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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 02, 2010 10:21 am    Post subject: Mark Twain - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer  Reply with quote

One of these days I'll choose a book for a group read that I've read before and know to be good. This time I chose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was new to me, although I read and loved The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a few years ago, which is a sequel of sorts to Tom Sawyer. It begins at the point where this book ends, and it was interesting to recognise things being resolved at the end of this book as the setup for the next one.

The structure is episodic to begin with - a series of more or less unconnected vignettes showing, for instance, Tom employing reverse psychology to persuade his gullible friends to whitewash a fence in his place; or Tom's elaborate pretence that he has immense knowledge of the Bible, which ends in disgrace when it transpires he believes David and Goliath to have been the first two disciples. There are a number of episodes where Tom and his friends Huckleberry Finn and Joe Harper go off and have the kind of adventures boys are supposed to in books and I presume some do in real life - pretending to be Robin Hood and his men, running away from home to be pirates, digging for buried treasure - but as the book progresses there are some more sustained plotlines, most notably Tom and Huck's pursuit of the murderer Injun Joe, which has a gratifyingly gruesome conclusion.

I read an Oxford World's Classics edition which I found in a charity shop over Christmas (and paid for, I hasten to add), which has an interesting and informative introduction by Lee Clark Mitchell that suggests at the time of writing Mark Twain was a great humorist but not yet a great author - or at least not a great novelist. Humour is certainly the order of the day from the very start. About Tom's Aunt Polly:

Quote:
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service--she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well.


Twain's sense of fun is all-pervasive, and takes many forms. His description of a dog rampaging through a closed church as a "woolly comet" is marvellous; so is his innovative use of diagonally ascending lines to depict a clergyman's rising and falling manner of speech. The frequent scenes between Tom and Huck where they earnestly discuss things they pretend to know about are one of the greatest joys:

Quote:
" ... And who'll we rob?"

"Oh, most anybody. Waylay people--that's mostly the way."

"And kill them?"

"No, not always. Hive them in the cave till they raise a ransom."

"What's a ransom?"

"Money. You make them raise all they can, off'n their friends; and after you've kept them a year, if it ain't raised then you kill them. That's the general way. Only you don't kill the women. You shut up the women, but you don't kill them. They're always beautiful and rich, and awfully scared. You take their watches and things, but you always take your hat off and talk polite. They ain't anybody as polite as robbers--you'll see that in any book. Well, the women get to loving you, and after they've been in the cave a week or two weeks they stop crying and after that you couldn't get them to leave. If you drove them out they'd turn right around and come back. It's so in all the books."

"Why, it's real bully, Tom. I believe it's better'n to be a pirate."

"Yes, it's better in some ways, because it's close to home and circuses and all that."


********

Is this a book for children or adults, and does having a preconceived idea of its intended audience influence the way we read the book? Twain appears to have intended it as a novel for adults when he first wrote it, until a friend persuaded him it would be best marketed as a children's book. He therefore writes in the preface:

Quote:
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.


I'm interested in the idea of nostalgia, and I can't deny having felt something of the sort when reading about Tom's adventures, but it's a nostalgia for a childhood I never had. I didn't pursue girls or collect bugs or go adventuring in horrid caves. The swapping culture in which all the children in the book participate also passed me by entirely. I bought a packet of football cards when I was about 8, but there weren't any other boys I could have swapped them with, and even if there had been I can't imagine they would have wanted Graeme Le Saux or Paul Parker. I certainly didn't. I suppose I did at least dig for buried treasure occasionally and found lots of fragments of willow pattern china in our front garden which I liked to imagine were valuable but undoubtedly weren't. And I did quite a lot of role-playing with my brothers, so maybe I didn't miss out entirely. But I find it a strangely - perhaps guiltily - enjoyable experience having a second childhood vicariously through books.

********

Huckleberry Finn is a frequent target of banning campaigns in America. It's taught in schools - as it should be, classic and masterpiece that it is - but some adults, perfectly understandably if perhaps wrongly, object to their children being subjected to a book that contains frequent occurrences of the word 'nigger' in its pages. I think the consensus is usually that for all that it depicts racist attitudes, the book isn't inherently racist, and in fact that the central friendship of white Huck and black Jim is a positive and likeable portrait of people of different races getting along, having fun together, relying on each other, and so on.

