Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer, his second extended effort in fiction and his first masterpiece, he began as a play in 1872 and published in its present form in 1876. The long incubation contributed to its unsurpassed unity of tone. But the decisive fact is that his irresponsible and frequently extravagant fancy is here held in check by a serious artistic purpose, namely, to make an essentially faithful representation of the life of a real boy intimately known to him by memory and by introspection and by those deductions of the imaginative faculty which start from a solid basis of actuality. His own boyhood, we may believe, and that of his companions in Hannibal, lives in this intensely vital narrative. It is significant of his unwonted austerity in the composition that he wrote to Howells on its completion: “It is not a boy’s book at all. It will only be read by adults. It is only written for adults.” He had some justification for feeling that his newly finished manuscript broke a long taboo. He had taken a hero who was neither a model of youthful virtues nor a horrible example but was distinguished chiefly by pluck, imagination, and vanity, and had made him leader of a group of average little Missouri rascals running loose in an ordinary small river town and displaying, among other spontaneous impulses, all the “natural cussedness” of boyhood. Furthermore he had made a central incident of a rather horrid murder. Remembering the juvenile fiction of the Sunday-school library, he suspected that the story of these fighting, fibbing, pilfering, smoking, swearing scapegraces was not for young people. But Howells, after reading about Aunt Polly, the whitewashing of the fenee, Tom’s schoolboy love, Huck and the wart-cure, and the pirates’ island, ordered the profanity deleted, and declared it the best boy story ever written; and that was near the truth. In the two sequels Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), the plots are rather flimsy contrivances of the humorous fancy, but the stories are partly redeemed by the established reality of the actors and the raciness of the narrative which comes from the mouth of Huck Finn.

The Prince and the Pauper (1881), a first venture in historical romance, was deliberately written for children and tested in the process of composition on the author’s daughters. The plot, suggested by Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Prince and the Page, is fascinating to the youthful imagination; and the notion underlying it is to the older reader the most characteristic element in the book. The exchange of clothes and stations effected by Tom Canty and Prince Edward, later Edward VI, provided for the prince opportunities for feeling the common lot which the democratic author would gladly have given to all the monarchs of Europe. Occasionally writing over the heads of his audience, he utilizes the situation to express his inveterate sense of the evil of monarchical institutions and in particular his peculiarly flaming indignation at obsolete English penal laws. Humorous situations, sometimes tragically humorous, are abundant; but neither in the simple and vigorous prose of the narrative nor in the archaic style of the dialogue does one find at full strength the idiom and the first-hand observation for which one values Tom Sawyer. The Prince and the Pauper is a distinguished book in the class to which Little Lord Fauntleroy was added in 1886; but it is overshadowed by Mark Twain’s own work.