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St. Petersburg

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St. Petersburg. Fictional Missouri village on the west bank of the Mississippi River in and around which the entire novel is set. The village is modeled on the real, and somewhat larger, Hannibal, Missouri, in which Twain himself lived as a boy. Like Hannibal, it has a wooded promontory on its north side and a huge limestone cave to its south. Tom Sawyer lives near its center in a two-story house that closely resembles Twain’s own home of the 1840’s. However, the fictional St. Petersburg also has elements of the tiny inland village of Florida, Missouri, where Twain was born and spent most of his summers while growing up, and thus evokes an even more rustic flavor than a real riverfront village might have had.

Seen through Tom’s eyes, St. Petersburg is a world in itself, an epitome of positive nineteenth century small-town American values that offers almost everything that a boy coming of age could want: rugged sports, Fourth of July picnics, itinerant entertainers, romance, imaginary adventures, and even genuine life-and-death adventures. A mostly sunny place, St. Petersburg reflects Twain’s cheerful nostalgia for his childhood haunts, which he regarded as a “paradise” for boys—hence the name “St. Petersburg,” after the gatekeeper to Heaven. Although it appears generally safer and more comfortable than its historical counterpart, it also has an ominous dark side, symbolized by the lurking presence of the murderous Injun Joe, a haunted house, the danger of drowning in the river, and recurrent epidemics. A striking false note in the St. Petersburg of Tom Sawyer, however, is the near invisibility of African American slavery, which was a brutal fact of everyday life in both Twain’s Hannibal and the St. Petersburg of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Tom Sawyer’s sequel.


*Missouri. State in which St. Petersburg appears to be located. A frontier state at the time of Twain’s youth, Missouri represents a remote western outpost of American civilization in Tom Sawyer. Tom reads enough to be aware of the outside world, but the Missouri in which he lives is so remote from the rest of the United States that a senator who visits his village is looked upon as something akin to a god.

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. North America’s mightiest river, the Mississippi plays a less important role in Tom Sawyer than it does in Huckleberry Finn, but its presence is nonetheless felt throughout. It represents a possible avenue of escape to the outside world—as when Tom and his friends take a raft to the river’s Jackson’s Island to become pirates—and a force that swallows up drowning victims.

Cardiff Hill

Cardiff Hill. Promontory on the north side of St. Petersburg modeled closely on Hannibal’s real Holliday’s Hill (now usually called “Cardiff” itself), which rises three hundred feet above the river. Described as a faraway and “Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful and inviting,” it is the place to which Tom usually flees to evade responsibility by playing make-believe games. However, it is also the site of the haunted house and is a place menaced by Injun Joe—both reminders that perhaps no place in St. Petersburg is completely safe.

McDougal’s Cave

McDougal’s Cave. Limestone cavern several miles south of St. Petersburg modeled on a huge cave that Twain explored as a youth. The fictional cave is even larger and provides an apt setting for the novel’s dramatic climax, in which Tom and Becky Thatcher get lost in the pitch-black cave. After a terrifying near-encounter with Injun Joe—who uses the cave as a hideout—Tom faces an apparently hopeless situation. However, he performs his greatest act of heroism by leading Becky to safety, and his emergence from the cave symbolizes his final coming of age.

Historical Context

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The Gilded Age
Mark Twain's 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, which he wrote in collaboration with his Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner, gave its name to the mood of materialistic excess and cynical political corruption that started with the Grant administration in 1869 and prevailed in the 1870s and beyond. To be gilded is to be coated in gold, so the phrase "The Gilded Age" refers directly to the opulent tastes and jaded sensibilities of America's wealthy during this period. The appearance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during the Gilded Age represents a nostalgic look back at a simpler, less expansionist and less industrialized time in American history.

