2018 Undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellows Interview Filmmakers Aaron & Adam Nee About Their Adaptation of Tom Sawyer

EDITOR’S NOTE: For the first time, in 2018, we welcomed undergraduates interested in American Literature and Mark Twain to apply for a modified Quarry Farm Fellowship, which included a short stay at Quarry Farm to support a research or writing project. Our first recipients were Mona Beydoun and Samantha DeRosia. Samantha graduated from Eastern Michigan University this past year, while Mona will begin her senior year at EMU in the Fall. The project they are collaborating on involves Band of Robbersa 2015 adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, directed by Aaron and Adam Nee. The Nee Brothers hosted a screening of the film at Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. With a little help from CMTS, Mona and Samantha were able to arrange an interview with the filmmakers. Below you will find a transcript of that conversation, as well as some commentary from Mona and Samantha about their project and, following the interview, about the experience of being an undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellow. Enjoy!

Samantha DeRosia: In the spring of 2017, I took a travel course on Mark Twain with about 15 other students, which brought me to Elmira and Quarry Farm for the first time. The professor of this course was Dr. Joseph Csicsila, who is a Mark Twain scholar and has been to Quarry Farm as a scholar on multiple occasions. It was during this initial trip, because of the materials that we were reading and viewing and the experiences we were having, that my colleague and I came up with the idea for our paper. It was also during this trip that we learned about the fellowship and the opportunity to stay at Quarry Farm and be able to more intimately study Mark Twain and other scholars’ work on him.

Mona Beydoun: Dr. Csicsila showed us the film Band of Robbers, directed by the Nee brothers at the end of the trip. The immersive experience with Twain I had building up to the film helped me appreciate the intelligent and clever way the Nee brothers dealt with the characters of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The film brought the material into the 21st century while maintaining the Twain experience: a blend of humor, cultural commentary, and a sense of adventure. I found Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a sad story with a disturbing ending. The film, however, landed in a very different place. I became interested in the conversation that was happening between novels and film, the conversation about cultural, and perhaps even religious, transcendence. The travel course gave me my first experience with literary analysis outside of the classroom. I was driven to write through my own personal interest, inspired by the experience I had had at Quarry Farm and Elmira College.

Samantha: Being able to speak with the Nee brothers enabled us to ask questions that were specific to their intentions behind the details that we were analyzing in our paper. Getting these answers enabled us to also make more, and deeper, connections within the film and Twain’s work ensuring that our paper was not simply making speculations. Our conversation also helped us focus our paper more because we were able to take into considerations what the Nee brothers’ initial intentions were.

Mona: Our interview with the Nee brothers added depth to our understanding of Mark Twain’s work. It became clear very early in our conversation that Adam and Aaron put an incredible amount of thought into their decisions. They understood how essential it is balance their respect for Twain’s work with the need to explore his themes in a modern setting.

The interview took place on July 7, 2018, 8:30 p.m. EST 

Mona: Could you start by telling us about your introduction to Mark Twain’s work? How did you first meet Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer?

Aaron Nee:Through our dad reading it to us. Our earliest memory is as little kids sitting on a shag carpet listening to him read it aloud to us, both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Adam Nee: We were six and nine.

Samantha: When we were watching Band of Robbers, it seemed to us that it is a mash-up of both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The plot aligns more with Huck Finn. Out of all of Mark Twain’s work, what specifically compelled you guys to make this movie about the two characters?

Mona: What do you feel makes them worthy of study?

Aaron: That’s two good questions. I think there are several different ways to answer that. The first component of your question: the mash-up of the two books was actually a big part of just figuring out how we were going to make this movie. There was a lot of conversation centered around [the question]: “Is this more of a Tom Sawyer story or more of a Huck Finn story?” Is Tom the lead? Is Huck the lead? Who’s driving this? Whose arc is going to be the most pronounced? Which of these books are we going to draw more elements from or draw the basic plot structure from? Early on, the idea was actually to make it into a TV show, which would be much more drawn out. But when we decided to make it into a movie, then we had to make some really tough choices about how to focus it. In terms of the inspiration of making it, maybe Adam should you about what first triggered the idea to him. As we start digging into it we can maybe go into how we made the choices we did.

 Adam: I was acting in New York and I had just moved out there. I was 20 and I auditioned for an Adventures of Huckleberry Finn movie and it was very true to the book. Even the action lines of the script were verbatim Mark Twain writing. So it’s like they had just done a really tight edit of the book and made it into a script. I was a huge fan, we grew up on it, like Aaron said, and I’ve always loved Mark Twain so I was really eager to audition for the movie to play Huckleberry Finn. But I was already 20-years-old and so I was way too old to play this 13-year-old boy. But, I still somehow got the audition. So I went into the audition, everyone else in the lobby is five years younger than me, the director’s kind of looking as me like “Why are we seeing this guy?” I’m doing the audition, and I’m doing this terrible accent. I had this moment when I could see myself in that room and how absurd it felt to be this grown man who was sort of trying to be a teenage boy because of how much I love that material. I walked out of that audition just reflecting on it and the insanity and thinking, “Well that would actually be kind of funny if Huckleberry Finn was a grown up, saying the same things, doing the same stuff.” That was just the beginning it. I’m sure I talked to Aaron about it sometime around then. That was 10 years before we made the movie. Like Aaron said, it percolated over the years so much.

At first I was really excited about telling the Huckleberry Finn and Jim story in a modern way. And then, after digging into both books, I got so excited about Tom Sawyer’s voice as a character because he’s this incredible character who is truly the bad guy of the story, but is played as the hero. He’s the lead of the story but he’s really the antagonist. He’s the one inciting all of the problems that happen to these characters. We talked to a producer about doing it as a TV show and we had written a pilot, which is the first episode of a show. We had written an hour-long version that was more dramatic. We had written a half-hour version that had more of the pawn shop robbery kind of humor. As we were getting into it we hit this point in our careers where we had been developing a lot of shows and a lot of different movies that hadn’t gotten made so we were like we just need to go out and make something and this feels like the right thing to do. So that’s where it became a thing of “What version of this story can we tell in 95 minutes?” What things about these characters can we focus on? And to us I think a big thing became the question of: if you read these books and you imagine 10 years later, 15 years later, these guys and this relationship stays the same, what happens? This is not sustainable for a lifetime. You can’t have someone like Tom Sawyer getting someone like Huckleberry Finn in trouble over and over and over again like he does without it leading to a kid in jail. Real problems are going to come from that [relationship]. So we thought “Oh, this would be interesting if it was a breakup story.” Where you have Tom and Huck have to come to terms with the fact that it’s an abusive relationship in a sense. Huckleberry Finn needs to break up with the abusive friend.

