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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 23 Feb 2023 10:31:07 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by David E.
E. Sloane.


_Critical Insights: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_. R. Kent Rasmussen, Ed.
Salem Press/Grey House Publishing, 2022. Pp. xl + 348. $105. Hardcover.
ISBN 978-1-63700-343-5.

Available from Salem Press at <https//>

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by David E. E. Sloane.

Copyright (c) 2023 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

The first of Kent Rasmussen's two forewords to _Critical Insights: The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer_ suggests that the reputation of the novel as "a
literary work worthy of serious study has always been shaky" (vii). Since
his idea is based on the huge scholarship accorded _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_ in comparison to scholarly attention to _The Adventures
of Tom Sawyer_, it is hard to refute, but I am reminded of a statement on
_Moby Dick_ that scholarship on it had replaced whaling as the greatest
industry of Massachusetts, or words to that effect. Yes, the study of _Tom
Sawyer_ has been eclipsed by the massive _Huck Finn_ juggernaut, but it is
also true that _Huck Finn_ takes on, face front, America's gravest and most
disastrous social calamity, racism. Still, as Rasmussen points out, _Tom
Sawyer_'s publication history is also massive and world-wide. Good reasons
exist to think it is more widely read throughout the world than _Huck
Finn_. Huck's first-person speech is tough on translators. The third-person
omniscient voice which narrates _Tom Sawyer_ is a lot less of a problem,
but there are other features of the first book which have appealed to vast
numbers of readers, such as the fence white-washing episode which provides
Tom's story its own icons and themes. When I asked two Korean English
teachers if they knew _Huck Finn_, some years ago, both smiled and said,
"Oh, Yes! I loved the chapter where he whitewashed the fence!" Either way
you read this anecdote, it emphasizes that _Tom Sawyer_ is worthy of our
attention and that white-washed fence as a major icon is tied centrally
into American culture as international readers perceive us. Incidentally,
like all of Twain's major works, it contains comments and moments touching
on racism in America.

Readers of this collection of original new essays would expect to come out
of the experience with a heightened perception of _Tom Sawyer_ well worth
discussing. They will be satisfied not only with important points
established but also with some of the more nuanced observations. Also the
broad spectrum of essays, and their placing the novel in relation to
popular media up to the present time is a dimension that might appeal to
teachers and to media-oriented analysts. The topics of the essays place the
novel not only in different critical perspectives, but also put the book in
cultural contexts coming forward to the present. I found a number of points
in essays that caused me to reflect on the novel somewhat differently than
I had before. I think my appreciation of the novel's achievement was
expanded in relation to Twain's nature writing, in the detailing its
purposefully nostalgic statement, and in the positioning of Injun' Joe.

Kent Rasmussen's introductory essay on Twain in relation to Tom Sawyer, as
persona and as a set of adventures is, like most of the essays offered,
unpretentiously engaging. Rasmussen highlights Twain's 1907 letter which
offers the flat-out confession that he is himself Tom Sawyer. As students
of Twain as humorist and realist all know, of course, anything he says is
part truth and part fiction: nothing can be taken for granted. Every critic
of his time who had an insufficiently well-developed sense of humor choked
on the ambiguity involved in other works like _The Innocents Abroad_, which
crippled their ability to get the joke. Almost every critic agreed in _Tom
Sawyer_ reviews, however, that the portraits of nature, of a boy's mind,
and of a culture were very special and the melodramatic plot was engaging,
although awfully grim for a children's book. One of my problems as a
reviewer of this collection is that the introductory survey by Rasmussen is
so clear and compact that summarizing it without simply replicating it is
not really possible--so I won't try. However, hoping that Artificial
Intelligence ChatGPT would write the review for me (this is a joke, in case
you take everything I wrote as serious), I did resort to the internet with
the question "Why is Adventures of Tom Sawyer still popular?" The digital
response was amazingly close to this introduction. Wondering at this
miracle, I put the question in again--I'm not sure if I changed a word--and
got the same answer only with some of the points shuffled around in a way
that made for disorganized reading. On the third try, it flopped a little
more. In other words, I suspect that the several points made in the essays
offered in this volume establish the lasting key points for our generation,
as well as Artificial Intelligence, and the fact that the essays here are
well-detailed and nuanced--as we would expect from the respected scholars
who wrote them--is comforting in reassuring us as readers that the skeleton
is very strong, and the details raise these particular essays well above
the common.

