Why would a contemporary audience find Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer an entertaining and rewarding experience?
In his brief preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, acknowledged that the future audience for his novel about a young mischievous boy in the American South of the mid-19th century was written primarily, but not solely, with children in mind:
"Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, 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."
Twain's novel has remained popular, although not as much so as the sequel about one of Tom's friends from this first book, Huck Finn. The reasons for the enduring appeal of Twain's novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, are their depiction of a time and a place no better captured by any other author of prominence, by their portrayal of adventuresome children getting into and out of trouble, and, most importantly, because of a respect and admiration for the author that has transcended time. Tom Sawyer is certainly not among the finest works of fiction in the history of American literature. In many ways, it is really nothing special. What makes it worth reading more than a century after its publication is its reflection of Twain's own life and of his imagination and ability to spin a good yarn. Twain is rightly considered a giant of American letters, and his biography is filled with fascinating details about his life and travels. One would not be wasting one's time to read his Autobiography of Mark Twain, which exhibits his humor and story-telling ability better than any of his works of fiction. Note, for instance, the following passage from Chapter One of his autobiography. Referencing the tiny community in which his parents had settled and in which he was conceived, Twain wrote: "The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by one per cent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town." That The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was drawn from his own childhood experiences, then, only enhances the appeal of his novel. In the story of Tom Sawyer, a character who was a composite of several of the author's childhood friends, Twain's autobiography does run parallel to his fiction. Early in the novel, Twain's narrator makes this observation regarding the titular character: "He was not the Model Boy of the village. He knew the model boy very well though — and loathed him." This brief description can be read in the context of any number of childhood adventures experienced by the author during his early life. Read, for instance, in Chapter 15 of the autobiography Twain's remembrances of the efforts he invested in sidling up close to Will Bowen, another boy in his small town, for the express purpose of exposing himself to the other child's case of measles. Twain's description of his efforts at contracting this disease could easily have been a chapter in Tom Sawyer.
While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands as his most enduring novel, even more so than The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, because of its brilliant depiction of life along the Mississippi and the importance of that river in sustaining life and in symbolizing freedom, it remains the public's fascination with Mark Twain the American author that keeps readers coming back to his novels. And it is that fascination with Twain that makes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer so enduringly appealing. Twain succeeded in creating a figure that has survived the ages precisely because his young protagonist is so rebellious, within certain limits, and yet so innocent -- possibly a literary metaphor for the nation that spawned this remarkable author. Tom is a child, and so capable of any number of infractions against societal norms. As Twain suggested in the above passage from his "Preface," the book certainly appeals more the children than to adults, but it adults who are capable of reading it within the context in which it was written.