destructive to all hope to non-Presbyterians that it took the first prize.  (Ch. 21)

Tom Sawyer is in a sense present in these scenes, but they could have been cut out and published in The Atlantic Monthly as further Old Times on the Mississippi without much trouble.

I wonder if they were cut out, in the edition of Tom Sawyer I read as a child, I mean. They were completely unfamiliar to me – likely over my head – unlike Chapter 6, when Huckleberry Finn is introduced, and each line immediately suggested the next:

Tom hailed the romantic outcast:

“Hello, Huckleberry!”

“Hello yourself, and see how you like it.”

“What's that you got?”

“Dead cat.”

“Lemme see him, Huck. My, he's pretty stiff. Where'd you get him?”

“Bought him off'n a boy.”

“What did you give?”

“I give a blue ticket and a bladder that I got at the slaughter-house.”

On through the spunk-water and split beans and other remedies for warts.  How many times did I read this passage, or other marvels of materiality like the list of goods Tom acquires in the fence painting chapter:

…a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog…  (Ch. 2)

I am happy to say that I had no more taste for abstract fictional goo when I was a youngster than I do now.  No more taste than Twain had – but wait, see above, “romantic outcast,” what is that?  Tomorrow: complaints about rhetoric.


  1. he had such a talent for humor and apparently enjoyed exercising it. maybe some malady or brain softening caused his ill attitude in his later years. come to think of wife says i'm too cynical.

  2. amazing how the quote in the first paragraph could be applied to any number of present day political figures.

  3. Substitute a lesser crime for the axe murder and you cover a lot of politicians. I could see Tom Sawyer someday being in the legislature.

    I think I am finally figuring out how little I know of Twain's later years. I will have to do something about that.

  4. Read this recently (to one of my kids). It's great fun, and the stiff kitten and list of goods earned at the fence painting were as vivid in my memory as on the page.

  5. The picture of the boys' economy is a great highlight of the book.

  6. American writers have been stealing from Clemens for more than a hundred years. Here's Alfred Bester from his masterwork, The Stars, My Destination:

    Foyle darted back to his locker and replenished his spacesuit again. He began to weep. He started to gather his possessions -a faceless clock which he kept wound just to listen to the ticking, a lug wrench with a hand-shaped handle which he would hold in lonely moments, an egg slicer upon whose wires he would pluck primitive tunes. . .