Tom Sawyer Had A Dream And It Shot Him

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following paper was originally on the program for the 8th International Conferences on the State of Mark Twain Studies, which took place this past August at Elmira College. Unfortunately, Hamada Kassam, a Syrian national who is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at American University of Sharjah, was unable to present his paper in person, due to Executive Order 13769. While it is little compensation for his presence, we are proud to publish a slightly abridged version of his proposed presentation here.    

“How’d you say he got shot?”

“He had a dream,” [Huck] says, “and it shot him.”

“Singular dream,” [the doctor] says.

In the Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri in 2015 I presented a paper titled “Tom Sawyer Said He Was ‘a Stranger from Hicksville, Ohio, and His Name Was William Thompson.” The paper, which was published in Mark Twain Annual in November 2016, highlighted a dialogic fictive relationship between Mark Twain and proslavery editor and southwestern humorist William Tappan Thompson (1812-1882). I mentioned that Twain gives Thompson’s name and Ohioan origin to Tom Sawyer in two separate novels, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). In the former novel, Huck Finn mentions that when Tom Sawyer arrived in Arkansas, he introduced himself to the Phelpses as William Thompson, a stranger from Hicksville, Ohio.[1] This precedes Tom’s long, “noble” and “romantical” adventure of stealing the free slave Jim. (297, 309-311) In Tom Sawyer Abroad, the young title character decides to raise a couple of thousand knights and launch a crusade to the Holy Land, offering to take Huck and Jim with him. Huck tells us that Tom drew this “wild notion” from a Walter Scott book he was reading over and over.[2] When the bookish Tom refuses to explain to the inquisitive Huck and Jim what a crusade means, Huck refers to his angry and obstinate friend as “Bill Thompson.” (18) The namesake refuses to argue further with what he calls “a couple of sap-headed country yahoos out in the backwoods of Missouri,” accuses them of always wandering from the subject, ignoring the grand people who advocated it in the first place, and having no “more sense than to try to reason out a thing that’s pure theology by the laws that protect real estate!” (23-4)

Tom Sawyer’s appropriation of the names “William Thompson” and “Bill Thompson” in the above-mentioned novels has again prompted me to examine Twain’s authorial intention and continue to view Tom Sawyer as a Thompson-style southern apologist. Twain arguably uses Tom Sawyer to implicitly denigrate and denounce Thompson’s numerous and various professional and social attempts at condoning and promoting slavery and a secessionist agenda in the antebellum and postbellum eras both on American and foreign soil.

Thompson, a proslavery Whig editor and frontier humorist, created a simple, amiable, candid and colloquial fictive character, a Georgian slaveholder named Major Joseph Jones, and used him for 30 years (1837-1867) as his social and political mouthpiece. In three books of epistles and sketches featuring Major Jones as a principal character or narrator in the 1840s, Thompson did everything in his capacity to endorse white supremacy and present slavery as a palatable and paternalist institution. Thompson uses self-mockery and slapstick to occasionally depict his hero as a naïve person who ends up the butt of his own practical jokes, which thereby enables Thompson to express serious messages under different veils of humor.

Thompson also fictively inserts the southern poor whites and African Americans in the southern populist and military models, and sends his Whig Georgia hero on trips across the Northern (free) states and Canada, where he mocks the abolitionist North and Democratic politicians. Thompson’s carefully concealed authorial aim mostly surfaces and manifests itself when he creates a comic tension between southern Whiggery on the one hand and abolitionism and Jacksonian democracy on the other, eventually rendering the former victorious and the latter hypocritical. Thompson planned to send his Southern hero to Europe in a post-Civil War book titled Major Jones in Europe (1867), but the book was never finished. In an epistle that Thompson included in his 1848 book Major Jones’s Sketches of Travel [3] and dated “Filladelfy, May 25, 1845,” Major Jones addresses “Mr. Thompson” as he usually does and sorrowfully comments on what he sees as the “miserable” life and freedom of African Americans in the Northern (free) states:

I’ve always had a great curiosity to see how the free n—— git along in the Northern States … The book-keeper [at the hotel] told me if I wanted to see free n—— in all ther glory, I must go down Sixth street til I come to ’em. Well, I started, and sure enuff, I hadn’t gone many squares before I begun to smell ’em … Gracious knows, if anybody wants to git ther simpathies excited for the pore n—–, all they have got to do is to go to this part of Filladelfy. I’ve been on the big rice plantashuns in Georgia, and I’ve seed large gangs of n—— that had the meanest kind of masters, but I never seed any pore creatures in sich a state of retchedness in all my life. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for ’em, and if I was able, I’d been willin to paid the passage of the whole generation of ’em to Georgia, whar they could git good masters that would make the young ones work, and would take care of the old ones. Thar they was, covered with rags and dirt…Pore, miserable, sickly-lookin creaters! it was enuff to make a abolitionist’s hart ake to see ’em crawlin out of the damp straw of the cellars…to beg or steal sumthing to eat. (103-4)

It is clear that Thompson launches through Major Jones a diatribe against the abolitionist North and draws slavery as a paternalist institution in the South.

That Twain was consciously waging an implicit fictive war in his greatest works against William Thompson could be supported by further circumstantial evidence and textual parallels. Recent research has shown that William T. Thompson was the person who designed the Confederate flag and deemed it “a symbol of white supremacy – not southern heritage”:

Given the above references and Thompson’s association with the Confederate Flag, I became eager to know if Twain ever made any further references to Thompson in his works. He might have consciously or subconsciously referred to Thompson in Life on the Mississippi (1883). Twain gives the names “Thompson” and “Rogers” respectively to James R. Osgood and Roswell H. Phelps, who accompanied Twain on his 1882 return trip to the Mississippi River and became the book’s “poet” and “stenographer.” Thus, Chapters 31 and 32 of Life on the Mississippi gain significance because they depict a fight among Twain’s persona and his two companions over the ten thousand dollars hidden in the wall of a building in Napoleon, Arkansas. When Twain’s persona finds out that Thompson and Rogers expect him to split the amount with them, they get into a fight, but only to be told by the amazed captain of the boat that a flood had washed Napoleon completely away. The argument among “Thompson,” “Rogers” and Twain’s persona is similar to the heated exchange that ensues among Tom, Huck and Jim in Tom Sawyer Abroad regarding whether or not they should return the “handsome” box containing jewellery, gems and gold money, which they confiscate from a dead caravan in the Sahara Desert.

The oath that Tom Sawyer creates for his Band of Robbers in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another way of viewing Tom Sawyer as a Thompson-style southern apologist. Victor Doyno has highlighted the seriousness of the early version of Tom’s oath, seeing it as evidence of “the darker impulses that lie behind the printed text.” According to Doyno, Twain started in his manuscript by writing “and his [any defecting bandmate] bowels took out and burnt up before his face,” then made it slightly softer by changing “bowels” to “insides,” and eventually cancelled all references to this extremely cruel practice by using a pencil. Doyno mentions that African Americans occasionally suffered this horrible fate at the hands of lynch mobs in the Old South, and rightly observes that Tom Sawyer’s “bloodthirsty imagination” can be conceived to be comical if the fifteen-year-old drew the information from books only, but terrifying if Tom heard about actual lynchings in the South.[4] Commenting on the oath, Huck says, “Everybody said it was a beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said, some of it, but the rest was out of pirate books, and robber books, and every gang that was high-toned had it.” (12)

Twain and Thompson’s greatest works present interesting and though-provoking parallels that support the argument that Tom Sawyer’s multi-faceted character is intentionally drawn and charged with Thompson’s fanaticism, obstinacy, idealism, bookish knowledge, rich imagination, Sir Walter Scott romanticism, and obsession with travel, fortune and glory. Tom Sawyer Abroad displays a motley assortment of incongruous incidents, pointless discussions and heated exchanges between Tom on the one hand and Huck and Jim on the other. These could also be read symbolically and seen as episodic attempts on Twain’s part at intimating Thompson through Tom Sawyer and possibly re-enacting his numerous and various endeavors at championing his proslavery Whig and secessionist agenda:

1.) Commenting on Jim’s ignorance about clocks and their difference worldwide (which the naïve ex-slave does not accept to be true and deems a form of discrimination), Tom poses as a “white supremacist” and scorns Jim by saying:

“I never heard such ignorance. There ain’t no discriminating about it. When he [the Lord] makes you and some more of his children black, and makes the rest of us white, what do you call that? … He does discriminate, you see, when he wants to; but this case here ain’t no discrimination of his, it’s man’s.” (51-52)

2.) While still flying over the Sahara, Tom “broke off his talk” about the enormous yet “unimportant” Sahara Desert by indicating to Huck and Jim a certain treasure-hill which he claims to have been looking for. Huck makes it clear that Tom knew about it from The Arabian Night. (144-5) Tom then starts to narrate to Huck and Jim a tale from The Arabian Nights about a wandering dervish who tricks a greedy camel driver and robs him of all his wealth which includes 100 camels. The camel driver rubs on his right eye some salve offered to him by the poor dervish and consequently sees a hill of treasure in the Desert. However, when asking for more salve and rubbing it on the left eye, he gets blind. In the process, the camel driver insists on running the risk despite having been warned by the dervish, who has initially offered the salve for fifty camels. The dervish accepts to return the fifty camels when the greedy camel driver makes repetitive requests. However, when the camel driver asks for more salve and becomes blind, the dervish ends up gaining all the camels with their loads of treasure. Jim, having listened closely to Tom’s narration, reflects that the camel driver learnt a lesson from this experience. When Tom counters Jim by arguing that the lesson is useless, Jim falls asleep. The word “salve” is possibly intended as a pun on “slave”: Twain may be implying that the Old South had overdone it by turning slavery into a commercial institution. By making Jim sleep and even snore while Tom is talking, Twain is possibly turning a deaf ear to Thompson and other proslavery southern writers. Huck comments,

“Tom looked kind of ashamed, because you know a person always feels bad when he is talking uncommon fine and thinks the other person is admiring, and that other person goes to sleep that way. Of course he ought n’t to go to sleep, because it’s shabby; but the finer a person talks the certainer it is to make you sleep, and so when you come to look at it it ain’t nobody’s fault in particular, both of them’s to blame.” (154)

3.) After the sand storm engulfs and kills the caravan which Tom, Huck and Jim come across and observe for several days, the three companions discuss what to do with the tons of sand they have taken onboard the balloon. When Jim suggests taking it home to sell, Tom says that there will be huge profits (ten thousand dollars) in selling it as Sahara sand. However, Tom quickly changes his mind and gives up the subject altogether, indicating that import duties at the New York Custom House would wipe out their profit. Commercializing the Sahara sand could be allegorically interpreted as importing slaves from Africa into the United States. Before giving up the profitable enterprise on account of taxes, Tom says, “All we got to do, is, to put it up in vials and float around all over the United States and peddle them out at ten cents apiece … And we can keep on coming back and fetching sand, and coming back and fetching more sand, and just keep it a-going till we’ve carted this whole desert over there and sold it out; and there ain’t ever going to be any opposition, either, because we’ll take out a patent.” (172)

Twain perhaps intended the Sahara sand to be symbolic of slaves in Tom’s proposition of selling it all over the United States. This hypothesis could be supported by how Huck and Jim initially favor Tom’s idea before they eventually show a sudden lack of interest. Interestingly, a master-slave relationship ensues between Tom and Jim when Jim’s excitement diminishes upon realizing that the execution of the task will depend mainly on him, being older and physically stronger than the two boys. He suddenly says, “Mars Tom, we can’t ’ford all dem vials—a king could n’t. We better not try to take de whole desert, Mars Tom, de vials gwyne to bust us, sho’.” (173) Tom, as Huck then tells us, lost interest all of a sudden too, but not on account of the vials. Tom explains: “Well, we’re shut off the other way, too. If we go back the way we’ve come, there’s the New York custom house, and that is worse than all of them others put together, on account of the kind of cargo we’ve got.” Tom’s statement makes one wonder: Was Twain implying slaves and the abolitionist North when he had Tom think about commercializing and shipping Sahara sand to the USA through New York? Huck tells Tom that there is no sense in what he has just said, which makes Tom respond more intensely: “Who said there was? What do you talk to me like that, for, Huck Finn? You wait till I say a thing’s got sense in it before you go to accusing me of saying it.” (176-7) Tom then tries to cheer up Huck and Jim, who have suddenly become “low-spirited” and lost all interest in the subject of commercializing the Sahara sand.