Expansion was a major theme of American society in the post-Civil War period. When the war ended in 1865, the United States was bigger, more powerful and richer than ever before, and it continued to grow. The way post-war Americans behaved and saw themselves was different: as a group they possessed greater energy, greater ambition, and a greater sense of potential. The American economy was becoming increasingly more industrialized. The transcontinental railroad was built, immigrants from Europe were pouring into the cities, westward expansion was occurring, and new farming technologies made it possible for farmers to grow more crops more successfully. The population was growing rapidly, helping to create a large labor pool, and labor unions were on the rise. The growth of industry, supported by the war and the demand it created for supplies, created enormous wealth for many Americans. Powerful businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan built their companies—U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, and Morgan Bank, respectively—into multimillion-dollar enterprises and became known by their detractors as "robber barons." The very wealthy flocked to summer vacation colonies like Newport, Rhode Island, where they built huge summer "cottages" that often were opulent mansions. Money and power were equated with each other during this period, and some of the rich and powerful were not above political corruption. At the time, U.S. senators were elected by the state legislators rather than by the voting public, and it was not uncommon for a legislator to accept bribes for electing a wealthy man's senator of choice.

However, not every American during this period was wealthy or able to vote; many Americans remained disenfranchised and poor. Women did not yet have the right to vote, and the women's suffrage movement had been underway for years. Black Americans also could not vote, and beginning at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the legal apparatus that kept blacks separate from white society came into being, as Jim Crow laws were enacted by Southern states in an effort to suppress blacks. The Ku Klux Klan also began its brutal work in this period, with its goal of frightening and murdering Southern blacks into submission. The U.S. Army's main opponent during this time was Native Americans, who were being suppressed and forced onto reservations. So while the Gilded Age, as it is now called, was about controlling the population and exploiting the land and other resources, all in the service of expanding the power of American culture and society, many Americans remained powerless.

American Literature of the 1870s
American literature following the Civil War began to reflect Americans' new sense of nationalism and diversity. Realism dominated the literary scene, as the arts began to portray ordinary people in their everyday lives. The three major literary figures of the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century—Twain, Henry James and William Dean Howells—did much to bring realism into the forefront of American letters. In the 1870s alone, Twain published The Gilded Age (1873) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), along with many other shorter works; James published his first two popular and successful works of fiction, The American (1877) and Daisy Miller (1878); and Howells, while he published several novels during the 1870s, achieved more success as the powerful editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the most influential literary magazine of the time. Howells was a friend and editor to both Twain and James, whose bodies of work could not be more different from each other.

Twain's work from this period brought him wide popularity: it is mostly humorous, focusing on characters who are typically uncultivated and not part of the Eastern establishment. In contrast, James's work, which was never especially popular with the reading audience, subtly probes the social conventions that shape the world of the wealthy, educated, and civilized American. Howells saw the genius in both writers and their work and helped to guide them in their careers.

While Twain and James were the best-known and most influential writers of their day, many other writers and styles of writing were also emerging in the 1870s. The nation's expansionist mood was reflected by the proliferation of regional, or "local color," writers, who wrote about their own corners of the rapidly growing nation. Local color writing, another form of realism, generally sought to preserve through fiction the small-town ways that were being threatened by industrialization. By the 1870s, writers such as Bret Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett had begun publishing their work on the West, the South, and New England, respectively. In the next ten to twenty years, Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Hamlin Garland would add their regional voices—New Orleans, New England, the South, the Midwest—to the mix.

Literary Style

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Point of View
The novel's narration is third-person, limited omniscient, with Tom Sawyer as the central consciousness. This means that the story is told about Tom's world and is particularly focused on him by a narrator who is able to understand the motivations and feelings of some of the characters. This point of view earns the reader's amused admiration of an unlikely hero. Tom is a mischievous boy, an orphan, who cares nothing for school or church or any other polite social conventions but instead spends most of his time pretending that he is a pirate or a robber, sneaking out his window at midnight to have secret adventures with his friends in places like cemeteries, and entirely likely to have in his possession objects like dead cats. Tom Sawyer's character is a realistic portrayal of a young boy who gets into trouble constantly, trying the patience of the adults around him while making them smile. The novel's point of view makes Tom sympathetic by showing how he often feels guilty or sorry or brave. A more objective narration of Tom's antics—one that does not look into his mind—might make him seem only naughty and tiresome. The glimpses into his often noble intentions as he conjures up his schemes serve to temper his character: he is not a bad boy, just an imaginative one.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is set in the 1840s, mainly in St. Petersburg, Missouri, a small fictional village where everyone knows everyone and the people are unsophisticated. When Judge Thatcher, the county judge, visits the village church during the Sunday service, the children are fascinated, impressed that he has come from "Constantinople, twelve miles away—so he had traveled, and seen the world." Yet in spite of their lack of worldliness, the people of St. Petersburg attempt to keep up "civilized" practices such as having their children memorize Scripture passages and recite poems and other readings at school on Examination Evening. The adults of the village watch out for each other's children: when Tom and Becky are discovered to be lost in the cave, the entire town turns out to help search for them.

