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Vol. LXIV, No. 36
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
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Book Review

Reading “Tom Sawyer” Between Sword Fights: A Mark Twain Reality Show

Stuart Mitchner

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Mark Twain

Twain went out with Halley’s Comet on April 21, 1910. When my father, who had come in with it on July 15, 1910, was recovering from surgery in a Key West hospital, the comet was in the news, right on schedule, and it was hard to shake the thought that he might share the same fate, which he did, on April 14, 1986.

A Glorious Calling

My paternal grandparents and I once spent the night at the Mark Twain Hotel in Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri (St. Petersburg in his fiction). I was ten at the time and the fact that writers had hotels named after them accorded with my notion that writing novels might be as glorious an occupation as playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. While I’m sure we must have toured some Hannibal sites like the author’s boyhood home and the fence Tom Sawyer conned some friends into painting, all I remember is the hotel with its long, long corridors and how my grandfather made sure to point out to me where the fire exits were.

My relationship with Twain goes back to the summer my mother read to me all of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Since I was a rowdy, contrary, obstinate seven-year-old, it was probably her way of keeping me temporarily indoors and out of trouble. Being a frustrated actress from Twain’s home state (she played the lead in the Faculty Drama Club production of Anna Christie), my mother handled the dialogue and the dialect well. Those readings were cozy. No matter how much she and I fought, we’d curl up in bed every day when the dust had cleared and she’d read and I’d close my eyes and listen. What really got to me wasn’t so much the humor or the adventures of Tom and Huck but the romance between Tom and Becky, which led to some embarrassing episodes with the little girl across the street.

Rereading those scenes with Tom and Becky, what strikes me now is how much the situations and dialogue have in common with the fourth-grade puppy love I experienced a few years later. Of course nothing in my experience of schoolyard bravado and romance could match the sequence when they were lost in the cave, Becky was crying, and Tom was holding her close (“she buried her face in his bosom, she clung to him, she poured out her terrors, her unavailing regrets”). Read now, the language seems ornate and flowery, with phrases like “unavailing regrets,” and, again, when Tom is watching Becky sleep: “The peaceful face reflected somewhat of peace and healing into his own spirit, and his thoughts wandered away to by-gone times and dreamy memories.”

I’m sure my mother read that sentence like a lullaby, soft and slow in her Missouri accent. Looking through some old letters many years later, I discovered that she had mixed feelings about the book she was reading so expressively. Writing to my father, who was in New York that summer researching his dissertation, she made amused but uneasy reference to my “fascination” with the love scenes. Concerned that what she was reading me might not be “proper” (she who played Anna Christie), she thought that while the love scenes were “sweet,” it was all too “grown-up” (“a commentary on humanity and its ways”). She was worried that they were “raising a heathen.”

Or maybe she was worried that I would see Tom Sawyer as a role model, which I surely did. Tom was a show-off of formidable dimensions, as James M. Cox demonstrates in one of the best books ever written on Twain and his work, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (Princeton University Press 1966; 1976). Perhaps my mother sensed what was behind Cox’s observation that Tom Sawyer’s “real audacity” is its “commitment to the pleasure principle,” the “positive force” being “play itself.” As Cox puts it, “What makes Tom Sawyer seem more real than the adults who submit to his power is his capacity to take his pleasure openly in the form of make-believe while they take theirs covertly under the guise of seriousness.”

My role model outdid me when it came to submitting adults to his power, but I was definitely committed to the positive force of play. Given the way most seven-year-old boys go at life, Cox and Twain are on the money. One of my mother’s letters from the summer we read Tom Sawyer together offers this matter-of-fact piece of information from the neighborhood wars: “Stuart broke his glasses again in a sword fight with a boy dressed up as Batman.” She goes on to assure my father that the swords were made of wood.

According to Cox, 30 years after writing Tom Sawyer Twain projected the pleasure principle into the adult world by claiming that Theodore Roosevelt, in “his eagerness to keep the public eye,” was “a political incarnation of Tom Sawyer” — “always showing off.”

Now that I think of it, one of the qualities that made Jim Cox a great teacher was his showmanship. He brought his theories and his subjects, Twain, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville, to life, enlightening and entertaining his classes at Indiana University and Dartmouth with the sublime vaudeville of American literature.

Twain in Princeton

When the ultimate incarnation of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain himself, visited Princeton in May 1901, and, as reported in the New York Sun, gave a performance at Alexander Hall before a large audience of students and faculty, he prefaced his reading by describing his scheme for the regeneration of the human race. “You should economize every sin you commit and get a value out of it,” he reportedly said. “If you commit a sin sit down and think about it. You must end by making up your mind that you will never commit that sin again. You should go to the next sin and use that in the same way. Now, there are only 368 sins that you can commit, so that if you begin to-morrow and commit all of them you will be out in a little over a year.”

Three Anniversaries

Besides being the 175th anniversary of Mark Twains’s birth and the 100th of his “going out,” 2010 also marks the 125th year since the U.S. publication of Huckleberry Finn. Tourists visiting Hannibal these days have to make do with the Mark Twain Motor Inn since the old hotel we stayed at is now used for senior housing. According to a May 5 story in USA Today, Twain fans began arriving shortly after the publication of Tom Sawyer in 1876. Guided tours of the Mark Twain Cave began as early as 1886, and his boyhood home became a museum in 1912. A block up from the Mississippi, there is now an eight-building Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex while another museum nearby re-creates scenes from his most popular works. There’s also the Huck Finn Shopping Center, the Injun Joe Campground, and Sawyer’s Fun Park, among others. The author’s face can be seen on Coke and Pepsi machines.

American legends seem fated to become American brands, like those Burma Shave signs that used to break the monotony of the long drives through Illinois and Missouri with my Kansas grandparents.

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