Review: Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I am not sure if I read this book as a school assignment, but it’s obviously one of the great works of American fiction. Mark Twain published it in 1876, and now it’s available for free via Project Gutenberg.

The book’s hero is Tom, a twelve-year-old boy (it’s never stated). The plot involves Tom’s various attempts to (a) avoid school work and (b) go on adventures (often with Huck Finn) and (c) court Betsy Thatcher, a girl whose family arrives in town early in the book.

Long story short, Tom gets into a lot more adventures than he plans, which drives his Aunt back and forth between mourning Tom’s death, thanking heavens that he’s alive, and punishing him for driving her crazy.

The book’s tone of every day a new adventure is delightful and innocent, in contrast with that years’ events: the first telephone call, the first transcontinental (US) railway line, and the ongoing exploration and seizure of Native American territories.

…but by far the highlight is the lovely text, imbued with the priorities of boys in the face of adult silliness. Here are three examples:

He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while—plenty of company—and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village. Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

One feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of “fine language”; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them. No matter what the subject might be, a brainracking effort was made to squirm it into some aspect or other that the moral and religious mind could contemplate with edification. The glaring insincerity of these sermons was not sufficient to compass the banishment of the fashion from the schools, and it is not sufficient today; it never will be sufficient while the world stands, perhaps. There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious. But enough of this. Homely truth is unpalatable

Brilliant. FIVE STARS…

Is there a classic that you’ve recently (re)read?

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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