Aaron: One of the numerous answers we have to that question of why tell this story (because there were really so many different reasons that fueled and inspired the idea) is…the thing about childhood fantasy is that it becomes difficult as you’re becoming an adult to figure out what of these things do I get to hold onto and what of them do I have to let go? What of these, if I keep holding onto it is just going to destroy things and what of these things are good and should be cherished? This is such a great piece of material to do that because of who the characters are already and because of the nostalgia we already associate with that material and childhood and childhood fantasies. It was a great way to explore that theme, not because it’s already built into those characters when you start moving them toward adulthood, but because it is an iconic picture of childhood for so many of us as we’re crossing into adulthood. You find out you can’t keep being Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It raises a lot of interesting and relevant questions.

There’s the Tom Sawyer that’s in the book, there’s the Tom Sawyer that people think they remember being in the book, and there’s the Tom Sawyer that just kind of pervades culture, that doesn’t have any real attachment to the book, that’s just sort of a cultural idea. In that respect he is such a picture of Americana and Americanism. Also, if you look at Twain and Twain’s own political commentary and social commentary, he uses his protagonist to do a lot of poking fun and criticizing rather than using his bad guys. Rather than “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my bad guys do that,” Twain says, “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my good guys do that.” Tom and Huck are still really relevant commentaries on the things that are great about America and the things that are not great about America. The hubris and adventurism and also the optimism and hopefulness and faith. You can see that Huck of acknowledging the problems with Tom but also romanticizes Tom, even though he can see the problems (more so in Huck Finn than in Tom Sawyer). We took that idea and just kept pushing it further and further, coming to adulthood. Whatever Tom represents, whether that’s Americana or childhood, you can be really attached to that but also realize there are some real problems and you can’t hold on to all of these things. Some of these aspects are really dangerous. That conflict that’s going on with him has a wider relevance. 

Mona: What aspects of either Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn struck you most when reading about them or watching adaptations of them? I think a piece of that is most people go into the story with preconceived notions of who these characters are and then when you actually meet them, you have to come up with your own understanding of who they are and what they represent.

Adam: That’s one of the great things about Huckleberry Finn in general. He’s presented as the troublemaker. He’s the one that everyone is afraid of. And he’s set up as someone who is to be avoided. And Tom is set up as a good kid. One of the great things about Huck is he is the conscience of the material, especially in his book. His perspective can evolve while Tom Sawyer is more stuck in his ways. That’s what really strikes me with Huckleberry Finn. Aaron was talking about the reception of these characters. Huck is the one that is treated like the outsider troublemaker and he is the one who is the most heroic. He’s also so sensitive. He feels stuff and he wrestles with stuff and his conscience is weighing on him. That make it easy to love him and go on a journey on him.

That’s why we decided to have the story be told from Huckleberry Finn’s perspective. Which makes it feel like it’s more Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than Adventures of Tom. The reason we did that is because Huck is the one who has the heart, truly. He’s the heart of the story.

Samantha: What’s your interpretation of the ending of Mark Twain’s ending to Huckleberry Finn? What statements do you think the novel is making about society or the human condition?

Mona: The last 10 chapters of the novel feel different from the rest of the novel. Your play on that ending is very interesting.

Adam: We thought about it a lot when we were making it. Even as kids we were always frustrated with the fact that Huckleberry Finn learns all of these lessons and then on the Phelps Farm he is just going along with Tom Sawyer again totally at the expense of Jim. It felt like we had to, in making this in current times and making them adults, Huck has to stand up to Tom and say: “No. We have used this guy for our benefit. We have screwed him over. We need to stand up for him and do what’s right.” Even though what’s right in our movie is absurd. They take him out of a police cruiser and hold up police officers. That such an interesting question though. It’s something that we thought about a lot and always bothered me as a kid. You go on this whole journey with Huck and see him learn and change and grow as a person and you get to the end of the book and he just starts doing what Tom tells him to do. Even though you know he knows that this is a bad idea. They could just open the door and let him out and instead they’re doing all this crazy pirate stuff. That’s why in the movie we made it Huck’s idea to rescue Jorge and not Tom’s.

Aaron: Huck wants to rescue him but we do have Tom come up with the crazy plan. We made that decision that we’re taking this approach of bringing characters with these traits up to their tipping point. We knew we wanted to explore the idea of making them adults but then we started thinking about the implications. What we liked about that was that it does bring it to this make or break point where you can get away with a personality flaw as a kid but you can’t as an adult. Things like Tom getting shot, we made it life threatening and maybe even leave it open, maybe Tom didn’t make it. Also, we wanted to acknowledge at the end that Tom was like a religion to Huck. Even if you say, “I’m not so sure I believe in those things I believed in as a kid,” as he’s walking down this road you hear him reflecting on Tom and you realize he still can’t let Tom go. He still needs Tom to be the best. He still needs to believe that Tom is doing great in prison. There’s that side of us, even when you think you’ve broken free, you still need to believe it’s true. You need that Tom Sawyer out there and to think that that guy is always going to be okay.

Mona: Where you trying to make any larger social comments by including the character of Jorge the gardener as an undocumented Mexican immigrant?

Aaron: We went around and around and around about how we were going to handle Jim. One of the things that we were feeling early on was anything we tried to say was a parallel to slavery feels like it’s minimizing slavery and it’s convoluting the message. Trying to make slavery analogies would be really problematic. Jim was a character that everyone could just run all over and sweep him up into the consequences of an adventure and remain ignorant to what this is doing to this person. We also saw that in the fact that we were turning this into a story about becoming adults and coming into manhood, it would service the telling of the story to have someone who is a counterpoint to manhood.

You’ve got Tom’s idea of manhood which is holding a gun and being a cop and being powerful and getting the money. We wanted to turn Jorge into this character who first can be swept up into adventure without them having much regard to the implications of what they were doing to this person. Second, someone who can be a picture of actual manhood. Somebody who is making sacrifices to take care of the people that he loves. Stepping back and looking at society, we thought about who would be that character: a guy who doesn’t speak English. It’s really easy to not even regard that as another person in the room. The guy who is your gardener who you know that he’s around and you know that he’s doing things but you have no idea who his family is or where he lives. When we started writing that script I don’t know that illegal immigration was quite the hot button that it is now. 