The first three essays by Peter Messent, Alan Gribben, and Joe B. Fulton
build on Rasmussen's framing and provide meticulous detailing. Messent
proposes that while _Tom Sawyer_ is entangled with the reality of the
period, it is anti-historical in its elevation as fiction above its
immediate period, climaxing in the melodramatic ending. Particularly
substantive was the interpretation in terms of "profound dislocation"
occurring in the 1870s. I was impressed because I had just read a superb
set of essays on the novels and life of Albion W. Tourgee (_Reimaging the
Republic_; Fordham UP, 2023) and his efforts to arouse the nation through
_A Fool's Errand_ and _Bricks Without Straw_, of the same period. Messent
pinpoints the same idea, but in a novel that, unlike Tourgee's, has escaped
the milieu of the 1870s to be readable in a later time. Messent
demonstrates the curve of Twain's novel through history--antebellum and
post-bellum--into the symbols and archetypes of the Gothic and the
interplay of Messent's observations with the plot of the novel was
noteworthy. Alan Gribben immerses us in alternate sources while musing that
many critics seem to forget that _Tom Sawyer_ is a comic novel, one point
that really needs to be continually reemphasized about Mark Twain's canon
generally. His list of issues in _Tom Sawyer_ also sets the novel in a
valuable perspective when he notes that no other specimen of the boy book
genre is remembered at all--and yet here Tom remains, an icon of youth and
a progenitor of scenic moments that find places in advertisements,
revisions of popular plays, and elsewhere. Taken together those two essays
pretty much carry the argument for taking the book seriously. Gribben's
perceptions on Jackson's Island and Twain's observation of nature, by
themselves, changed my own somewhat ambivalent feelings about _Tom Sawyer_.
Joe B. Fulton's essay on Jackson's Island and the "environment" goes more
deeply into the matter of the perception and use of nature, minute nature,
in a way that finished my conversion to an admirer of what Twain had
achieved as a minute "Realist" writer, not of city ways like Howells, so
much as in the personal observations of Tom, as in the case of the
inchworm. Jackson's Island is a sort of poetic rendering of the ecological
environment which reflects more deeply on Twain's nostalgia about an era of
simplicity that was fast vanishing in the 1870s--and even more so in our
era of climate catastrophe.

I note the fourth essay in this first grouping of essays, by Philip Bader,
takes on the task of showing parallels between Twain's novel and J. K.
Rowling's Harry Potter series. Given my druthers, I wished I had first read
John Bird's following essay on the Tom Sawyer "franchise"--after all, as
Bird points out, there are four finished novels/novellas and a couple of
unfinished manuscripts featuring Tom--all of them showing a devolution
which makes Tom less and less appealing. Bird argues that we miss something
in the earliest book when our reading is colored more darkly by the later
Tom of Huck's adventures, an interesting point for thoughtful
consideration. Then Bader's presentation of the Potter books could have
brought me up to speed on current literature. Having listened on occasion
to grandfathers chatting with their grandchildren about Harry Potter--Oh,
yes, I have--I recognize an inter-generational appeal of substance. Since I
do not have even a "passing" knowledge of the Potter books, though, I will
back away from trying to be smart in comments about something I am ignorant
about. The parallels noted are worth considering for those who might want
to bring the comparison into the classroom. Rasmussen's later essay on
Hollywood's take on _Tom Sawyer_, also can be grouped with these preceding
essays. The subtitle of Rasmussen's essay that Hollywood "almost" got the
book right is quite appropriate to his documentation. Note: Hollywood got
"A Connecticut Yankee" _all_ wrong, and I will quibble with the description
of Bing Crosby's antics and the misuse of Rhonda Fleming as entertaining in
the one paragraph which treats it as a side-comment, although that might
describe some responses in 1949-1950--I was glad that in the same paragraph
Rasmussen stated how viciously unethical the perpetrators of this
particular artifact really were, subverting everything substantial in Hank
Morgan's experience.

John Bird's essay overlaps with two other essays. Kevin MacDonnell traces
Tom from "boy-book" hero to "coming-of-age-hellion," but MacDonnell's essay
seems to end at a different conclusion from John Bird's essay. One of the
pleasing aspects of the whole "Critical Insights" collection is that a few
Twain direct statements appear in more than one essay, but each of the
essays seem to follow its own logic. Conclusions offer variations.

