Sunday, October 27, 2013

The shared language of popular culture

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 Tom Sawyer first appeared in 1874, and the character showed up in several other books -- including an unpublished work titled (I kid you not) Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy.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 Tom.

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.


prowlerzee said...

A crying shame. For what it's worth, it was the first thing I thought of when you mentioned the fence.

Stephen Morgan said...

I've never read the book, but I immediately thought of it. It was alluded to in the Simpsons, I believe. One of the Treehouses of Horror, I think.

I don't think we in Britain have a traditional formative novel. For me, my career of novel-reading began with Star Trek novels, Doctor Who novels and probably some Discworld. You know, kitchen-sink stuff. Never read David Copperfield. I think more well-off kids might have started with the Famous Five or Anne of Green Gables. Maybe Tom Brown's School Days.

As for comics, I used to read a load of those. Not American-style hero comics, though, we had actual comical comics. An excellent way to start reading. I had huge piles of them, but even then they were in decline. First Beezer merged with Topper. Then Beezer & Topper merged with Whizzer & Chips. Then Buster (centred around the adventures of the titular hero, Buster Capp) took over Whizzer & Chips (with Beezer & Topper). Then Buster went bust. Then only the giants in the playground survived, the Dandy and the Beano, and they were retooled to appeal to nostalgic adults. It would probably be a good way to teach literacy in the English-speaking parts of the third world, sending them the adventures of Dennis the Menace & Gnasher, Desperate Dan, Beryl the Peril, Minnie Minx and the Bash Street Kids.

When I was young I was the intellectual of the group, but even the idiots could read, because of the Beano.

CBarr said...

It's hard to imagine an America without Mark Twain, but we're there. Then again I never could have imagined the America we now have. What shared experiences bond us together? Where we shop?

On a very similar note, and an amazing window into our past culture, dialect, and especially dress... check out;

Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, by Joel Chandler Harris 1907 printing.

Uncle Remus was one sly ole guy.

CBarr said...

I often think about this Twain situation and how the wisdom of old classics are no longer a shared commonality. Make a reference to the sword of Damocles and people look at you quizzically. Robinson Crusoe stirred my sense of adventure as a child... but that book is as good as lost now. But removing Tom and Huck from school libraries because of the language? ...

" I can't think of a single instance in which Tom or Huck treats black people as inferior."

... tragic, because this was a major if not the point of these books.

Stephen Morgan said...

I seem to recall that the recent release of some of Mark Twains writings has revealed him to have been rather radical.

“From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out. There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now.” -- Twain on his autobiography

He had, for some people, some unpalatable views.

Now he's conveniently trotting off down the memory hole.

Bob Harrison said...

"Temba, his arms wide." re: Possibly Star Trek's best episode--