Adam: He’s treated like a second class citizen and that’s the thing where we could do something. Obviously it’s not the same as being a slave. But our society is okay with disrespecting illegal immigrants. It’s culturally acceptable. We have this true American character in Tom Sawyer who just shits all over Jorge with no concern for the effects of it until Huck learns a lesson. It’s really Huck who learns the lesson.

He wasn’t always an illegal immigrant. We played with different versions of the Jim character and it’s hard when you really start thinking about that character and not telling the story from their perspective. You could make this movie five different ways and I’d definitely want to do a version where Jorge is the lead of the movie and Tom and Huck are the bad dudes. He’s the true hero.

Mona: The character of Jorge is one thing that I thought really brought Twain’s work into our time. We don’t have enslaved people anymore. But illegal immigrants are used.

Aaron: Simultaneously used and abused and then villainized. You get this person to do all of this shit that you don’t want to do and you don’t want to pay them for and you want to call them the villain that’s destroying our country and taking jobs away or whatever.

In addition to thinking about where to put this character in society we also thought that there was enough separation since slavery – we didn’t think audiences would think we were trying to say: “Here’s modern slavery.” I think that would have been a mistake to try and find modern slavery. Instead it’s: “Here’s where society has a marginalized class that we abuse and villainize in the same breath.”

Samantha: We watched the film shortly after reading the novel and we found that the ending was almost the opposite the ending of the novel. Was that intentional on your part?

Adam: Yea, definitely. Going back to what we were saying before about that frustration that Huck doesn’t learn a lesson in Huckleberry Finn. Now as an adult, having been in and out of jail, knowing he has to break up with Tom, he has to learn a lesson in this version of the story. And we had that freedom since it’s not a 100 percent verbatim portrayal. We definitely wanted to have a different ending.

Aaron: We kept Tom open. We weren’t specific in the same way that we feel like Twain isn’t super specific. [Twain doesn’t say] “Tom is an analogy for this thing.” We tried to let him be something that you could plant different ideas in. Whatever those ideas are – whether it’s American humorism and adventurism or rampant masculinity or abusive blowhard or it’s naive fantasies of piracy or egomaniacal everything’s-about-you – that you want to grab and place in Tom, we felt like it was appropriate in retelling the story as adults to take it to that point where it’s time to not be okay with that anymore. Mark Twain had a Huck who was conflicted about it but then went along saying that was the way it is. I think it’s time broadly in society to say we’re not okay with that anymore. We have to make a break from these things. We had to take Huck up to that point as he is becoming a man and an adult. He is faced with the question of “Am I going to keep going along with this?” and he says “No.”

Mona: We were watching the movie and there was the scene in the grass which is really intimate scene. Then there’s the final scene where you have Huck walking away down a winding road toward the mountains. When I saw that final scene that’s when I said we need to write a paper about this. 

Aaron: In that final scene in post-production we cleaned up some stuff that was in the background. We wanted it to feel like he’s in the middle of nowhere and that wasn’t actually true. But one of the things that we kept was this little flickering light that becomes apparent as the camera moves. We wanted to end on this image that invokes the idea: he’s setting off now, you can’t see where he’s going, and maybe he’s not going anywhere. Maybe this guy is going to die on the road or he’s going to go back to the way he was. But, leave that little flickering light out there that leaves this picture that shows that we think there’s something out there. We think that if you keep going there is something out there. We’re hopeful that he’s going to reach that light.

Mona: Twain’s ending to the novel: a lot of people say it’s this really beautiful image of white and black coming together. Some scholars say it’s a triumphant story about people coming together and overcoming slavery [and improving] race relations. We read it. We thought it was so negative. It has this pessimistic ending and it doesn’t seem hopeful about humanity. What are your opinions about Huck’s ability to transcend community. When we read the novel it didn’t feel like he was able to transcend community. He’s just sucked right back in. Just for context, by community transcendence we mean going above and beyond the community’s beliefs and ideologies.

Aaron: Our feeling was that there was a more cynical ending. There was more cynicism in Twain than there was hopefulness coming through. We wanted to push it toward this idea that if there is going to be any hope, Huck has to change. He can’t remain this static character. Like you said, he isn’t transcending. You can feel him having this inclinations toward that but his final actions don’t transcend.

Adam: In the book it really feels like it’s a time period thing too. Huck has the best intentions, but is still the product of his time. He can’t overcome the racism of his society. He still goes with the flow, unfortunately. In our movie, our Huck does too. I think that he might realize that he did something horrible to Jorge. but he still did it. 

Mona: It’s sad because he connects with Jorge because he speaks Spanish but then he takes advantage of Jorge because he speaks Spanish.

Adam: His redemption is also very American. This could be pointed at as a negative toward us because it’s the way we made the movie. But, his redemption with Jorge is very American because he says, “I’m going to give him a pot of money and that’ll solve the problems I made for him, the horrors I put him through, and also, the fact that he can never go back to America because he commited a crime.”

Aaron: I hope it comes through in the movie that we were feeling in the end that what we’ve got is kind of a naive fantasy. Huck is still being naive in believing that the pot of gold for Jorge is going to fix things. He’s trying to cleanse his conscience. His ongoing fantasies about Tom, that Tom is still going to be okay and Tom is still going to triumph. We made a smaller version of the not quite growing up. We tried to push it past what the book does, but then made a nod toward realizing that it’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to just let that stuff go and change and move forward and go off to an unknown new place.

Adam: We see it in society so much, even with the Civil Rights Movement. You see how long it takes for things to really change. It takes half a century. You say well this is where we are now and I certainly hope we are further a half century from now. Things take so long to change and it would be reductive for Twain or us to have a character who learns a lesson and no longer has any of the same negative instincts.

Samantha: We talked earlier about how in the movie Tom is represented as a toxic villainous character, rather than Huck. We want to know more about your understanding of this character and his connection to and influence on Huck.

Aaron: One thing is that we weren’t necessarily trying to plumb what Mark Twain’s intention with the character was, but instead just look at him. Our opinion is that’s toxic and that’s dangerous. Not 100 percent. We weren’t trying to say Tom is nothing but bad. There’s great things about Tom and one of our goals was to understand why Huck would need Tom. Why would Huck latch onto Tom? What is Tom providing that Huck needs? We wanted to have those good counterpoints present. We didn’t have to search for that. It’s there, it’s in the book. He’s fun, he’s funny, and he’s hopeful. He brings a kind of energy that can be very helpful. But he goes too far and is too detached from consequences. He has this blindness when it comes to what it does to the people around him. He just thinks about how his actions serve him and get him what he needs. Taking those aspects, we found ourselves realizing that this character can’t be anything but the antagonist.

