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Perhaps the best-loved nineteenth-century American novel, Mark Twain’s tale of boyhood adventure overflows with comedy, warmth, and slapstick energy. It brings to life and array of irresistible characters—the awesomely self-confident Tom, his best buddy Huck Finn, indulgent Aunt Polly, and the lovely, beguiling Becky—as well as such unforgettable incidents as whitewashing a fence, swearing an oath in blood, and getting lost in a dark and labyrinthine cave. Below Tom Sawyer’s sunny surface lurk hints of a darker reality, of youthful innocence and naïveté confronting the cruelty, hypocrisy, and foolishness of the adult world—a theme that would become more pronounced in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite such suggestions, Tom Sawyer remains Twain’s joyful ode to the endless possibilities of childhood.
H. Daniel Peck is John Guy Vassar Professor of English at Vassar College and is the author of Thoreau’s Morning Work and A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction.
About the Author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), best known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an author and humorist noted for the novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which has been called "The Great American Novel") and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, among many other books. Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and he spent time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before finding fame as a writer.
Date of Birth:November 30, 1835
Date of Death:April 21, 1910
Place of Birth:Florida, Missouri
Place of Death:Redding, Connecticut
Read an Excerpt
From H. Daniel Peck's Introduction to Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is Mark Twain's "other" book, the one, it is said, that prepared the way for his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and in which the hero of that work was born as a secondary figure. There is much truth in this formulation. Huck Finn is indeed Twain's masterpiece, perhaps his only great novel. In directly engaging slavery, it far surpasses the moral depth of Tom Sawyer, and its brilliant first-person narration as well as its journey structure elevate it stylistically above the somewhat fragmentary and anecdotal Tom Sawyer. Yet it is important to understand Tom Sawyer in its own terms, and not just as a run-up to Huck Finn. It was, after all, Mark Twain's best-selling novel during much of the twentieth century; and it has always had a vast international following. People who have never actually read the novel know its memorable episodes, such as the fence whitewashing scene, and its characters—Tom foremost among them—who have entered into national folklore. The appeal of Tom Sawyer is enduring, and it will be our purpose here to try to locate some of the sources of that appeal.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was Mark Twain's first novel (the first he authored by himself), but it is hardly the work of an apprentice writer. By the time this book was published in 1876, Samuel L. Clemens was already well known by his pen name Mark Twain, which he had adopted in 1863 while working as a reporter in Nevada. At the time of the novel's publication, he was in his early forties and beginning to live in an architect-designed home in Hartford, Connecticut. He had been married to his wife, Olivia, for six years, and two of his three daughters had been born.
Up to this point, Twain had been known as a journalist, humorist, and social critic. His story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," first published in 1865, had made him famous, and the lecture tours he had given in the United States and England in these years had been well received. His books The Innocents Abroad (1869), which satirizes an American sightseeing tour of the Middle East that he covered for a newspaper, and Roughing It (1872), an account of the far west based on his own experiences there, were great successes. Both works were first published in subscription form, and they quickly advanced Twain's reputation as a popular writer. His publication in 1873 of The Gilded Age, a book coauthored with Charles Dudley Warner dramatizing the excesses of the post-Civil War period, confirmed his place as a leading social critic.
Indeed, the America reflected in The Gilded Age—an America of greed, corruption, and materialism—may have driven Twain back imaginatively to what seemed to him a simpler time—to "those old simple days", as he refers to them in the concluding chapter of Tom Sawyer. The first significant sign of such a return in his publications was his nostalgic essay "Old Times on the Mississippi," which appeared in 1875.3 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published the following year, belongs to this return to antebellum America, and to the scene of Twain's growing up—Hannibal, Missouri. That the author was able to draw upon his deepest reserves of childhood imagination in this work certainly accounts for much of its appeal. A decade after its publication, he referred to the novel as a "hymn" to a forgotten era,4 and while this characterization oversimplifies The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it also points to key aspects of its composition and literary character.
In the novel, Twain renames Hannibal as St. Petersburg, thus suggesting, as John C. Gerber has said, St. Peter's place, or heaven.5 But heaven, as Twain depicts it, is a real place. Many of the sites and topographical features are identifiable. Cardiff Hill, so important in the novel as a setting for children's games such as Robin Hood, is Holliday's Hill of Hannibal. Jackson's Island, the scene of the boys' life as "pirates," is recognizable as Glasscock's Island. And McDougal's Cave, so central to the closing movement of the novel, has a real-life reference in McDowell's cave. Human structures, like Aunt Polly's house, as well as the schoolhouse and the church, were similarly modeled after identifiable buildings in Hannibal.
The autobiographical origins of the novel are also evident in the characters. In the preface, Twain says that "Huck Finn is drawn from life" (in part from a childhood friend named Tom Blankenship), and "Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew." Schoolmates John Briggs and Will Bowen probably were two of the three boys after whom Tom was modeled, and a good bet for the third is young Sam Clemens himself. Many of Tom's qualities resemble Twain's descriptions of his young self, and several of Tom's experiences—such as being forced by Aunt Polly to take the Painkiller and sitz baths—reflect the author's own. Aunt Polly herself has several characteristics that link her to Sam Clemens's mother, Jane Clemens. And scholars have found Hannibal counterparts for many of the other characters, including Becky Thatcher, Joe Harper, and Ben Rogers, as well as the widow Douglas and the town's minister, schoolteacher, and doctor.