Folks, I like Mark Twain for several reasons. First and most important, he was the editor of Ulysses S. Grant’s biography. (Grant is my favourite US President, and his memoirs are widely regarded as the best. Also, there’s this heartbreaking story about Grant falling into financial trouble, right at the time where he was diagnosed with throat cancer. The only way to make sure his family would be cared for after his death was to write. In a mad race with death, Grant wrote as he progressively got weaker and weaker. He made it – he finished the book, but died only a couple of weeks later. )
Secondly, Twain’s whole life story is crazy and weird and absolutely fantastic. He was a steamboat captain. He travelled Europe. He wrote. He (briefly) participated in the Civil War. Whenever people go on and on about how great Theodore Roosevelt was, I roll my eyes. Roosevelt wishes he could be half as great as Twain.
Thirdly, during my uni days, I had a class on Mark Twain. It was not very popular – the class consisted of three students, one of whom dropped out after the first class. The teacher, a young teaching assistant, probably in his first year, was terrified the rest of us would bounce as well, so he’d always bring in baked goods. And so, every Thursday morning, we had pain au chocolat and discussed Twain. It was great. I loved it.
So I went back to his work. Arguably his most famous one – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which also happens to be the first novel written on a typewriter!
And I know this is thought to be a kid’s book, because it is about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two characters who have entered our social heritage. But I’d like to make an argument that it is a book about kids, not just for them.
Because Tom Sawyer gets into serious shit. During the 200 or so pages, he – in no particular order – witnesses a murder, is presumed dead not only once, but twice! – the first time, he even crashes his own funeral! – gets lost in a cave for days, finds a robber’s stash, is lost outside during a storm, and lies to a judge.
So I understand that kids in the 19th century had a different concept of childhood than kids nowadays, but still.
(I would still give my kids this book to read, because it’s wonderful and it is what a childhood should be like.)
I think that’s why I absolutely loved reading it. It reminded me of my childhood as a gremlin child – covered in grass stains and grazes, hair unbrushed, eating an apple around a missing tooth, barefoot and muddy.
You know those childhood summers that seemed to stretch on forever? That’s the feeling I got reading this book.
Mark Twain, as always, had a clear opinion on this. He wrote Tom Sawyer for adults, not for kids.
And another thing – I know it’s dangerous to compare fiction to reality, but thinking about what a modern Tom Sawyer would look like made me a bit sad. I know there’s a lot of unjustified nostalgia when you enter this thought experiment, and you have to be careful not to paint too rosy a picture of the past.
For example, Huckleberry Finn is homeless, his father’s a drunk and physically abusive, and he can’t read. (It doesn’t make him less of a hero. I love Huck.)
But. I couldn’t help but look at kids on the tube and realize that their childhood is arguably poorer than Tom Sawyer’s was. They might never be in mortal peril, which is good, but they also don’t have a habit of walking barefoot all summer.
So go ahead, read this book, and remind yourself what summers should be like.