I think the same thing applies to Tom Sawyer, albeit in smaller measures. Can we dismiss accusations of racism? Racist slurs are occasionally directed towards the black characters, and the dialogue of Jim now reads as stereotypical (albeit, to me at any rate, irresistible - "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'."), but Twain doesn't appear to endorse the racism himself. Perhaps more problematic is the villainous character of Injun Joe - he is punished at the end, poetically, for the crimes he has committed, and those crimes are perceived by some of the characters to have arisen from his race.

Interestingly, the most common criticism of the book at the time of its publication was not that it propagated racism, but that it was too violent. The murder certainly is graphically related, and did take me aback as one who has only generally encountered violence in children's books when it is tempered with humour, as one finds frequently in Roald Dahl's stories. Maybe it's a sign of the times. I get the impression, possibly mistaken, that nowadays - except perhaps in the genre of Young Adult fiction - writers flinch from including violence in books for children, unlike Twain or the Brothers Grimm, for instance.

********

I feel like I've written a lot but not really said anything yet. There is more to come, but I'm sure this is enough to be getting on with. Thoughts? One last thing for the moment - Becky Thatcher. Is she a remotely convincing creation or merely a faceless foil for Tom?


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Evie
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 02, 2010 11:44 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks, Chibiabos!  Yes, it does raise some interesting questions.  I had read the book before, but quite a number of years ago (my Penguin classic is yellowed at the edges and is marked £2.50 on the back, and I am sure I bought it new!), and was very glad to revisit it.

The episodes are not unrelated - at least, I think they become more related as the book goes on.  Each chapter is like a short story, with its own conclusion, but the episodes build, and of course once the murder has been committed, there is always the underlying theme of Injun Joe's possible revenge, which adds a welcome level of suspense to the anecdotal structure, I think.

Twain may not yet be at the height of his powers, and yet, as you point out in the examples you have chosen, he is certainly already a master of humorous prose and storytelling.  Tom comes from a long (centuries-old) line of tricksters, and is a wonderful contemporary take on that tradition, I think - Twain's genius lies at least in part in his absorption of other literary motifs and methods.

But what raises it above a series of anecdotes about a ragamuffin boy is that inclusion of the murder and its consequences.  Injun Joe is genuinely frightening, and the fear of Huck and Tom about what might happen if they are found out and then if they get into Joe's clutches is also genuine.  I had remembered the episode in the cave as being scarier in terms of Tom and Injun Joe being in a confined space - funny how that had become distorted in my memory.  But again, I think the genuine fear that the two children will die in the cave adds a real frisson to what had seemed a jocular sort of narrative.

Tom is a more interesting character than I had remembered too - the depth of his superstitious beliefs is something I hadn't remembered, for example.

As for Becky Thatcher, that is a good question - she doesn't really come to life, does she?  There are other characters who get little rounding out - such as Sid - who *do* seem real.  The fact that I felt at times that someone should give Sid a slap round the chops showed me that I found him a convincing character!  But it was not just Becky herself who somehow didn't convince - Tom's devotion to her also didn't seem quite to fit with the rest of his personality.  It was hard to imagine him caring about a girl!

But overall, I found the book laugh-out-loud funny at very frequent intervals, genuinely scary at other times, and a sheer delight in terms of Twain's prose.  I found it a sophisticated book, in terms of the way these strands are intertwined, and because Tom himself and the world he lives in are complex and thought-provoking.

Interestingly, the writer of the introduction in my copy - John Seelye - had the opposite view from yours, Gareth; Seelye thinks Tom Sawyer is generally underrated because of its being compared with Huckleberry Finn, and that it is a better book than most people give it credit for.  'Huck Finn has great lyrical and dramatic power, but Tom Sawyer radiates a theatrical energy unmatched perhaps in the works of any of Mark Twain's contemporaries save Charles Dickens'.

He also claims that Twain always claimed it was 'a book for boys and girls', and that his friend the novelist William Dean Howells persuaded him that some scenes were not suitable, and Twain deleted them.

Lots more to say, including that issue of racism, but will leave it there for now, no one wants to read too much waffle at once!


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 02, 2010 3:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for that.

I shouldn't have written that the episodes at the start are unrelated - what I meant was they stand quite well indepently of each other. The author of the introduction to the copy I read was quite critical of Twain's grasp of the book's structure, but I think the way it becomes more integrated as the book progresses does show him as in control of his material.

It's funny to compare what scares different people. The scenes with Injun Joe are genuinely frightening, the murder scene especially, and his death is ingenious in its horror. I wasn't scared by the scenes with Tom and Becky stuck in the cave, though, simply because the conventions of this type of book didn't allow me to consider even remotely that they might not both get out of it alive, though I half-expected there to be a suggestion that they were dead and gone, followed by a joyous revelation of the attending-your-own-funeral kind.