St. Petersburg is a true community. Even the threat of evil, embodied by Injun Joe, is squelched by the human desire to help others. For example, Huck swallows his fear of Injun Joe and goes to the Welshman to help save the Widow Douglas, and the Welshman gladly goes to the Widow's aid. In this safe world, Tom Sawyer can feel secure in his human connections but also free to exercise his imagination. St. Petersburg mirrors Twain's childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. St. Petersburg, like Hannibal, is situated along the Mississippi River, a source of transportation, beauty, and power. The river's presence near St. Petersburg makes the boys' pirate adventure possible and reminds them of the great world beyond their tiny village.

Realism involves the portrayal of characters and situations that appear to be drawn from real life. In the nineteenth century, realism often involved characters and settings that were ordinary and far from genteel. While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes a somewhat romantic view of childhood in general—full of freedom and imaginative adventures—most of the children in the novel are themselves not romanticized. Tom and his friends get dirty, spit, sneak around behind their elders' backs, and carry around dead cats. Although he can also be charming and appealing, Tom lies to Aunt Polly, shows off to gain Becky Thatcher's attention, scratches himself when his clothes itch, and tricks his friends into doing his work: in short, he is human, possessing flaws and weaknesses. Twain's illustration of both sides of Tom—the appealing and the exasperating—makes Tom more realistic. Huck Finn's character, too, is shown in some depth, which also makes him more realistic. Huck is romanticized by many of the other children in town, as they envy what appears to be his utter freedom from rules and constraints. However, he has moments when he worries about his status in the world and wishes he weren't such an outcast, and his dark moments make him more real.

Literary Techniques

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The intent of the novel, Twain states, is to entertain "boys and girls" and to "pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves." In order to appeal to such a wide audience, Twain chooses a setting that permits both adventure and nostalgia. The story takes place in "the poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg," the fictional equivalent of Hannibal, the Mississippi River town where Twain spent his early years. In his preface the author dates the action at "thirty or forty years ago," between 1836 and 1846, the era of his own boyhood. Twain also notes that Huck Finn is "drawn from life," and Tom Sawyer is a lifelike, although composite, character based on a number of boys.

The setting supports the major action and themes of the work. Institutions such as the home, the school, and the church provide a social order that Tom disrupts with pranks. Jackson's Island, where the boys camp and pretend to be pirates, offers the freedom of nature. But both the town and nature have their dark sides: the cemetery where the boys witness Dr. Robinson's murder, the "haunted" house where Injun Joe hides out, and the cave where Tom and Becky are lost and Injun Joe dies. Tom affirms social order when he returns from the island because of homesickness and guilt. He apologizes to his aunt for pretending to have drowned, and in the courtroom, another symbol of social order, he assumes responsibility by telling the truth about Dr. Robinson's murder. Later he and Becky escape the menace of the cave to rejoin the society of the village.

Social Concerns

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As in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the characters in Tom Sawyer exhibit attitudes typical of the mid-nineteenth century. The stereotypical villain, Injun Joe, derives from the frontier figure of the violent and vengeful Native American, and black Americans are derivative of slave stereotypes. These elements should be recognized both for their negative connotations and their historical significance. Twain's realistic representation of his characters' attitudes should not be mistaken for his own attitude. The controversy surrounding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has produced substantial evidence of Twain's integrity: he intended much of what he wrote to reveal the inconsistencies in his characters' beliefs. By looking at society through the eyes of boys, who are supposedly more innocent than adults, Twain ridicules the weaknesses in adult values and behavior.

