Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad

Undoubtedly the most famous of Mark Twain's works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two novels show Twain at the peak of satirical and storytelling prowess, using an identical cast of characters to tell widely divergent stories.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, follows the life of the miscreant of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the shores of the mighty Mississippi River. In this otherwise sleepy town, the eponymous character gets into mischief and becomes embroiled in a murder plot. In the process, he comes to represent everything about rural life in America... The bygone age when children were allowed to explore, get dirty, hurt themselves, and run free on the wild outskirts of the village, fettered only by their own imaginations. This life, lived as recently as 30 years ago, seems to have dissipated under the weight of electronic devices and helicopter parents. To call it a "simpler time" would be a misnomer. Sawyer and his ladyfriend Becky Thatcher do find themselves chased through caverns by a murderer after all. It was a more fearless time, and thus seems more simple. Getting scuffed up was part of childhood. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in 1885. The Gilded Age romps of Sawyer, for as much murder and mayhem as they involved, were traded in for a sincere examination of life in the American South with all its harsh, squalid, unromantic realities. Quite early on, for instance, the reader is revolted by the horrible situation that the return of Huck's father puts him in. A barbaric man, he punishes the boy for "putting on airs" by being taught to read and proceeds to try and weasel Huck's trustfund (a legacy of the reward in the previous novel) as his "right" he is justly owed. No wonder Huck fakes his death and runs off with Jim, the escaped slave. As an unlearned, rural vagabond, Huck becomes Twain's "wild man" voice of satirical innocence.

Through the eyes of two social outsiders – Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores not only the Mississippi’s shoreline but the American zeitgeist in a manner that is still shockingly relevant today. Huck and Jim are left to navigate the eternally turbulent waters where morality, race, politics, religion, economics, slavery, and the lingering fallout of the Civil War intersect. In American literature and the American mind, geography and psychology blend together. Pursuit of the frontier drove Americans westward and skyward, hitching up Conestoga wagons and revving up Harley-Davidsons, and in doing so shaped who Americans are. The fundamental form of American literature is the road trip… The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and the first truly American novel is a trip on one of America’s first natural roads. Twain’s Mississippi is a geographic artery reaching into America’s metaphorical heart. Where it flows is sometimes quite ugly, and needs airing out. 

A further ten years later, Twain took a true flight of fancy with Tom Sawyer Abroad. Rather than reflecting on the realities of life in America, he instead wrote up a parody of Vernian Scientific Romances and dime novel Edisonades. The author takes Tom, Huck and Jim and throws them in with a mad inventor who takes them aloft in his dirigible. One can tell from this short novella and its follow-up Tom Sawyer, Detective that the gas had gone out of Sawyer and Finn for their author. Nevertheless, it does provide him with a few good moments of good-natured fun to poke at the genre.