History of the Text

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Last Updated on July 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

Publication History: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published eight years before The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the more well-known of the two books. The character Tom Sawyer would go on to star in several more of Twain’s novels, but none would achieve the fame and widespread acclaim of the original. 

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  • When Tom Sawyer was published, Mark Twain was already a well-known and respected writer, both in the US and UK. For the most part, contemporary reviews were enthusiastic and praised Twain’s realistic depiction of growing up in rural, small-town America. Some pushback, however, was leveled on Tom’s character, because he did not espouse good morals for children.

Inspiration for Setting and Characters: Samuel Langhorne Clemens—pen name Mark Twain—was raised in Hannibal, Missouri. He used his hometown as the inspiration for St. Petersburg, both Tom’s and Huck’s birthplace and where the majority of Tom Sawyer’s action takes place. Many of the characters who appear, including Tom and Huck, are supposedly based on actual people from Twain’s childhood and later life. 

  • Mark Twain is now classified as an important figure in the regionalism literary movement—also known as local color writing—which esteems writing that is rooted in a specific geographic area. Regionalist novels often make use of dialect, local customs, and traditions from a particular real-world setting to create a sense of realism. This and Twain’s other works contributed to the popularity of regionalism as a literary form throughout the US and abroad. 

Traditions and Prejudices in the 19th-century American South: The American Civil War had ended about one decade prior to the novel’s publication. Though slavery had been abolished, black Americans were still seen as less refined or civilized than white Americans. This prejudice also extended to those of any mixed races—such as the character of Injun Joe, who is half-white and half-Native American. In addition, the notion that Native Americans were “savage” and violent was still a bias they were attempting to overcome. St. Petersburg may be a fictional setting, but it shares many traits with the American South, including its unacknowledged prejudices. 

The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich: This semi-autobiographical novel is considered to be one of the first and most influential in the “bad boy” tradition of American literature. This tradition is known for showing that stereotypically “bad” children could grow up to be successful—a departure from the often-moralizing children’s tales of how children should act, rather than how many actually did behave. 

  • Twain’s tale of Tom Sawyer—a boy who doesn’t completely adhere to traditional moral standards but ends up rewarded anyway—endorses this line of thinking. Though Tom lies, smokes, and isn’t a model child by any means, he ends up rich and beloved by his community anyway. 

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