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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY (continued)

The couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1871. There Twain wrote Roughing It, a book about his experiences in Nevada and California. Published in 1872, the book added to his reputation as a humorist.

In 1873, he collaborated with a neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, on his first novel. Called The Gilded Age, the novel satirized the political corruption and the mania for speculation that characterized the post Civil War era. The book earned Twain a great deal of money. In 1874 he built his family an extravagant home in Hartford.

Before moving into the home, the family spent the summer in Livy's hometown of Elmira, New York, where Twain began working in earnest on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He had actually begun the book during the winter of 1872-73, in Hartford, but had put it aside to work on The Gilded Age. Now, in Elmira from April to September 1874, he was able to work almost daily on the project. Soon the writing became forced and artificial. "I had worked myself out, pumped myself dry," he wrote a friend. So he put the manuscript aside and wrote a series of articles on his steamboating days, "Old Times on the Mississippi." It wasn't until eight months later that he returned to Tom Sawyer.

When the book was finally published in December 1876, the reviews were favorable. Sales, however, were another matter. A Canadian publisher undercut the U.S. edition by flooding the country with a cheap pirated version. Twain's own publisher sold fewer than 27,000 copies of the novel during the first year. Oddly, sales of Tom Sawyer never really took off until after 1885, when The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared and reviewers began to link the two books in the public's mind. Since then, Americans have bought millions of copies of the novel. It is a favorite of both children and adults-a testament to Twain's genius for enriching his tales of childhood with humor and penetrating insights into human nature.

Most readers agree that Tom Sawyer is Twain's second-best book. First-place honors must go to Huckleberry Finn, where Twain explores both language and ideas in greater depth. However, Tom Sawyer is probably Twain's best-loved novel, and its extraordinary success with people of all ages seems to prove it.


To understand Tom Sawyer, it may help to put yourself in Twain's place-that of a worldly man, nearing forty, who is viewing childhood across the bridge of thirty years. Between Twain and his boyhood stand years of personal travel, trial, and error; a civil war marked with heroism and sacrifice but also greed and cruelty; an end to slavery; and startling developments in industry and communications. From the vantage point of the post Civil War era, the 1840s must have seemed idyllic indeed- as carefree and innocent as an endless summer.

Primarily, Tom Sawyer is a reminiscence of Twain's boyhood, which he recalls with a longing for the past. But it is more than a remembrance because Twain has let his broad literary background shape his memories.

Literary sources for Tom Sawyer include Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which contains a grave-robbing scene like the one Tom and Huck witness. The treasure hunt contains elements of Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Gold Bug." Although in 1869 Twain claimed to dislike Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy, many readers feel that he borrowed ideas from that book, as well.

Thus, you shouldn't read Tom Sawyer as Twain's autobiography. In fact, you even have to read Twain's real autobiography with a grain of salt, for as he warns at the end of one chapter: "Now then, that is the tale. Some of it is true."

The Hannibal of Twain's youth was a far rougher and shabbier place than St. Petersburg, Twain's fictional version of his hometown. A village on the American frontier, Hannibal had a darker side, which Twain only hints at. As a boy, he nearly drowned three times. He watched villagers try-unsuccessfully- to hang an anti-slavery man. He witnessed a hanging, and he watched a man burn to death in a jail cell. He also saw two drownings, an attempted rape, as well as two attempted and four actual murders.

Such experiences helped Twain to understand that life is not a continuous holiday-even for children. Tom's nightmares are one indication of that, as are Twain's angry asides about the villagers' hypocrisies.

Twain doesn't dwell on life's darker side in this novel, however. He wanted to write a light-hearted, entertaining book. Yet woven through it are a number of themes that link it to Twain's later, more philosophical works. (See "Themes" later in this guide.)

As he grew older, Twain began to examine the less appealing aspects of human nature more relentlessly. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is peopled with all types of evil, stupid, or mean characters. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), for all its humor, concerns man's corruptness.

The year Pudd'nhead Wilson was published, business reverses forced Twain into bankruptcy. He embarked on a world tour, lecturing for $1,000 a night. The success of that tour and of Following the Equator, the travel book that came out of it, enabled him to pay his debts.

As he moved toward the end of his life, Twain shed his comic mask and confronted themes of evil and dishonesty with increasing bitterness. This bitterness is evident in such works as "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," a story, and the nonfiction tract, What Is Man?

Gnawing financial difficulties and family sorrows were partly responsible for his emphasis on the bleak. His favorite daughter, Susy, died in 1896, his wife in 1904. Another daughter died in 1909. Twain died of heart failure on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut.

For his readers, Twain lives on-a symbol, like Tom Sawyer, of something raw and unyielding in the American character.

Tom's ability to triumph, whatever the odds, is no doubt a major reason that Twain wrote of him so admiringly. It is surely one reason you will be drawn to Tom, and why you may never forget him.

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