Adam: I think that’s part of the charm of Tom, and perhaps people that you would consider a bad person. They would never imagine that they’d be thought of as the bad guy in the story. Tom believes he’s the hero. I think Twain’s Tom does and I think our Tom does. He thinks he’s the hero of the story and he just doesn’t see the consequences of his actions.

Aaron: With Tom, as a child, you can look at him and imagine a version where as he gets older he’s going to start to mature. We took the character and said, well, imagine he didn’t become more aware of the people around him and see what you end up with. I think you can draw any number of real world parallels between when you have an action that is innocent in one context but then you let it keep going and you can see the ramifications of that.

Mona: Do you think about Tom as a symbol for St. Petersburg and the community?

Aaron: We tried to not get latched into any one thing. I think it’s most effective in Twain’s reading that people can draw so many readings. It’s important to making our work last. If our work is so rigidly about let’s say St. Petersburg, than only people from St. Petersburg will appreciate it. The fact that he allows it to expand out and say that’s about my church or my country or the frat that I’m in. You can plug all sorts of different versions of that into it and you wouldn’t be abusing the material because it’s made itself open to many types of social ills that can arise.

There are things about Tom that we saw as really negative. But we tried with all of the characters, even Injun Joe, not to say this is our evil character. When you do that, your characters real suddenly become two-dimensional. They’re not very interesting or real because that’s not how we encounter these things in life. If you make a story where people have good intentions but they have things they’re blind to and they have their passions that are overriding their good intentions, then you have a really complex story that actually has social relevance because that’s more like the real things we struggle with. We were putting into Huck how easy it is to become that person that realizes, “Oh, I’m the one that’s creating all these troubles.” We wanted people to see in the movie “Oh no, I see myself in that.” Both of us saw the entire project as a little bit of a self-criticism.

Mona: The last thing we wanted to talk about was your interpretation of Huck. He’s so sympathetic and the audience falls in love with him.

Aaron: In one respect, you like him right off the bat because culturally we have an affinity for the underdog. I think I can speak for both Adam and I as storytellers. We became really invested in having a character in the sympathetic situation of realizing something that is meaningful to him is also bad for him. We wanted to show how hard it is to break away, to learn to keep the good things and let go of the bad things. For us that’s such a sympathetic dilemma. He became an easy character to care for and go along on that journey with.

Adam: Like I said before, I’ve always loved Huckleberry Finn. He’s probably my favorite literary character and I think it comes down to the fact that even though he suffers from some unfortunate character flaws, he is also adventurous and funny and kind and reflective and just a good character. He has so many different levels where he can be good and he can be bad. In so many ways Mark Twain started our career because we borrowed his amazing work and his amazing characters to make a movie we call our own. But in so many ways it’s Twain’s. We have an incredible debt to Twain’s character development that we could make our own.

Samantha: This was really insightful. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mona: Your answers were so thoughtful and so detailed.


Samantha: Being awarded with this modified fellowship gave me not only the specific resources that are only available at Quarry Farm, but it also gave me time, which was much needed. I believe that one of the purposes, and advantages, of this stay is to have the opportunity to sit down and write without any distractions. There is a reason why Mark Twain came to Quarry Farm in the summer to write, and that idea is reflected when scholars come to produce research and write about him. The atmosphere of the seclusion and also just taking the time to relax and experience the gorgeous view from the porch and the grounds are an opportunity that was not wasted on me during my time in Elmira. Having this specific time set aside to get work done was also very helpful because of the fact that I am working with another colleague to write this paper. Due to our different availabilities and locations, it is hard to set aside a chunk of time that large that enables us to work cohesively through our ideas.

During my time at Quarry Farm, I chose to stay in the Crane room, which, from one of the windows in the room, happens to have the same view as the one from the porch. It also has wonderful natural lighting, which definitely lends itself to the feeling of Quarry Farm being a summer house. Luckily, when I came in the first week of May, the weather had just begun to reflect spring, and I was told that the previous week it had been snowing. This meant that I was able to take advantage of eating meals and reading, and generally just spending as much time as possible outside on the front porch. I was also able to take walks around the grounds and up to where Twain’s study was originally located. Each of these experiences helped me understand what it might have been like for Mark Twain during his summer trips to the house. Our experience of the house itself was definitely authentic to the time period as well, due to the old fashioned light fixtures, and all of the furniture that was actually from Twain’s time period.

Even though I experienced Elmira in 2017 through my travel course, staying at Quarry Farm itself lends a completely different view of Elmira. This is also due to the fact that previously I was only given information and knowledge based on a classroom setting. Studying Mark Twain on my own terms, and within my own areas of interest, enabled me to provide more enthusiasm, but also a better and more complete understanding of what my time at Quarry Farm will mean, not only in my work but also in myself as a scholar. There are no other experiences quite like Quarry Farm in the fact that it has not been converted into a museum. It is an amazing experience to be able to live in a place that housed an author like Mark Twain and helped him produce work that students are still studying today. 

Mona: The Michael J. Kiskis Collection was one of my favorite aspects of Quarry Farm. The all-inclusive nature of the study space allowed for total concentration. Scholars can go into the space and simply work without distractions. The Mark Twain Center has stocked the area with everything a scholar might need, allowing him or her to make the work the focus. Long stretches of reading books and taking notes were broken up by lunches and dinners on the porch, walks through the wooded area behind the house, and visits to campus.

Sitting on the porch and thinking is perhaps just as productive as using the study space upstairs. Twain has described the beauty of the view from the Quarry Farm porch, the winding river and the blue hills. Relaxing on the porch and taking in the scene allowed me to think and contemplate without the pressure of writing. I often spent time sitting in the rocking chairs simpling reflecting on the work I had completed and my next steps. Traveling with my co-author was helpful because the porch gave us perspective as it served as a third space. While the porch is a part of Quarry Farm and the Mark Twain experience, it is outside of the high-stakes space of a designated work area.

