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Critical Insights: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. R. Kent Rasmussen, ed. Salem Press/Grey House Publishing, 2022. Pp. xl + 348. $105. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-63700-343-5.
Available from Salem Press at <https//salempress.com/ci_adventures_of_tom_sawyer>
The first of Kent Rasmussen’s two forewords to Critical Insights: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer suggests that the reputation of the novel as “a literary work worthy of serious study has always been shaky” (vii). Since his idea is based on the huge scholarship accorded Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in comparison to scholarly attention to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it is hard to refute, but I am reminded of a statement on Moby Dick that scholarship on it had replaced whaling as the greatest industry of Massachusetts, or words to that effect. Yes, the study of Tom Sawyer has been eclipsed by the massive Huck Finn juggernaut, but it is also true that Huck Finn takes on, face front, America’s gravest and most disastrous social calamity, racism. Still, as Rasmussen points out, Tom Sawyer‘s publication history is also massive and world-wide. Good reasons exist to think it is more widely read throughout the world than Huck Finn. Huck’s first-person speech is tough on translators. The third-person omniscient voice which narrates Tom Sawyer is a lot less of a problem, but there are other features of the first book which have appealed to vast numbers of readers, such as the fence white-washing episode which provides Tom’s story its own icons and themes. When I asked two Korean English teachers if they knew Huck Finn, some years ago, both smiled and said, “Oh, Yes! I loved the chapter where he whitewashed the fence!” Either way you read this anecdote, it emphasizes that Tom Sawyer is worthy of our attention and that white-washed fence as a major icon is tied centrally into American culture as international readers perceive us. Incidentally, like all of Twain’s major works, it contains comments and moments touching on racism in America.
Readers of this collection of original new essays would expect to come out of the experience with a heightened perception of Tom Sawyer well worth discussing. They will be satisfied not only with important points established but also with some of the more nuanced observations. Also the broad spectrum of essays, and their placing the novel in relation to popular media up to the present time is a dimension that might appeal to teachers and to media-oriented analysts. The topics of the essays place the novel not only in different critical perspectives, but also put the book in cultural contexts coming forward to the present. I found a number of points in essays that caused me to reflect on the novel somewhat differently than I had before. I think my appreciation of the novel’s achievement was expanded in relation to Twain’s nature writing, in the detailing its purposefully nostalgic statement, and in the positioning of Injun’ Joe.
Kent Rasmussen’s introductory essay on Twain in relation to Tom Sawyer, as persona and as a set of adventures is, like most of the essays offered, unpretentiously engaging. Rasmussen highlights Twain’s 1907 letter which offers the flat-out confession that he is himself Tom Sawyer. As students of Twain as humorist and realist all know, of course, anything he says is part truth and part fiction: nothing can be taken for granted. Every critic of his time who had an insufficiently well-developed sense of humor choked on the ambiguity involved in other works like The Innocents Abroad, which crippled their ability to get the joke. Almost every critic agreed in Tom Sawyer reviews, however, that the portraits of nature, of a boy’s mind, and of a culture were very special and the melodramatic plot was engaging, although awfully grim for a children’s book. One of my problems as a reviewer of this collection is that the introductory survey by Rasmussen is so clear and compact that summarizing it without simply replicating it is not really possible–so I won’t try. However, hoping that Artificial Intelligence ChatGPT would write the review for me (this is a joke, in case you take everything I wrote as serious), I did resort to the internet with the question “Why is Adventures of Tom Sawyer still popular?” The digital response was amazingly close to this introduction. Wondering at this miracle, I put the question in again–I’m not sure if I changed a word–and got the same answer only with some of the points shuffled around in a way that made for disorganized reading. On the third try, it flopped a little more. In other words, I suspect that the several points made in the essays offered in this volume establish the lasting key points for our generation, as well as Artificial Intelligence, and the fact that the essays here are well-detailed and nuanced–as we would expect from the respected scholars who wrote them–is comforting in reassuring us as readers that the skeleton is very strong, and the details raise these particular essays well above the common.
