Review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)


Mark Twain (writer).

Some eventful months in the life of a 12–13-year-old boy in antebellum Missouri.

The most striking feature of the book, upon rereading it, is the strong theme of deception. In the most famous scene, Tom tricks the other boys into whitewashing a fence, by making them think they are having a good time. He uses his winnings to barter indirectly for a copy of The Bible (ca. 110 CE), thus tricking others into believing he is pious, and so on. His aunt Polly is not often deceived by Tom but by pseudoscience: “her quack periodicals and her quack medicines”. The village is briefly graced by a phrenologist and then a mesmerizer, two of the era’s pseudoscientific fads. Meanwhile, the real doctor is murdered, and no fun at all. Twain deftly blurs the line between deception, spectacle and the capitalist commerce that marked the nation more than anything else in 1876.

Whereas most children’s books nowadays tend to feature bookish characters to win over their readers, Tom is never bookish. He is characterized primarily by his success as a salesman, not by his success escaping a cave system or a “hapless half-breed” murderer in the implausibly dramatic finale. His girlfriend’s father, a lawyer, ultimately concludes that Tom is marked by a particular “magnanimous lie”. Twain seems to say that what a boy needed to be a hero at this time was a good ear for bullshit, and above all, a good mouth for the same. This is an effective satire, but it would have been more effective if Twain had been less of a bullshitter himself.

References here: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), “A Child’s Five Minutes Can Be Equivalent to a Grown-Up’s Year” (1997).

text fiction