To ask boys and girls to read Tom Sawyer nowadays may be perceived as cruelty to children. To ask adults to take the book seriously is to risk being called a racist. As with most liberal learning, Tom Sawyer is slowly being relegated to university studies. This speaks badly of both schools and universities…
Any man who presumes to write about Mark Twain has got to be full of himself because if he’s not, he’s liable to get bowled over by Twain’s ego. This is especially true of those men who tend to be moralizers and seek the good in literature.
Twain warned us in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” We may suppose the same fate awaits those of us seeking moral teachings from Tom Sawyer.
Thankfully, Mark Twain also committed the indiscretion of writing a letter to a woman in 1902 in which he confessed to her, “I am a moralist in disguise.” That seals his fate—at least as far as this essay is concerned.
The best reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I have come across was written for the journal of political philosophy, Interpretations, and published in 1972. The text, called “Tom Sawyer: Hero of Middle America,” was written by Harry V. Jaffa, who was a student of persecution and the art of writing and could thus read a thing or two into a book that even Mark Twain couldn’t wiggle his way out of.
Try as Twain might to cultivate a mature rebelliousness analogous to Tom Sawyer’s childhood mischief, of Twain we might say what Jaffa argues about Tom Sawyer: that he is “presented to us throughout as a rebel against the constraints of home, church and school. But in each case his rebellion is the occasion for his becoming a hero, either of the institution, or at least in the institution, against which he rebels.”
Jaffa makes a solid case for this view of Tom Sawyer as accidental hero. Yet to read Jaffa is to realize that he treats Tom Sawyer as an adult hero. Childhood—and the entire children’s setting that characterize the novel—appears to be, for Jaffa, one of the disguises under which Twain hides his moralizing. Jaffa argues that “because of Mark Twain’s myth that this is a story of a boy, certain things are ascribed to chance by the art of the novel that otherwise might be ascribed to the art of the protagonist.”
If this is true (and Jaffa’s entire essay is a convincing proof that it is), what do we make of the fact that Mark Twain’s “myth that this is the story of a boy” is by and large no longer believed on account of the prejudices of our age? In general, many children no longer have the vocabulary necessary to follow Twain’s prose, and adults often lack the intellect to overcome their discomfort with a story that humanizes the antebellum South.
To ask boys and girls to read Tom Sawyer nowadays may be perceived as cruelty to children. To ask adults to take the book as seriously as Earnest Hemingway or H.L. Mencken did is to risk being called a racist or propagator of the patriarchy of the dreaded dead white men. As with most liberal learning, Tom Sawyer is slowly being relegated from anywhere-within-the-vicinity-of-children, to university studies. This speaks badly of both schools and universities.
If Mark Twain is indeed the father of American national literature, then America, in rejecting Tom Sawyer, rejects itself. That may indeed be the point. Twain’s modern censors, unlike the Aunt Pollys of the past who banned the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer here and there for being crude or vulgar, blame the book for its virtues rather than dreading it for its vices. This is why Twain’s modern detractors often refuse to do him the honor of banning his books, preferring instead to sanitize them.
Sanitizing literature is a punishment one thousand times more painful to the souls of good writers than any banishment could be. Even censorship is preferable to sanitization. In the writer’s own personal Inferno, the levels of Hell are likely subdivided as follows:
Editors are to be found at the very top. They are akin to the philosophers with whom Dante populated his outermost circle. They annoy us less than they instruct us, because good editors are good readers and often good writers as well. More often than not, they find themselves in Hell voluntarily, on missions of mercy. When they slash our work, they usually validate our suspicions that Guardian Angels do indeed exist to protect us from our own folly.
As we descend further into Writer’s Hell we find—perhaps not sequentially, for it is dark, and there is no Guide to take care that we haven’t missed a level or two—the Aunt Pollys of the world who have better things for us to do than write such useless rubbish. Wouldn’t we be better off writing something useful? Why not a self-help book? If we aim to please children, then shouldn’t the hero of our story be good and pure? And in order to avoid insulting other people by crafting evil men or women, why don’t we have the hero fight a dragon? Monsters and aliens from outer-space or even wizards will do—so long as evil is presented as an abstract fantasy rather than something potentially lurking in our neighbors. And while we’re about it, given our modern times, shouldn’t we ignore the reality around most of us and populate our little Southern hamlet with a rainbow of races, all benign and homogenous in character? If we really want to write a progressive children’s story, let’s not have Tom Sawyer drawing a house with a man and a woman standing next to it for Becky. Let’s have Tom telling people he’d like to be called Becky and the local Church sets up a collection for hormonal therapy somewhere in California.
