Essays and Criticism
Tom Sawyer and American Identity
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an extremely difficult work to approach analytically because it is so embedded in the reader's own childhood. It is read in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world, and has become iconographic of childhood itself—especially American childhood. Indeed, this has been its reception from its initial publication. The first review, written by William Dean Howells in 1876, called it "a wonderful study of the boy-mind" which exists beyond the control or comprehension of adult society. His comments appeared in Atlantic Monthly before the book was even published, and thus set the framework for the way in which the novel would be read. Clemens himself did not read his book this way, a fact that is suggested by his initial conviction that the story was written for an adult audience. Though his wife persuaded him to publish it as a children's book, Tom Sawyer's story can still be recovered as a novel for adults—a savage satire on adult hypocrisy and American cultural identity.
Tom Sawyer is generally read as the first truly American novel: a cathartic attempt by Clemens to write his own childhood and the childhood of America into a coherent literary whole. His success is attested to by the timeless status of Tom as a sort of "Every-Boy" for American culture—the literary epitome of the ingenuity, imagination, and pluck which form the basis of America's understanding of its own national character. In...
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The Lack of Male Role Models in Tom Sawyer
Initially Twain had intended [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] to be a kind of bildungsroman: as Justin Kaplan reports, it was to have had four parts—"1. Boyhood & youth; 2. Y[outh] & early manh[ood]; 3. The Battle of Life in many lands; 4. (age 37 to [40?])..."
Yet the finished novel shows no sign of this early intention. In fact, Twain writes his "conclusion" with a kind of defensive bravado: "So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man." At least one reason for the author's decision may be found in the very nature of the world he was moved to create. There are no available men in it—no men whom Tom can fancy himself imitating—no newspaper office with a garrulous editor, no general store owner to purvey gossip and candy, no lawyer lounging in an office buzzing with flies and heavy with the odor of musty books. Of course there is Judge Thatcher, "a fine, portly, middle-aged gentleman with iron-gray hair." But Judge Thatcher presides in the county seat, twelve miles away; he enters the novel only very briefly in chapter IV (to witness Tom's triumph-turned-humiliation in Bible class) and thereafter disappears entirely until chapter XXXII, when he is summoned to rejoice in the safe return of the children from the cave. Many adults who have not read Tom Sawyer since the days of their youth are apt to recall Judge Thatcher as a...
(The entire section is 3651 words.)
Childhood and Parental Responsibilty in Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain once said of Tom Sawyer, "It is not a boys' book at all. It will be read only by adults." We can suppose he was speaking defensively, with the extravagance of an irritated author. He had brought to the book his full powers of serious communication and he had no wish for it to be thought of as a mere children's book, what publishers call a "juvenile." Yet ever since its publication in 1876 until quite recently, the audience for Tom Sawyer has of course been primarily a youthful one. In fact, the American public has regarded it as one of those books peculiarly apt to induct any sensitive boy, and even any spirited girl, into the wholesome pleasures of reading.
This situation has now significantly altered. In the last few decades there has been a considerable change in American child life, so that Tom Sawyer has come closer to fulfilling Mark Twain's prophecy than at any previous time in its history. Much more than it is now thought to be a book for children, it is regarded as a classic of childhood, especially to be read by adults of college age with an interest in the American past. It would seem that American youngsters can no longer empathize—to borrow the language of current psychology, which is not without its responsibility for the change—with Mark Twain's little hero. For the big-city child in particular, there is a barrier to be got over before he can find his counterpart in Mark Twain's remembrance of himself as a small...
(The entire section is 3054 words.)