Tom's a likeable enough character, but even in this book I think Huck is the star. A lot of that is down to him having the most engaging speaking voice of all the characters - and one of the things that makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn such a success is that it is narrated in his voice, not in the comparatively staid third-person voice of Tom Sawyer. It was quite audacious at the time, I think, the first novel to be written in the vernacular - or at least the first one to catch the American reading public's attention.

The superstition is fun, isn't it - debating about whether spunk-water or a dead cat is the best cure for warts and so on. Something else I like enormously about Tom and Huck - especially Huck, and this is the case in Huckleberry Finn as well - is just how scared they are of things. I've never read any other children's books where children are so open about admitting their own vulnerability. You would expect them to suffer some inner turmoil, but not necessarily to express it to their friends.

Just for the sake of it, here's another bit I liked:

Quote:
When they came to recite their lessons, not one of them knew his verses perfectly, but had to be prompted all along. However, they worried through, and each got his reward--in small blue tickets, each with a passage of Scripture on it; each blue ticket was pay for two verses of the recitation. Ten blue tickets equalled a red one, and could be exchanged for it; ten red tickets equalled a yellow one; for ten yellow tickets the superintendent gave a very plainly bound Bible (worth forty cents in those easy times) to the pupil. How many of my readers would have the industry and application to memorize two thousand verses, even for a Doré Bible? And yet Mary had acquired two Bibles in this way--it was the patient work of two years--and a boy of German parentage had won four or five. He once recited three thousand verses without stopping; but the strain upon his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forth--a grievous misfortune for the school, for on great occasions, before company, the superintendent (as Tom expressed it) had always made this boy come out and "spread himself."

It's a very quotable book!


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Evie
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 02, 2010 3:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, I agree about the cave scene, I didn't feel scared, but there was genuine fear for Tom and Becky - I felt that they were genuinely scared that they would die, that came across well - partly through Twain using the candles gradually running out.

Appearing at the funeral was *fantastic* - it still makes me laugh.  And Sid getting suspicious that Tom had dreamt every word that was said when he crept back and listened in when Aunt Polly thought Tom was missing.  Some truly great comic touches, all based around somehow seeing the world through both the adult narrator and Tom's eyes all at once.

I agree too about Huck being the stand-out character - it is clear that there was a great deal more to him, and no surprise that the sequel focused on him.  And lovely humour at the end, when Huck is trying to resist being civilised!


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Evie
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 02, 2010 8:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

What do you think about Becky Thatcher, Chibiabos?  She has certainly become part of the legend, you can't think about Tom without thinking about Becky - but she did seem strangely unreal to me.

I am still putting together thoughts about whether racism is a problem in the book - will post again tomorrow.


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 02, 2010 9:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I used to love Tom Sawyer as a boy. Although I was nothing like the extravert Tom, I used to identify with him strongly, and I think at the time I missed a lot of jokes at Tom's expense. I haven't read the book from cover to cover as an adult, but have often dipped into it, and have found myself laughing out loud.

(I may be remebering wrongly, but isn''t there a scene where Tom, trying to chat up Becky, asks her if she likes rats? And when she says she hates rats, Tom says something like "I don't mean live ones - I mean dead ones to tie on a string and swing round your head"?)

It's a very nostalgic book, and somehow, Twain makes you share the nostalgia. Becky possibly doesn't come to life, but that's a problem many writers of adventure stories have when trying to introduce a bit of romantic interest.

Mark Twain seems to me about the least racist person imaginable. Huckleberry Finn strikes me as a profoundly anti-racist book, and the stupidities and horrors of racism are made perfectly plain in Pudd'nhead Wilson. It is perhaps not so explicit in Tom Sawyer: one may say looking back nostalgically on a slave-owning society is in itself racist, but that's perhaps being too dogmatic: everyone has a right to feel nostalgic about his or her childhood. Huckleberry Finn explored the paradox of people who are otherwise kindly and decent nonetheless subscribing to the horror of slavery, but this is of course a very different kind of book. I can't say I find anything objectionable in the depiction of Jim's dialect, any more than there is anything objectionable in the depiction of Huck's dialect. I'd guess that in both cases, Twain depicted their accents and their dialects accurately.