I appreciated the amount of care that goes into making Quarry Farm a high-quality spot for scholarship. Steve, the caretaker, met us when we arrived after an eight-hour drive from Michigan. The house was well-maintained, and he was always a text or phone call away when we needed help. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Joseph Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and Dr. Matt Seybold, Elmira’s resident Americanist. Dr. Lemak was kind enough to give us tours of the Mark Twain exhibit in Cowles Hall and the Mark Twain study. My co-author and I had an insightful and fun lunch with Dr. Lemak and Dr. Seybold. We also had the opportunity to see the inside of the barn behind the house. Dr. Lemak and Nathaniel Ball, the Archivist and Curator at Elmira College, showed us around and talked to us about some changes they’d like to make. It is clear that everyone involved with the Center is constantly thinking about how they can improve.

It is this attitude that will keep Quarry Farm and The Center for Mark Twain studies relevant. Twain’s work will continue to be relevant to American culture for the foreseeable future. His themes of race, socioeconomic status, class, and power dynamics continue to be issues we grapple with today. It is up to organizations like the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira to give the public access to Twain’s literature and work. Programs like the “The Trouble Begins” lecture series allows for widespread engagement with the scholarship on Twain’s work. Academia is often kept at a distance from the public. It is clear that The Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Quarry Farm experience is focused on encouraging scholarship that keeps Twain’s work current and relevant to modern lives. Staying at Quarry Farm encouraged me to think about access and social relevance in literature.

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)

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: Huck! Speak Up. We Need You.

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The word and all it carries.

My son and I live in the space where Huck and Tom were called into existence. He’s nine and quickly approaching age that the boys were in Mark Twain’s stories. So it only seems appropriate that I’d read the great novels to him here at Quarry Farm. But how do I explain the struggles and cruelty, the dehumanizing hate and ignorance, the misguided belief and responsibility that is all packed into that one word—a box that will bust open, I know, the first moment it reluctantly passes over my lips as I read.

When I was young I was inadvertently armed with that word—definitely old enough to know better, but I didn’t. I just assumed it ranked somewhere near the “F-word” on the scale of words I don’t say in front of my mom. I was sitting at the lunch table with my little school buddies and I flung it out like it was funny, like just the word itself was a punch line. The table went quiet. They all looked down and through the tops of their eyes, at me, then over at Matt. His brown face darkened with red and his eyes shot me with shock, pain, anger and a cutting finality all in a split second. He grabbed his books and he left. He never came back to the lunch table again for the rest of the year. My apology later in the locker room was a jittery, stuttering, failure that he didn’t even turn to acknowledge. I never saw him again. Yes, we were in classes together and passed in the hallway but all I saw was a stoic black face looking straight ahead. When I see that same look on people of color today, I can’t help but think about it; it’s probably not a coincidence.

The real tragedy is that I didn’t even mean it in any malicious way. I was merely insensitive and ignorant. I was irresponsible. I think Matt took it so hard because I was nice and shy and smiled a lot. He had known me for years and probably trusted me as someone wasn’t a racist, then out of nowhere I let that word fly. It probably made him question his sense of judgment. Is everyone a racist?

More than twenty-five years later I still think about this nearly everyday. How do I prevent my son from making the same mistake? For him it’s not even the deeper problem of unlearning obvious prejudice that has been conditioned by school, church, and society, as Huck chose to—and as an unfortunate segment of our population still needs to. It’s the conveyance of responsibility and empathy and the willingness to stay open and teachable. It’s the awareness that society and culture still place those biases in our heads like air, invisible and everywhere, and as a white man raising a little white boy the responsibility to know them and correct them as they arise is as important as any lesson I teach him. But how do I convey all this to a nine-year-old boy who displays, as I try not to cringe, more traits of a young, outspoken, mischievous, Tom Sawyer than of the sensitive and thoughtful Huck Finn? How the hell should I know?

Again, jittery and stuttering—apparently my default—I explained the word he will soon hear me read over and over. My language smoothed out and I tried to be objective. I told him that this word was not mine or his or any other white person’s word and outside of this story you’ll never hear me say it. I told him it was the ugliest and most hurtful word in the English language.

“Worse than the F—word?”

“Not even in the same league.” I said in a low gravely whisper that pulled his attention closer.

I think he got it. His stare was intense and earnest as he lay tucked into his little bed with a look of impending punishment. Too much? In this case too much is better than too little. Too much may not be possible.

As I began to read and I settled into the best Hal Holbrook drawl I could muster he began to lighten. See, a mischievous boy will quickly recognize a fellow artist when he sees one. He fell into Hannibal and the “hymn to boyhood.” I had to explain much of the language, unfamiliar to a 9-year-old in 2017, but as I got into the flow of reading, he got into the flow of hearing. I just hope he heard everything.

Weeks later when I was picking him up from school he had a story to tell me. He started off jittery and stuttering: hyper, not scared.

“You know Zach in my class? Not my cousin Zach, but the Zach from my class.” (He clarifies this every time….I get it.)


“He said that word today! The word from Mark Twain (I know, one step at a time.) He called Mariah that right to her face! I got up and said ‘You can’t say that!’ and told the lunch lady. He got suspended.”

Most of the time the job of parenting haunts me with two questions. First, How am I screwing this kid up? I have a long list of unfavorable answers. And second, What kind of world am I leaving him with? I rarely have even one good answer. I wish that Matt hadn’t had to experience my ignorance way back then, but at least it helped Mariah see that she wasn’t alone and she didn’t have to leave the lunch table— and I hope she never adopts that stoic stare.

As for those two haunting questions of parenting, with about the frequency of Haley’s comet you get ‘em both right.

“I Killed Thirty-Eight Persons”: Sam Clemens & The Sioux Wars, 1862-1876

EDITOR’S NOTE: Atsushi Sugimura’s provocative and nuanced reading of an under-appreciated tale was part of the Mark Twain & Native Americans Panel at The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies in August of 2017.  

In this presentation, I’d like to examine the ways Sam Clemens makes reference, both directly and indirectly, to the marginalized tragedies of Native Americans in “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut.” One of Clemens’s earliest and most illuminating explorations of human conscience, the story was written in January 1876, immediately after he finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We can find in this story powerful images of slavery. Clemens even identifies, obliquely, the narrator’s “genteel tormentor” Aunt Mary with his wife Olivia by portraying Aunt Mary as an ardent but powerless abolitionist of what she calls “hateful slavery of tobacco” at the end of the narrative.