A set of four essays take on the challenge of readjusting commonplace
assumptions about the novel. Patrick Ober finds plenty of reasons for Tom
to project fears in his life, which mostly attach to the person of Injun'
Joe, but notes that illness and juvenile death were facts in the period
where the story is set. As he reminds us, finally _Tom Sawyer_ ends with
innocence winning, which may suggest that over time, processes change, as
do our readings. Linda Morris finds in Aunt Polly a deeper and more
powerful character and a more nuanced set of feelings than superficial
readings provide, and her case modifies how we should be sensitized to
brief statements like Aunt Polly's that she "was meaning for the best," as
her explanation of her treatment of the two young boys she is charged with
raising on her own. Hannah Wells defines "republican motherhood," as the
common prevailing expectations of a small town for the families residing
therein. The concept as described allows space for Tom's growth and allows
Aunt Polly and Mary to assert their own kindness. Identifying a collective
town spirit may give more Marxist dignity than is deserved to the small
town's hypocrisy and egoism, but Wells makes the point that Tom remains
outside the enervating education of this world. Kerry Driscoll reminds us
that Twain's novel comes out about six months after The Battle of Little
Bighorn and even such a respected historian as Francis Parkman, prior to
that, wrote of the type of the half-breed as half-Indian, half-white, and
half-devil. Maybe the prejudice is laid out by Twain's portrayal in such a
way that we can apply more understanding to what he reflects about the
culture which created such a case-study. The Davises, Jr. and Sr., who make
up a very good team, finding Tom and Huck as two independent icons of
boyhood. In his own book Tom plays the role of "everyboy" in a childhood
Eden, but one who is compelled to set his own rules in a white-washed
milieu. As an adult, perhaps he becomes Col. Sellers, Hank Morgan, or
Philip Traum, three characters who might be described as Tom Sawyer on
steroids. Bringing their survey of later iconographic renderings of Tom,
they do well in reminding us of Kipling's assertion to Twain that Tom
Sawyer is no longer his property: he belongs to us, his readers. I am not
sure I particularly noticed that part of the Kipling-Twain interview, and
it seems to me that Kipling was making a bold statement, but apt when
considering the various points made about the book by the critical insights

The closing essays in the book have the value of summarizing our culture's
employment of Tom Sawyer as a way of reimagining ourselves. For Cindy
Lovell, the present-day Hannibal's reluctance to include slaves and slavery
in the narrative is a part of the complicated raveling of history and
fiction together. I will note her citation of Bernard De Voto's flat-footed
statement that Hannibal is the most important single fact in the life of
Sam Clemens (without endorsing it). My early reading of Mark Twain was
probably as deeply influenced by De Voto's pontifications as anybody's, but
it is flatly wrong when dissected. Hannibal is nothing like a single fact
in anything Twain lived or wrote. One thing that all the essays in this
book support is that the multiplicity of experiences and of interpretations
is one of the novel's most important qualities. To that observation might
be added Twain's autobiographical notes on Hannibal as reprinted in Walter
Blair's _Mark Twain's Hannibal: Huck & Tom_, where he notes that the
stupefied humanity of a slave-holding town in his childhood really left him
unaware as a child of the situation of slaves whose freedom had been
usurped. Lovell identifies the African-American viewpoint as displayed in
the less-visited "Huck Finn Freedom Center" as a small corrective to the
present-day Hannibal's idyllic version of itself. Barbara Schmidt takes up
the illustrations of _Tom Sawyer_ and offers other cultural gems--the first
Dell comic book didn't include the whitewashing scene--what were they
thinking!--and the _Classics Illustrated_ comic presented a cover with Tom
beating up Alfred--the cover changed quickly when Congress started
investigating comics as a bad influence, are two pointed examples.

Two more pieces finish out the book with engaging personal insights that
are highly relevant to how we might think about presenting _The Adventures
of Tom Sawyer_. John Pascal's fun questions to warm up a high school prep
class are welcome, of course, as are all of his insights into the real
responses of real students. I especially admired--once I got past laughing
at the whitewashed fence in the Seton Hall Preparatory School parking
lot--the observation on the asides on history among the stalagmites, which
actually don't appear as imposing geological formations in the real cave.
The emphasis on the book as a hymn to childhood makes good use of Twain's
ideas in relation to his style, following up on the scholarly essays with
insights into how first-time or "younger" readers interpreted the story was
quite appropriate, as was the description of the real cave offered by local
observer Danny Norman with the descriptions by which we know it, and good
thematic points emerge.

Finally, technical aids appear at the end of the book--a useful chronology,
lists of editions and of movies, notable editions and plays. The list of
illustrators of _Tom Sawyer_ supplements Barbara Schmidt's "Illustrating
Tom Sawyer" which had previously found that one or two major illustrators
had a very large influence on following interpreters, and perhaps readers
as well. My own appreciation of Twain's intentions and artistry in _Tom
Sawyer_ has expanded and that sounds a sufficient closing note for this