Compare and Contrast

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1840s: Slavery of Africans was widely practiced throughout the Southern states of the nation. Slaves were considered the property of their owners and possessed no civil rights: they could not vote, legally marry, or own property.

1876: Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, the radical wing of the Republican party attempted to remake the South without slavery. This period of reformation, called Reconstruction, ended in 1876. The civil rights gains made during Reconstruction were lost following the end of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration.

Today: African Americans possess full civil rights under the U.S. Constitution and hold positions of power in the U.S. government, including seats on the Supreme Court, in the Senate, and in the President's Cabinet. In spite of these gains, race relations continue to be a divisive issue in American society.

1840s: In 1840, Missouri was the westernmost state in the Union. Presidents Polk and Tyler pursued policies to fulfill America's so-called "manifest destiny" to expand to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The war with Mexico resulted in the annexation of the Southwest. Texas became a state in 1845; California, virtually unknown in 1840, became a state in 1850.

1876: Colorado entered the Union. Alaska had been purchased by the United States in 1872. The West was rapidly becoming populated, and in 1890 the U.S. government declared the frontier closed.

Today: Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states in the 1950s, and now the physical boundaries of the United States appear fixed, but some wish to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

1840s: Industrialization was just beginning in the United States. Steam power transformed water transportation from rafts to steamboats. Steam was also beginning to transform travel on land with railroads. Samuel B. Morse's telegraph, a new means of communication, first operated successfully in 1844.

1876: Industrialization was transforming the country, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition celebrated technology. Alexander Graham Bell's telephone was introduced at the Exhibition. The transcontinental railroad had been finished in 1869, and by 1876 the railroad had become central to the industrial economy.

Today: The information economy has succeeded the industrial economy. While the railroad was at the center of the industrial economy, the computer is at the center of the information economy. The Internet has produced a global communication network, and travel by automobile and airplane has largely replaced rail travel.

1840s: From 1840 to 1855, about 3.5 million immigrants came into the United States, attracted by the promise of wealth and freedom. Most of the immigrants in this period came from Ireland and Germany.

1876: Changing the population and the way American cities developed, immigration had become by 1876 a huge influence on American culture. In 1876, the nation was on the verge of its largest-ever influx of immigrants: nine million in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century.

Literary Precedents

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The mid-nineteenth century produced a number of books dealing with boys rebelling against conventional society, such as Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy (1869). While Twain's book is a powerful and original addition to literature about young people, it retains some of the "literary" language of nineteenth-century fiction. Twain abandons these conventions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which he permits the title character to tell the story.

The novel contains many qualities of the adventure story: villains menace the innocent, hide treasures in caves, and inhabit haunted houses; heroes rescue helpless victims, discover buried treasure, and gain recognition from the women they love and from their community. Twain also employs conventions of frontier literature, in which pranks disrupt the order of the church and school, and the ominous Native American seeks revenge.


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Four films, all titled Tom Sawyer, have been made from the novel: a slow-paced 1930 version directed by John Cromwell and starring Jackie Coogan, Mitzi Green, Junior Durkin, and Jackie Searle; a 1973 film musical with songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, directed by Don Taylor, and starring Johnnie Whitaker, Celeste Holm, Warren Dates, Jeff East, and Jodie Foster; and a 1973 made-for-television movie directed by James Neilson and starring Josh Albee, Jeff Tyler, Jane Wyatt, Buddy Ebsen, and Vic Morrow. The book has become an American classic and continues to be reworked by illustrators and television animators.

The best motion picture adaptation is the 1938 one, directed by Norman Taurog. Tommy Kelly provides a good portrayal as Tom Sawyer, and Victor Jory provides a memorable portrayal of Joe. The motion picture also stars May Robson, Walter Brennan, and Ann Gillis.

Media Adaptations

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In 1930 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was adapted by Paramount as a film entitled Tom Sawyer. It was directed by John Cromwell and stars Jackie Coogan and Mitzi Green.

The novel was also adapted as a film entitled Tom Sawyer by Selznick International in 1938. Directed by Norman Taurog and starring Walter Brennan and May Robson, the film is available on video, distributed by Trimark.

A 1939 film adaptation, Tom Sawyer, Detective (Paramount), was directed by Louis King and starred Porter Hall, Donald O'Connor, Elisabeth Risdon, and Janet Waldo.