Interestingly, Clemens also expresses in this tale his suppressed guilt over the past sufferings of Native Americans. In a pivotal passage that reveals the identity of the dwarf, Clemens highlights the narrator’s guilt over what the dwarf calls a “peculiarly mean and pitiful act of yours toward a poor ignorant Indian in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains” that was perpetrated in some “winter of eighteen hundred and—.”

As is well known, Mark Twain was involved in the violently racist discourse targeted at Native Americans, the Plains Indians in particular, in his earlier writings, including the notorious “The Noble Red Man.” In this passage, the narrator prevents the dwarf’s whole disclosure of the actual date of the incident. What is Clemens hinting at here? I suspect that he could possibly be suggesting the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

We can draw a parallel between Mark Twain’s violent commentary on Native Americans around 1870 and the rhetoric of extermination that was quite popular among Euro-American settlers in and nearby the wilds of the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War era. Such discourse, in fact, provided a significant excuse for Colonel John Chivington and his troops, who carried out the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado on the cold morning of November 29th, 1864—arguably one of the most “mean and pitiful” attacks perpetrated by the US Army against a Native American village. From this notorious massacre, Clemens would later gain inspiration, at least partly, for Hank Morgan’s catastrophic Battle of the Sand-Belt in Connecticut Yankee.

Clemens expresses, briefly but unmistakably, his suppressed guilt over the past sufferings of Native Americans in “Carnival of Crime.”

Around the time Clemens composed the story, in January 1876, Ulysses Grant was about to launch a new punitive campaign against the Plains Indians in pursuit of a gold mine found in Black Hills, Dakota. In December 1875, Grant issued an ultimatum to the Native Americans to surrender by January 31st, 1876. On January 24th, Clemens read “Carnival of Crime” at the meeting of the Monday Evening Club of Hartford. It was just a week before the deadline. Historian John S. Gray observes that the war was nothing else but the US government’s “violation of a solemn treaty designed to permit further violations of the same treaty.”

At the end of the story, the narrator kills the dwarf and turns himself into a “man without a conscience, ” who happily performs his “Carnival of Crime.” We can detect the faint shadows of a Twainian notion of Indianness in the passages underlined below. The narrator brags about his unlawful acquisition of a cow, which is suggested as “not thoroughbred”—in other words, mixed-blood. This is not the first time that Clemens’s narrator obtains other people’s livestock in a criminal way. In chapter 20 of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain tells of his imagined past experiences with the Noble Red Man, in which he once “helped them steal cattle.” In addition, at the end of the story, the narrator announces a special sale of human bodies for medical experts. This would remind us of what Injun Joe, that “murderin’ half-breed,” was doing with Dr. Robinson in St. Petersburg’s graveyard.

I’d like to put special emphasis on the following fact: the narrator starts off his “Carnival of Crime” with a vengeful act of mass murder in Connecticut, the native land that was acquired by Yankees. He says, “I killed thirty-eight persons during the first two weeks—all of them on account of ancient grudges.” Clemens provides no narrative context for this mysterious number of victims, but I suspect that the number of victims, thirty-eight, echoes the tragic consequence of the US-Dakota War of 1862. In December 1862, in the wake of a mass uprising of starving Dakota Indians in Minnesota, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of thirty-nine Dakota Sioux – one of whom was reprieved afterward. The hanging was carried out on December 26th in Mankato, Minnesota. It was six days before the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, and five weeks before Sam Clemens began to call himself Mark Twain. According to legal historian Carol Chomsky, the military commission “tried the Sioux for the wrong crimes” and thereby unwarrantedly victimized them in the largest mass execution in US history. On the night of the execution, the bodies of the thirty-eight Sioux Indians were dug out and taken away by a group of doctors, including Dr. William Mayo, the founder of the now world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

It is worth noting that in a letter written on February 17th, three weeks after his recitation of “Carnival of Crime,” Clemens requested Elisha Bliss send Fanny Kelly’s Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians to the National Soldiers’ Home. At the end of the first American edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer appears an advertisement for Kelly’s book, whose opening paragraph refers to “the horrible massacres in Minnesota in 1862” that resulted in the execution of the thirty-eight Sioux Indians.

In 1881, Twain, who called himself a “Connecticut Yankee by adoption,” appropriated in his speech the suffering image of vanished Indians for the indirect expression of his perceived sense of deracination from the South as well as alienation from the elite society of the East, ventilating at the same time his pent-up anger against the cruel deeds of what he calls the “Mayflower tribe.” And Clemens’s continued interest in the Sioux Indians and their “ancient grudges” manifests itself again in the manuscript of “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.” Its narrative plot develops around the “private grudge” of a vengeful Native American, whose tribal identity is confirmed by the hero Brace Johnson as a Sioux.

In his last years, Clemens muses on these events in the manuscript of “Letters from the Earth.” Clemens’s Satan here expresses, to some degree, his sympathy with the long-tormented Sioux Indians, seeing that the Native people finally “duplicated” the atrocities of what he calls “conscienceless God” in 1862 in order to wreak vengeance upon their oppressor—the United States.

The details of “Carnival of Crime” interact with complex layers of national memories regarding justice and injustice. The marginalized history of American Indians are appropriated by Clemens, in a subtle but provocative way, for the sketch’s singular autobiographical construction—as a symbolic site of identification and displacement. Clemens’s reference to the US-Dakota War in “Letters from the Earth” would provide a relevant historical context to reconsider the bifocal way in which Clemens voiced—and muted—his suppressed anxiety and desire as a self-exiled white southerner in 1876.

This also allows us, I believe, to revisit the autobiographical implication of the baffled revenge plot and tragic death of Injun Joe—the ultimate source of Tom Sawyer’s “troubled conscience and his fears,” who sometimes was seen by critics as the “shadow self”—or the “devil double”—of Mark Twain’s celebrated alter ego.


Atsushi Sugimura is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tokyo, a Visiting Scholar at University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Ito Foundation USA FUTI Scholarship. 

Fall Trouble Begins Lectures Continue With Lecture Focusing on “Tom Sawyer Abroad”

The fall portion of the 2017-2018 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, October 11 at 7:00 p.m. in the Barn at Quarry Farm, with a lecture that explores the “boy-inventor publishing explosion” of the late 1800s.

The lecture, “Mark Twain and the Inventor Fiction Boom: Technology Meets American Conceit, 1876-1910” will be presented by Nathaniel Williams, from the University of California, Davis.

In Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), Mark Twain sends his most famous characters – Tom, Huck, and Jim – on an airship voyage across the Atlantic into Africa. By the time Twain wrote that novel, nearly 100 similar stories about young Americans in imaginary aircraft and other vehicles had appeared in magazines and serials. They featured boy inventors using their ingenuity and technology to take over remote locales, not unlike Twain’s Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee (1889). By looking at Twain’s work in the context of the boy-inventor publishing explosion, we find new insights into the early stirrings of his anti-imperialist fervor, his complex views on race, and his wilting faith in technology. Surprisingly, some now-obscure dime novelists wrestled with those same concepts before Twain (and helped birth modern “steampunk” along the way). This presentation covers some of their works along with Twain’s unique contributions to the genre.

Williams is a lecturer for the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis. His book on Twain and 19th-century technocratic adventure fiction is forthcoming from University of Alabama Press. He has recently written chapters for The Centrality of Crime Fiction in American Literary Culture and the upcoming Cambridge History of Science Fiction. His essays have appeared in American LiteratureUtopian Studies, and elsewhere. He serves on the advisory board of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction housed at his alma mater, The University of Kansas.

All lectures in “The Trouble Begins” Lecture Series are free and open to the public.

“That Friendless Child’s Noise Would Make You Glad”: Unremembered Slaves on Frederick Douglass Day

As a follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this year on Mark Twain’s friendship with Frederick Douglass (who is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I live), I wanted to share the following excerpt from Chris Polk’s article in the Sunday edition of my local paper, The Star Democrat:

It was a day for Talbot County’s native son.

Frederick Douglass, the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more has a day named for him every year in his native Talbot County.

Saturday, Sept. 23, in Easton, there was a parade and welcome ceremony on the courthouse green, near the statue of Douglass that was erected six years ago.

The courthouse green happens to be near the place where Douglass had been jailed briefly in 1836 for talking to a young slave about escaping, the jail being on the north side of the courthouse.

From his jail cell, perhaps Douglass could have seen where the ceremony was held.

Because I was busy researching Twain’s early years in Hannibal for a book I’m writing, I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony this weekend. Coincidentally, however, part of my research included reading Twain’s account in his autobiography of another Eastern Shore native that serves as something of a counterpoint to Douglass’s legacy.

We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from someone, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing—it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for the past hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

(from Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1. Also quoted on the Huck Finn Freedom Center’s “Jim’s Journey” website).

Twain goes on to say that Sandy was the inspiration for one of the boys in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom Tom tries to con into painting the fence; however, he doesn’t recall the name he gave Sandy’s character in the book. According to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings (eds. Kevin Mac Donnell and R. Kent Rasmussen), Sandy “appears as Jim, ‘the small colored boy’” whom Tom ironically envies for his “freedom to fetch water while he must whitewash the fence.”

Although Twain recalls that during his childhood “all the negroes were friends of ours”, he also acknowledges that he and children like Sandy “were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible.”

And that’s about all the background on Sandy’s story I’ve been able to find.

As I read the local newspaper’s inspiring account about Frederick Douglass, “the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more,” who went from jail cell in Talbot County to revered American icon, I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to Sandy? Did he (along with William Faulkner’s Dilsey) “endure”?

Or did Sandy’s ““singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing” grow still, as Twain’s mother dreaded, dissolving into memories of “his family and his friends halfway across the American continent”, memories that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lamented “were all such a part of that other life that’s dead that I can’t remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that ‘I’ are anymore.)”

If anyone knows the rest of Sandy’s story, I’d love to hear it—and celebrate it or mourn it appropriately.

Twain For Teachers: Market Your Own Patent Medicine

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series focused on adapting Twain to the classroom. If you have an assignment, activity, lesson plan, syllabus design, or pedagogical narrative which you would like to share with other teachers, please consider writing it up (500-1200 words) and sending it [email protected]

Now approaching its third year, the English elective “Writings of Mark Twain” at Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey explores the life, works, and world of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. This is one of very few secondary school courses that focus on a single author for an entire year, and apparently the only one in the United States devoted to Mark Twain, which is a shame, since, in the words of Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain connects with everything!”

The course is open to juniors and seniors and this past year, in addition to studying a wide range of his sketches, essays, letters, and short stories, we took a class trip to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford and Skyped with several noted Mark Twain scholars. The novel I selected for this year was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Obviously Twain’s literary output is enormously varied and the choice of a novel is a delightful challenge. The junior year English requirement focuses on American literature and has featured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for decades, so most students have heard of Tom Sawyer, but never read it. When we teach Huckleberry Finn, there is a noticeable frustration with the opening pages, as students realize they are reading a sequel without knowing what happened in the first installment. They are excited to read Tom Sawyer, especially for Huck’s first appearance, and to see how much the characters have changed.

I ask the students if they were ever jealous of another individual. Did they ever feel a teacher was personally determined to lower their grade? Did they have Saturday plans ruined by their parents who had daylong chores set aside for them? Did they ever get bored in Sunday school or by sermons in their houses of worship? Did they ever dig up their mothers’ rose beds looking for buried treasure? Were they ever told to stay away from a friend in their neighborhood or an abandoned house at the end of the street? Did they ever have to take a horribly foul-tasting medicine? Perhaps most of all, do they remember their first crush?

The answers are enthusiastically “Yes!” every year. They are ready to read and appreciate Tom Sawyer’s sense of lost freedom, his desire for adventure, outdoors and away from parents and teachers, and, most interestingly, they appreciate the seductive, but potentially deceptive allure of unfamiliar people and products.

In conjunction with the novel, students do a project called Market Your Own Patent Medicine using information given in Dr. R. Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain for Kids: His Life & Times (Chicago Review Press, 2004).

Even though students wish they could have spent their younger years outside with Tom and his friends, they are surprised to learn that there were not the medicines and antibiotics that we take for granted today. Indeed, Dr. Rasmussen emphasizes the continual threat of little known diseases when Clemens was young, as well as their origins, preventions, and treatments. 21st-century students are astonished that there was no Food and Drug Administration to test and approve medicines with names like “Perry Davis’s Pain-Killer,” “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil,” and “Dr. Parmenter’s Magnetic Oil.” Rasmussen explains that most of these so-called “patent medicines” had harmless ingredients. Because an otherwise healthy body has the ability to recover from most common illnesses on its own, “people who took the patent medicines thought that the medicine had cured them” and were “happy to write glowing endorsements” that were used by salesmen to “sell more of their useless ‘medicine’”.

