Not long ago, I was painting a fence. A neighbor walked up and asked "Whatcha doin'?" Because the answer was perfectly obvious, I didn't know what to say. So I went for the joke:
"Well, I'd let ya help, but Aunt Polly's awful particular about this fence, and I reckon there ain't but one boy in a thousand who can do it the way she specks."
The neighbor had no idea what I was talking about.
"Mark Twain," I said. "Tom Sawyer."
The lights remained dim. She seemed to recognize the names, but probably could not have told me if someone named Sawyer wrote about someone named Twain or the other way around.
How strange. Tom Sawyer
first appeared in 1874, and the character showed up in several other books -- including an unpublished work titled (I kid you not) Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy
. (I believe Tom and Huck also appeared in an early version of The Mysterious Stranger
, Twain's delightfully unnerving negation of all existence.) For nearly a hundred years, there was no more famous character in American literature.
Twain died in 1910. For at least the next six decades, Tom Sawyer
was the first novel read by most American boys and girls. (Do the Brits have a work which performs a similar function? Maybe David Copperfield
.) Teachers often assigned Twain's book -- and if they didn't, the students discovered it for themselves.
Why are Tom and Huck no longer invited into our schools? Race probably plays a role. Take, for example, this early exchange between Tom and a black boy:
"Say, Jim, I'll fetch the water if you'll whitewash some."
Jim shook his head and said:
"Can't, Mars Tom. Ole missis, she tole me I got to go an' git dis water an' not stop foolin' roun' wid anybody. She say she spec' Mars Tom gwine to ax me to whitewash, an' so she tole me go 'long an' 'tend to my own business — she 'lowed she'd 'tend to de whitewashin'."
"Oh, never you mind what she said, Jim. That's the way she always talks. Gimme the bucket—I won't be gone only a a minute. She won't ever know."
"Oh, I dasn't, Mars Tom. Ole missis she'd take an' tar de head off'n me. 'Deed she would."
"She! She never licks anybody — whacks 'em over the head with her thimble — and who cares for that, I'd like to know. She talks awful, but talk don't hurt — anyways it don't if she don't cry. Jim, I'll give you a marvel. I'll give you a white alley!"
Jim began to waver.
"White alley, Jim! And it's a bully taw."
"My! Dat's a mighty gay marvel, I tell you! But Mars Tom I's powerful 'fraid ole missis—"
"And besides, if you will I'll show you my sore toe."
Jim was only human—this attraction was too much for him. He put down his pail, took the white alley, and bent over the toe with absorbing interest while the bandage was being unwound. In another moment he was flying down the street with his pail and a tingling rear, Tom was whitewashing with vigor, and Aunt Polly was retiring from the field with a slipper in her hand and triumph in her eye.
This is a message from another universe, isn't it? Imagine the reaction if a modern Aunt Polly tossed a shoe at any
child, black or white. Today's youngsters probably don't understand that "marvel" means marble
, and that boys used to prize certain kinds of marbles. Also, I suspect that many readers have never had the original meaning of "gay" explained to them.
The most problematic aspect of this passage is Twain's attempt to capture the "negro" dialect of his time. In the era before audio recorders, authors frequently tried to reproduce speech in this fashion. Nowadays, the effect can seem overdone, even insulting -- and parents probably don't want their children to be told that "Mars Tom" meant Master
Alas, that's the way life was, then. Twain is our tape recorder, and we should be grateful that he captured for posterity the way a boy like Tom and a boy like Jim would have spoken. Our society should be able to acknowledge the facts of life in the antebellum south without conveying the message that life ought
to be that way. (Incidentally, I can't think of a single instance in which Tom or Huck treats black people as inferior.)
The point is: This is Tom Sawyer
. It's part of our history, our shared culture. For good or ill, this book is us.
Yet modern youngsters do not know it.
A few of them may one day come to appreciate the book via an advanced class in literature, the way English majors might learn about the works of Anthony Trollope or George Meredith or some other genius now read only by specialists. For the most part, though, Mark Twain's most famous work is no longer alive. It is no longer read by young people for the sheer fun of it.
On the other hand, today's young people do
know that the Thing is Ben Grimm, and that he is made of orange rocks. Most adults have this knowledge as well.
I'm sure that Stan Lee is happy that his characters have attained that level of familiarity. But even he must be a little bothered by the fact that Tom Sawyer is no longer part of our American identity.