Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain

I moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact we moved so often I am still regularly asked if my father was in the military whenever my childhood comes up in conversation.

Moving a lot has any number of repercussions, one of which is that the regular changes in school district mean you see no one system's complete education plan from start to finish, and often wind up suffering overlap or missing things in the process. I'll never forget my move from Kansas to Illinois, where - halfway through my sophomore year of high school - I was stuck into a freshman biology class and bored out of my mind.

In my Kansas school, biology had been a difficult class, taught very well. But in the Illinois school it was taught to younger students and didn't cover nearly as much material. I sat in the back of that new classroom and waited for the teacher to call on me. "Does anyone know the answer to the question? I'll bet Jeff does. Jeff?" And sure enough I did. Every stinking time. In half a year in Kansas we'd covered everything that class was ever going to cover, and in spite of the fact that the teacher tried, I really hated being there.

I had similar experiences with English classes. The first day of the 9th grade English we were given a test just to see what we did and didn't know. I was working along answering questions and came to the statement: "Diagram this sentence." Some (now forgotten) sentence followed that, and then a large, blank space on the page. I had no idea what was being asked of me. I'd never seen nor even heard of diagramming sentences at the time. I wandered up to the teacher's desk and asked what this meant. She told me not to worry about it and go on.

And the oddities don't stop there. Literature is another place where my education got out of whack. I know I read Julius Caesar at least three times in various schools. Correspondingly there are all kinds of things I never managed to read, and that list includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Well, now I have read it, and I'm wondering what all the fuss is (or was) about.

Perhaps if I'd read it when I was twelve it would have made more of an impact, but at the age of 42, it seems rather pointless. What happens is fairly predictable, and yet it's not really all that believable. Tom winds up in too many situations that just don't ring true to me, and they certainly happen far too quickly. Amusingly, the most famous scene - in which Tom tricks the neighborhood kids into painting a fence for him - is near the beginning of the book, raising the question of just how many people actually read the entire thing.

I'll give it a pass for it's treatment of native Americans and blacks. It is a product of it's time, as was Samuel Clemens. I'll also forgive the use if dialect, which I generally find only obscures the author's intent. And I'll ignore the author's word choice. It was probably just fine for the time it was written, but a number of those words have dropped out of the dictionary since 1876.

More problematic, in my mind, is the apparent anti-intellectualism I see here. Sawyer and his friends are the most superstitious lot imaginable, and few in the town are any better. It's easy to see the American nation turning its collective back on the enlightenment if you read this in the right way.

In addition, while I've read that Twain wasn't a friend to Christianity in his later years, he mentions religion quite regularly here. Perhaps he was only chronicling how people really lived and believed at the time. Perhaps he's poking fun at it in some places, but in others he seems sincere, and I found it a bit distracting.

I know this book is a classic, but I've had my battles over classics before. I remember coming home one day from school and telling my mother we were reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I hated every single word of that book, and I told her so. Knowing me, I was probably quite loud in my presentation of that opinion. She responded in kind - I come from a loud family - and told me that I had to like it because "it's a classic!"

I've been a bit leery of classics ever since, but as the irregularly spaced interruptions of my education continued, I didn't have to read many of them. By reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I've now moved one of those missed classics on the list of things I've actually read.