To give the students a true hands-on approach to creating and marketing a patent medicine, I wanted them to support Aunt Polly’s steadfast conviction when she tries to get Tom out of his depression in Chapter 12.

Per Rasmussen, a more authoritative “doctor,” the young men had to prepare their medicines with mixing bowls, sugar, water, food coloring, clean bottles with lids, felt-tip pens, plain adhesive labels, and writing paper.

The key was then to think of an appealing name for their “cure-alls” and to write a one-page advertisement listing “the ailments that the medicine can ‘cure’ (such as colds, rheumatism, dandruff, or backaches).” The advertisement “should also include endorsements, which they can write as if they had come from satisfied users, that rave about the good things that the medicine has done for them.”

My class of 24 students was broken into six groups. Each group was expected to “sell” their patent medicine to the rest of the class, with every member required to contribute something to the sales pitch. No digital technology was to be used. They were to draw with their hands and use their most powerful tool: imagination.

When they began working, the boys were quietly reluctant and asked very few clarifying questions.

But, I think that what they said when it came time to “sell” would have caused Mark Twain’s eyes to twinkle with satisfaction. The boys surpassed my expectations. They gave speeches about what the medicines cured and created poster-size endorsements, many from Twain’s literary characters and, amusingly, from the Mark Twain scholars whom they had Skyped with earlier in the term. Several groups uniquely personalized their modern “ailments.” Instead of curing a cold, they focused on shyness, ugliness, or laziness, sometimes at the expense of other members of the group, who laughed heartedly and returned the favor.

From this academic activity students connect more directly with some of Tom Sawyer’s actions. They worked with their hands as well as their minds, conspired like a band of robbers, used humor as a persuasive tool, as Twain so often does, and were able to appreciate aspects of this period in their country’s history that they otherwise wouldn’t think about at all. If nothing else, they have a fuller appreciation of the healthcare that they benefit from today.

 John Pascal is an English teacher at Seton Hall Prep. He is a contributor to Mark Twain & Youth and a friend of CMTS who has been a Trouble Begins lecturer and Quarry Farm Fellow.  

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.

Mark Twain Wishes “A Happy New Year” With 1876 Postcard

The above image, courtesy of The Mark Twain Project at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, comes from an engraved greeting card Twain circulated in January, 1876. William Dean Howells, upon receiving one, described the frog as “luridly hopping along, and looking as if he had just got out of a pond of hellfire.” The card was designed by True Williams, who offered it gratis to Twain and his publisher as thanks for the sustained employment they had recently provided him. Williams’s illustrations in Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published later that year, are nearly as beloved as the novel. He also illustrated Sketches, New and Old, a collection of short stories released in September 1875.

Frontispiece of Mark Twain's Sketches, New & Old, drawn by True Williams
Frontispiece of Mark Twain’s Sketches, New & Old, drawn by True Williams

The illustration on the greeting card clearly alludes to Twain’s most famous story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (the tale was also published under several other titles). As of November 1875 it had been a decade since Twain introduced Jim Smiley and his unexceptional frog to their adoring public. The author had graduated to more ambitious and profitable projects like The Innocents Abroad (1869) and The Gilded Age (1873). In 1898 he admitted that through much of this time he was trying to “properly claim recognition as a Literary Person.” “Jumping Frog” had appeared in “a mere newspaper” and young Twain “did not consider that that counted.” “I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated,” he wrote in 1906, “I was still an obscurity.” Yet, as he prepared Sketches, Twain reacquainted himself with the story that jumpstarted his career, as he would periodically for the remainder of his life (see, for instance, his “Private History of the ‘Jumping Frog’ Story,” published in 1894).

A few years earlier Twain had reacquired the copyright to “Jumping Frog.” While his current agent, Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Company, felt the deal Twain had negotiated was unfavorable, the retention of copyrights would thereafter become the author’s habit and, over time, work to his tremendous advantage. This habit, and the much-publicized opinions which justified it, would contribute substantively to changing the standard practices and benefit future generations of writers.

In March of 1875 Twain decided to introduce a curious addendum to “The Jumping Frog” for inclusion in Sketches. The manuscript he submitted in July included a French translation of the story, which had been published without his consent in 1872, and his comedic attempt to translate the translation back into English. As he put it, this new version was “clawed back into a civilized language once more by patient, unremunerative toil.” “I cannot speak the French language, but I can translate it very well,” he joked, parodying the French critic who, by Twain’s account, had translated the story poorly in order “to prove to his nation that there is nothing so extravagantly funny about it.”

Via this process, famously folksy dialogue became awkward, wooden prose. For instance, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog” became “I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog?” Twain complained, “I never put together such an odious mixture of bad grammar and delirium tremens in my life.”

This was a decent joke at the expense of the French, something American audiences always appreciate. Twain was also subtly drawing attention to the absence of international protection for intellectual property, which justly enraged him. But, perhaps most importantly, the new version of “The Jumping Frog” was something of an advertising coup. APC’s salesman could not only promise an expanded version of Twain’s most famous story, but it made the book ten pages longer and created additional room for Williams’s illustrations. Only one story in Sketches has more illustrations, and it’s twice as long.


As Twain well knew from APC’s promotion of his four previous books, illustrations were a major selling point, as was the notoriety of the author. And every padded page was valuable because APC’s books were priced based on size. Longer books meant better commissions and thus were pitched more aggressively by salesmen.

Sketches proved to be something of a flop. APC sold less than half as many copies of it in the first year as they had Innocents Abroad and The Gilded Age. However, as Hamlin Hill reports in Mark Twain and Elisha Bliss, the initial sales were brisk. When APC delivered the jumping frog postcards to Twain on December 30th, both the author and his publisher believed they had successfully marketed a volume of largely recycled material, the royalties from which would help sustain Twain until the publication of Tom Sawyer, which all anticipated would be a massive hit.

Throughout his career, Twain’s feelings towards his resiliently popular first story would oscillate between pride and shame. He often remarked that he was not, nor had even considered becoming, a professional writer when it was published. It was merely a well-rehearsed joke he had written down as a favor to Artemus Ward. He recognized that the circumstances of its composition and circulation were incredibly coincidental, but also incredibly formative. And he had since worked much harder on many superior works which didn’t garner nearly the acclaim. But he couldn’t help being grateful to the frog also, particularly when it was paying his bills.