In depicting this incident, Twain is possibly trying to intimate that slavery was the source of all evil and the very reason that brought about the most catastrophic event in the history of the United States, the Civil War. Interestingly, Huck describes the sand in more commercial terms and connotations before he eventually proposes to throw it overboard. Hence, it could be argued that Twain is using Huck here to attack slavery and Thompson’s pursuit of glory and fortune through his proslavery and secessionist agenda. Huck says,

“It was mighty hard; such a little while ago we was so rich, and could ’a’ bought a country and started a kingdom and been celebrated and happy, and now we was so poor and ornery again, and had our sand left on our hands. The sand was looking so lovely, before, just like gold and diamonds, and the feel of it was so soft and so silky and nice, but now I could n’t bear the sight of it, it made me sick to look at it, and I knowed I would n’t ever feel comfortable again till we got shut of it, and I did n’t have it there no more to remind us of what we had been and what we had got degraded to. The others was feeling the same way about it that I was. I knowed it, because they cheered up so, the minute I says le’ ’s throw this truck overboard.” (179-80)

4.) Tom and Jim enact again the master-slave relationship after the three agree to remove the sand from the airship. Tom suggests that in view of their physical strength and different ages, he and Huck should each remove a fifth, and Jim the other three fifths. When the naïve Jim argues that it would be fairer if Tom and Huck each removed a tenth, Tom laughs privately at Jim’s inverted math and accepts the “good enough arrangement.” They, however, eventually help him do his share of the work. (180-1)

5.) When they later cruise around the pyramids in the Sinai Peninsula, Tom is moved by the antiquity of the surroundings because, as Huck tells us, “the land was full of history that was in his line.” (186) Tom consequently narrates another story from The Arabian Nights, which leads to another heated exchange about whether a bronze horse could actually fly.

It could then be argued that Twain intentionally makes Huck and Jim band together to counter their imaginative, obstinate, and bookish friend, making the better of him both at home and overseas. There is a reason for getting Tom shot in the leg in the 1885 masterpiece, and countered, pranked and exposed by Huck and Jim in Africa and the Holy Land. Twain was condemning Thompson and other proslavery southern writers for continuing, in both antebellum and postbellum eras, to fervently defend and champion their “singular” dream of establishing the South as a separate nation based on white supremacy and African slavery. The creator of Huck and Jim, who ran away from white and African slavery in the Old South, was conscious of Thompson and highly critical of his “singular” dream:

THE first time I catched Tom private I asked him what was his idea, time of the evasion?—what it was he’d planned to do if the evasion worked all right and he managed to set a n—– free that was already free before? And he said, what he had planned in his head from the start, if we got Jim out all safe, was for us to run him down the river on the raft, and have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river, and then tell him about his being free, and take him back up home on a steamboat, in style, and pay him for his lost time, and write word ahead and get out all the n—— around, and have them waltz him into town with a torchlight procession and a brass-band, and then he would be a hero, and so would we. But I reckoned it was about as well the way it was. [my italics]

                                                   (Huck, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapters 41 & 43)


[1] Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885; London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1996), 288-9. Subsequent references will be given in the text.

[2] Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 25. Subsequent references will be given in the text.

[3] William Thompson, Major Jones’s Sketches of Travel: Comprising the Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures, in His Tour from Georgia to Canada (1848; Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1852). Subsequent references will be given in the text.

[4] Victor Doyno, “Textual Addendum,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 367.

Works Cited:

Cohen, Hennig, and William B. Dillingham, ed. Humor of the Old Southwest (3rd edition) (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994)

Kassam, Hamada. (2016, November 1). Tom Sawyer Said He Was a “Stranger from Hicksville, Ohio, and His Name Was William Thompson”. The Mark Twain Annual. 14, 127-137

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876; New York: Penguin Books, 1986), with an Introduction by John Seelye

—————-. Life on the Mississippi (1883; New York: Penguin Books, 1986), with an Introduction by James M. Cox

—————-. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885; London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1996), Introduction by Justin Kaplan; Foreword and Addendum by Victor Doyno

—————-. Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), with a Foreword by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an Introduction by Nat Hentoff, and an Afterword by M. Thomas Inge

Thompson, William. Major Jones’s Sketches of Travel: Comprising the Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures, in His Tour from Georgia to Canada (1848; Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1852)

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