Tom Sawyer, the quintessential tale of childhood?

September 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer is often heralded as quintessential child. But is this reputation deserved in a world so different from that of quaint little St. Petersburg? The classic tale of childhood represented in Tom Sawyer may not be more than a fictitious ideal.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was for a large part drawn from Mark Twain’s own childhood. In the preface of the novel he states:

“Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture.”

Many of the characters appear to be linked with his real life associates, such as his mother and Aunt Polly’s fondness for quack remedies. Furthermore, the phrasing and superstitions in the book were all accurate for the time period. All of these aspects together gives The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a genuine feeling that makes the reader relate to Tom Sawyer. Tom’s childish antics and outlandish exploits continue to bring smiles to readers faces over a hundred years later.

On the other hand, you have to keep in mind the real origins of the book. When reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer it is easy to imagine them the work of a down to earth writer living in a log cabin somewhere in the wilderness. But it is important to keep in mind that the author in question enjoyed an obscenely rich life in a mansion.  Also, Mark Twain wrote this around 30 years after his own childhood. Furthermore, Mark Twain, otherwise known as Samuel Clemens, had a childhood that was  actually quite different from Tom Sawyer’s. While some aspects of Tom Sawyer are drawn from his own childhood, Mark Twain romanticizes it into a collection of one magnificent adventure after another. There is none of the sickness that plagued Mark Twain throughout his childhood, and the emotional and financial strain of his father dying at age eleven is non-existent. At best, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer can be considered a loose example of what life might have been like for a fortunate child (scratch that, an exceptionally lucky child that finds chests full of gold) living in that time.

So, the question stands. Does The Adventures of Tom Sawyer exemplify what a perfect childhood should be? It is hard to know. Today’s world is so different from that of the mid 1800’s. How many children in American suburbia go to swing dead cats over witches graves at midnight to get rid of warts? How do you think people would react today if a group of young children decided to “play dead” and let everyone in their town assume they had drowned?

But despite it all, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer continues to speak to people in a world almost alien to Tom Sawyer’s. Can Tom Sawyer be considered the quintessential child? That is for you to decide.


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