The first three essays by Peter Messent, Alan Gribben, and Joe B. Fulton build on Rasmussen’s framing and provide meticulous detailing. Messent proposes that while Tom Sawyer is entangled with the reality of the period, it is anti-historical in its elevation as fiction above its immediate period, climaxing in the melodramatic ending. Particularly substantive was the interpretation in terms of “profound dislocation” occurring in the 1870s. I was impressed because I had just read a superb set of essays on the novels and life of Albion W. Tourgee (Reimaging the Republic; Fordham UP, 2023) and his efforts to arouse the nation through A Fool’s Errand and Bricks Without Straw, of the same period. Messent pinpoints the same idea, but in a novel that, unlike Tourgee’s, has escaped the milieu of the 1870s to be readable in a later time. Messent demonstrates the curve of Twain’s novel through history–antebellum and post-bellum–into the symbols and archetypes of the Gothic and the interplay of Messent’s observations with the plot of the novel was noteworthy. Alan Gribben immerses us in alternate sources while musing that many critics seem to forget that Tom Sawyer is a comic novel, one point that really needs to be continually reemphasized about Mark Twain’s canon generally. His list of issues in Tom Sawyer also sets the novel in a valuable perspective when he notes that no other specimen of the boy book genre is remembered at all–and yet here Tom remains, an icon of youth and a progenitor of scenic moments that find places in advertisements, revisions of popular plays, and elsewhere. Taken together those two essays pretty much carry the argument for taking the book seriously. Gribben’s perceptions on Jackson’s Island and Twain’s observation of nature, by themselves, changed my own somewhat ambivalent feelings about Tom Sawyer. Joe B. Fulton’s essay on Jackson’s Island and the “environment” goes more deeply into the matter of the perception and use of nature, minute nature, in a way that finished my conversion to an admirer of what Twain had achieved as a minute “Realist” writer, not of city ways like Howells, so much as in the personal observations of Tom, as in the case of the inchworm. Jackson’s Island is a sort of poetic rendering of the ecological environment which reflects more deeply on Twain’s nostalgia about an era of simplicity that was fast vanishing in the 1870s–and even more so in our era of climate catastrophe.
I note the fourth essay in this first grouping of essays, by Philip Bader, takes on the task of showing parallels between Twain’s novel and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Given my druthers, I wished I had first read John Bird’s following essay on the Tom Sawyer “franchise”–after all, as Bird points out, there are four finished novels/novellas and a couple of unfinished manuscripts featuring Tom–all of them showing a devolution which makes Tom less and less appealing. Bird argues that we miss something in the earliest book when our reading is colored more darkly by the later Tom of Huck’s adventures, an interesting point for thoughtful consideration. Then Bader’s presentation of the Potter books could have brought me up to speed on current literature. Having listened on occasion to grandfathers chatting with their grandchildren about Harry Potter–Oh, yes, I have–I recognize an inter-generational appeal of substance. Since I do not have even a “passing” knowledge of the Potter books, though, I will back away from trying to be smart in comments about something I am ignorant about. The parallels noted are worth considering for those who might want to bring the comparison into the classroom. Rasmussen’s later essay on Hollywood’s take on Tom Sawyer, also can be grouped with these preceding essays. The subtitle of Rasmussen’s essay that Hollywood “almost” got the book right is quite appropriate to his documentation. Note: Hollywood got “A Connecticut Yankee” all wrong, and I will quibble with the description of Bing Crosby’s antics and the misuse of Rhonda Fleming as entertaining in the one paragraph which treats it as a side-comment, although that might describe some responses in 1949-1950–I was glad that in the same paragraph Rasmussen stated how viciously unethical the perpetrators of this particular artifact really were, subverting everything substantial in Hank Morgan’s experience.