In 1973 Clemens's novel was adapted into a musical film version (United Artists) entitled Tom Sawyer, directed by Don Taylor and starring Johnnie Whitaker, Jodie Foster, Celeste Holm, and Warren Oates. Available on video (MGM Home Entertainment) and with a musical score composed by Robert and Richard Sherman, this film received three Academy Award nominations.

In 1995 Disney adapted the novel as a film entitled Tom and Huck directed by Peter Hewitt and starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer and Brad Renfro as Huckleberry Finn. This version is also available on video (Walt Disney Home Video).

Read by Pat Bottino, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is available on cassette from Blackstone Audiobooks.


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Blair, Walter. “Tom Sawyer.” In Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A leading Mark Twain scholar traces autobiographical and literary influences in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Shows how Mark Twain adapted real people, places, and events into this early novel.

Fields, Wayne. “When the Fences Are Down: Language and Order in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” Journal of American Studies 24, no. 3 (December, 1990): 369-386. A valuable comparison of the two novels. Images of fences place Tom Sawyer within an ordered community, while Huck explores a disordered, insecure world outside the fences.

Norton, Charles A. Writing “Tom Sawyer”: The Adventures of a Classic. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1983. The most complete analysis of how Mark Twain wrote the novel.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts On File, 1995. Contains a detailed synopsis of the novel, cross-referenced to analytical essays on every character and place mentioned in the text, as well as other related subjects.

Robinson, Forrest G. “Social Play and Bad Faith in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 39, no. 1 (June, 1984): 1-24. Defends the novel’s reputation by asserting that its coherence relies on a dominant character with “a dream of himself as a hero in a world of play.”

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective. Edited by John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. The definitive, corrected edition of all three Tom Sawyer novels, prepared by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley. Heavily annotated, with citations to many specialized sources.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Frank Baldanza, "Boy Literature," in Mark Twain: An Introduction and Interpretation, edited by John Mahoney, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, pp. 103-123.

Walter Blair, "Tom Sawyer," in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 64-82.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Excavations," in Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 92-93.

John C. Gerber, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," in Mark Twain, edited by David J. Nordloh, Twayne, 1988, pp. 67-77.

Ronald Gottesman and Arnold Krupat, "American Literature 1865-1914," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, 4th edition, Norton, 1994, pp. 1-8.

Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition, Macmillan, 1935, pp. 43-44.

Robert Lacour-Gayet, Everyday Life in the United States before the Civil War, 1830-1860, Unger, 1969, p. 8.

Lewis Leary, Mark Twain, University of Minnesota Press, 1960, pp. 22-24.

Henry Nash Smith, "Introduction," in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 1-12.

For Further Study
Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain's America, Chautauqua Institution, 1932.
DeVoto, who published his book following the publication of Albert Bigelow Paine's biography of Twain, called his own book "an essay in the correction of ideas." The book looks at Twain's works in the context of his American culture.

William Dean Howells, review in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 37, May, 1876.
In this glowing review written before the novel's American publication, Howells singles out Clemens' depiction of the "boy-mind" as especially wonderful.

William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain, Dover, 1997.
Howells was "the dean of American letters" during Twain's day, and also Twain's close friend and editor. In this book, Howells presents his personal account of his friendship with Twain.

Jim Hunter, "Mark Twain and the Boy-Book in 19th-Century America," College English, Vol. 24, 1963.
Hunter provides a valuable survey of contemporary boys' literature, showing the role of the "Bad Boy" that Clemens adapted for Tom Sawyer.

Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1966.
A groundbreaking biography of Twain when it was first published, Kaplan's book made use of material about Twain's life and work that had been previously unavailable to biographers.

Charles A. Norton, Writing Tom Sawyer: The Adventures of a Classic, McFarland and Co., 1983.
Norton traces the creation of the novel, suggesting that Clemens' main motivation in writing it was to present an acceptable version of his childhood to his wife's family.

Dennis Welland, The Life and Times of Mark Twain, Crescent Books, 1991.
Lavishly illustrated, this book covers Twain's life and culture, organizing its information through a geographical approach.

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