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 03, 2010 8:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks Himadri - my main line of thought about the accusations of racism is whether Twain is recording the way people thought and spoke at the time, or whether he is condoning or endorsing it.  If it is the latter, there is some ground for accusing him of racism, but I really don't think he is - and as you say, you only have to read other works to see that he is consciously aware of racist tendencies in his culture, and sees the inherent iniquity.  And he always treats his characters equally.

There is a knee-jerk response these days, I think, as people fall over themselves to be politically correct.  The idea of banning books because they contain supposedly racist elements is, it seems to me, entirely misguided.  How are children to grow up with a rounded, sophisticated way of dealing with such problems if they are denied access to such things?  I am not talking about out and out racist polemic, but particularly novels from earlier periods that reflect a racial order, and sometimes *do* condone it, which is no longer considered acceptable.

The other implication is that it will become impossible for a white writer to create a villain who is black, for fear of accusations of racism.  As you say, Gareth, it is when racial background is given as a reason for criminality that we get into the issue of racism, but not everyone sees things as discriminately as this.  Sorry, little to do with Tom Sawyer, but I'm trying to think about the rights and wrongs of racial stereotyping!

And an author like Twain really is encouraging us to view his society objectively.  

On a completely different note, there is an interesting bit in the introduction to my copy (actually an interesting essay all together).  John Seelye mentions that part of what is so appealing about the book is that Tom draws on his knowledge of literature for his adventures - living like a pirate, finding hidden treasure, etc - but Twain subverts expectations by having all Tom's literary inspirations come true.  His pirate adventure is a great success - he sneaks back to make sure, and Aunt Polly really is grieving for him.  They go to the graveyard at midnight for an adventure, and witness a real murder.  They not only find the treasure, they get to keep it.  Just as I think, as my introduction does, that Twain is creating Tom in the medieval tradition of the trickster, as I mentioned before - and specifically the Feast of Misrule, where the social order was subverted and children ruled the day - I also love this aspect of Twain fusing literature and life in the way he does.

That is a great bit about the rats.  Becky is still not put off, and it is resolved by her saying she prefers chewing gum to rats, and they end up chewing gum together...that is, one after the other, as Becky has one piece, and she lets Tom chew it a while, but wants it back afterwards!


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks, both of you. Some excellent points.

I can't quite work whether I find Becky Thatcher implausible because she simply isn't a rounded character or because her role in Tom's life seems slightly at odds with what the rest of his acts lead us to expect. As you say, E/V, there are other characters, like Sid, who seem more vivid and more believable than Becky, though they may appear less.

Something I don't think has been mentioned yet is just how much heart the book has, particularly in Aunt Polly's adoration of Tom. One of my very favourite bits, because I'm soft, was the following passage, shortly after Tom has returned just in time for his funeral:

Quote:
The moment he was gone, she ran to a closet and got out the ruin of a jacket which Tom had gone pirating in. Then she stopped, with it in her hand, and said to herself:

"No, I don't dare. Poor boy, I reckon he's lied about it--but it's a blessed, blessed lie, there's such a comfort come from it. I hope the Lord--I KNOW the Lord will forgive him, because it was such goodheartedness in him to tell it. But I don't want to find out it's a lie. I won't look."

She put the jacket away, and stood by musing a minute. Twice she put out her hand to take the garment again, and twice she refrained. Once more she ventured, and this time she fortified herself with the thought: "It's a good lie--it's a good lie--I won't let it grieve me." So she sought the jacket pocket. A moment later she was reading Tom's piece of bark through flowing tears and saying: "I could forgive the boy, now, if he'd committed a million sins!"


Sorry not to write more at the moment, but I'm very busy. I should hopefully have a bit more time after the weekend.


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Evie
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 04, 2010 7:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was re-reading that bit last night - and thinking about how Tom also loves Aunt Polly in return.  But that moment with the note in the pocket brought tears to my eyes!  Aunt Polly is exasperated by Tom's mischievousness but loves him, and that sense of wanting to know and yet not wanting to know is quite moving.  

It is these things that give the book real substance I think - that heart, the way the boys acknowledge their fears, the genuineness of the adult world portrayed (including the fear engendered by the murder), as it all makes for a convincing community, it isn't just a book about a boy having fun.

Yes, I do think the main problem I have with Becky is that Tom's adoration of her does seem out of character - though perhaps it is meant to soften him a bit for us.

How old do you think Tom is?  (The book may tell us, but I have forgotten if it did!)


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Evie
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 04, 2010 9:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Chibiabos - I meant to ask - are you glad you chose this book?

(And thanks for the info about the real Good Read - excellent news!)



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