Going further down, we find the puritans of every stripe who never hesitate to ban anything that risks corrupting the young or spoiling the state of contentment that seems to sustain the conventional mind. They are a lonely group nowadays, having once sat at Satan’s side, endowed with all the powers one would expect of the Generals of the Prince of Darkness. Never did they imagine the onset of a world in which no one would read long books with big words anymore. In this modern world, where literature is fading into oblivion, banning books is no longer necessary. No one cares to read them anyway. Furthermore, even the most vulgar books are works of angelic art compared to the words and deeds of modern men. Your modern book banner would have to ban tongues, institute a universal dress code and ban the Internet if he wanted to continue to ply his trade the old-fashioned way. Sadly, there is no more culture to protect against the likes of Mark Twain.
Finally, after no doubt stumbling through many more levels of hellish creatures unseen in the mist (for Writer’s Hell hasn’t got the clearness of mind to be frozen over, but is more of a foggy realm where one thing is as good as the next), we would come right down to the throne of Satan himself and meet our worst nightmare: the modern Sanitizer of literature.
This mild-mannered fellow would have committed the felony of keeping the original The Adventures of Tom Sawyer away from his children (let them play computer games) and hogging it all to his professorial self. The book is not a children’s book, but a historical relic after all. It is not something boys and girls should read; it deserves instead only serious scholarly attention. In his wisdom, the Sanitizer would conclude after years of study and moral reflection that certain elements of the book may well be appropriate for young audiences if properly presented.
He would then set about rewriting the book, removing any indications that having a drunkard father, not going to school while living in a Slave society and being a small boy might make someone an unwitting proponent of racist sentiments. He would then set about cleaning up the dialect so that readers weren’t actually forced to feel like the book took place in the South. Having done so, the Sanitizer would not so much set the standard as open the floodgates for anyone and everyone to do likewise with all literature.
In the Sanitizer’s America, Tom Sawyer remains hero of Middle America—only it is not Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and it is not the Middle America we knew. Tom Sawyer becomes every boy who might well have grown up anywhere. His childish exploits lose their distinctly Southern charm. His unwittingly pious rebellions become simple acts of disobedience. Of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Jaffa wrote:
In both the Athens of Socrates and Tom Sawyer’s America, the conventional wisdom would appear to have been on the side of obeying the gods, of doing what one is told to do, upon divine authority. But both Euthyphro and Tom insist upon the more radical form of piety; both insist upon imitating the gods, or the heros who represent the divine to them. Euthyphro prosecutes his father for murder, upon the pattern of conduct he believes to be true of Zeus and Kronos, Tom imitates both David and the scion of the house of David.
Of the Sanitizer’s Tom Sawyer we might write: The Athens of Socrates has nothing to do with the Sanitizer’s America of Tom Sawyer. The conventional wisdom would appear to be on the side of obeying grown-ups who in turn obey no one but themselves. Unlike Euthyphro who rebels against piety in favor of radical piety, Tom rebels because that’s what healthy children are supposed to do if we want them to grow up and conform to the modern convention whereby all adults must be rebels against home, school, and church.
That this rebellion is no rebellion at all is clear to all except the Sanitizer and his patients (or victims) who fancy themselves as liberals. Mark Twain, when asked to give an address to youth late in his life, told his audience that they should take care to obey their parents only when mother and father are actually watching, not lie because as young boys and girls they’re not very good at it yet, not play with firearms because they will likely fail to shoot their overbearing grandmothers and waste a perfectly good occasion, and generally continue in this vein until they one day wake up to find themselves adults who are no different from anyone else.
Twain knew that rebellion for rebellion’s sake was the surest path to the dullest conformity. The necessary constraints of human life, omnipresent in the world inhabited by Tom Sawyer, visible to the adult reader and hardly perceptible to the boy pirates of Jackson Island, make rebellion futile unless it is the rebellion of a good heart against a corrupt conscience. This is essentially what the American character is all about, and this is why American rebels seldom do more than Euthyphro, and why the Sanitizer’s Tom Sawyer is a hero of middle America no more. The Sanitizer’s Tom Sawyer has not come to praise America—only to bury her.
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