Adorno’s Tom Sawyer

Since the brutally divisive 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (was it really just four months ago?), the analogy between our present historical moment and Germany in the 1920s has become commonplace. Shortly after the election, both Roger Cohen in The New York Times and Richard Cohen in The Washington Post evoked the specter of Weimar to make sense of the current political moment, and many others have followed suit. Indeed, there are parallels. A polarized electorate suspicious of politicians facing an uncertain future yearning for a mythic past, for starters.[1] At the conclusion of the First World War, Germany faced an uncertain future, with mob violence in the streets between partisans, as well as rampant inflation. Civil war seemed imminent. Experiencing the humiliation of defeat and political unrest, many Germans retreated to the past. Previously obscure 19th-century writers such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Heinrich Kleist, and Georg Büchner became the rage as intellectuals and ordinary citizens alike sought to recover a past that would deliver them from their present uncertainties. At the same time Germans were rediscovering these writers, they were also looking to American antecedents for inspiration. German Expressionists acknowledged Walt Whitman as an inspiration, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer became a fascination for Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), who had by the end of the 1920s become a leading member of The Frankfurt School. One of his projects during the waning Weimar years was a libretto for a planned Tom Sawyer opera, which was completed in 1933.

The Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) was founded in 1923 as an independent affiliate of the University of Frankfurt (hence the term “Frankfurt School”). An avowedly Marxist institute, its first director gathered a group of social scientists to analyze the current state of society using a Marxist economic framework.[2] The institute’s second director, philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), continued his predecessor’s work, but he expanded the scope of the institute’s research to include psychological studies and works of cultural critique. Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists consolidated power by June of 1933 and Horkheimer and his close friend and collaborator Theodor Adorno were forced into exile as a result of their politics and their Jewish heritage. More fortunate than many other German-Jewish refugees, Horkheimer and Adorno were able to re-establish the institute in New York, first as an affiliate of Columbia University and subsequently as the New School for Social Research.

While Adorno and Horkheimer survived the war in New York, a third affiliate of the Frankfurt School was not so lucky. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a brilliant translator, essayist, and philosopher who left Germany prior to Adorno, but he couldn’t bear to leave his beloved Paris. Living hand to mouth in Paris, he continued working until it was tragically too late. Benjamin had served as Adorno’s scholarly mentor, but by the end of the 1920s their roles had reversed, for Adorno had established himself as a leading philosopher, sociologist, and music theorist. They remained friends, but it was clear that Adorno’s academic renown had begun to eclipse that of his former mentor, who had never been able to establish an academic career in Germany due to the unconventional nature of his writings. This provides the basic context for the letters the two men exchanged between January and March 1933 concerning Adorno’s libretto for his Tom Sawyer adaptation, The Treasure of Indian Joe.

Adorno abandoned this project, perhaps due to the criticism he received from his friend Benjamin.[3] Benjamin objected that Adorno’s libretto failed to recover the distinct experience of childhood, which had become a key aspect of Benjamin’s work. Benjamin had been working on his Proustian memoir, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, had translated Proust’s In Search of Lost Time into German, and urged Adorno to reconsider how Twain’s novel functioned to reveal the experience of childhood through Tom Sawyer’s eyes.

But Adorno wasn’t interested in recovering a lost experience of childhood. Instead, he wanted to show how Twain’s novel revealed the irrationality at the heart of capitalist modernity. This refrain is at least as old as capitalism itself, and it was central to Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Tom is a collector of what most of us would deem junk, but these are Tom’s prized possessions. Furthermore, Tom’s capitalist instincts are on display in the cunning way he convinces his friends to paint the fence, a privilege for which they pay him. Rolf Tiedemann writes “The junk heap of ‘all the beautiful things, which I have traded,’ depicted with so much care in the libretto, reads like a caricature of our present society, which could not have been imagined at the time it was written” (385).

Adorno’s emphasis on the irrational and mythical origins of capitalist society can be seen in the way that Adorno responds to Benjamin’s critique with the claim that “[t]he central issue is the violation of the oath and the whole thing represents a projected flight: the expression of fear” (Tiedemann, 382). The violation of the oath, of course, refers to the oath that Tom and Huck make after witnessing Indian Joe commit murder. Adorno renders the scene thusly: “”Someone is murdered / no one saw it / no one is guilty /… / someone is murdered / another person did it / two watched it happen / all are guilty, / as long as they don’t speak.” A system of justice like our own that depends upon witnessing must make perjury a crime. Nevertheless judicial oath-taking is an archaic remainder of an older conception of justice that was already ancient by Aristotle’s time. This mythical remainder lies at the heart of the Enlightenment, as does the violence inherent in progress. At any rate, this was one of the key claims that Adorno and Horkheimer would advance ten years later in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), the germ of which is already present in this unpublished libretto from 1932.


Corey McCall is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Elmira College. He has written extensively about the Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and James Baldwin, among others.  


[1] Peter Gay provides an excellent introduction to the cultural dynamics of the Weimar period in Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (NY: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[2] The best introduction to The Frankfurt School’s early history remains Martin Jay’s. See The Dialectical Imagination: A History of The Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

[3] My account of the letters the two exchanged and their differences regarding the significance of The Treasure of Indian Joe (and, by extension, Tom Sawyer) relies upon the astute analysis of Adorno’s text by Rolf Tiedemann. See “Adorno’s Tom Sawyer Opera Singspiel,” The Cambridge Companion to Adorno (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 376-394.