The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by John Pascal.
_The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_. By Mark Twain. Introduction and Notes by R.
Kent Rasmussen. Penguin Classics, 2014. Paperback, 5" x 7-3/4". $9.00. ISBN
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. By Mark Twain. Foreword by Azar Nafisi.
Introduction and Notes by R. Kent Rasmussen. Penguin Classics, 2014.
Paperback, 5" x 7-3/4". $9.00. ISBN 978-0143107323.
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The Penguin Classics series has an established literary reputation for
providing affordable mass-market paperbacks of American literature that
showcase introductions and explanatory notes written by some of the
country's most notable scholars. Previous Mark Twain scholars who have
contributed to these editions include Louis J. Budd for _The Gilded Age_,
James Cox for _Life on the Mississippi_, Hamlin Hill for _A Tramp Abroad_
and _Roughing It_, and Justin Kaplan for _A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur's Court_. In 1986, Penguin published _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_
and _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, each with an introduction by John
Seelye and notes by Guy Cardwell. These editions have proven popular with
general readers and also found collectors who obtain them solely for the
scholarly contributions, which are often cited in subsequent research. In
2014, Penguin reissued _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_ and _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_ featuring new introductions and notes by R. Kent
Rasmussen, who also edited the entirely new edition of Mark Twain's
_Autobiographical Writings_ for Penguin in 2012.
As a teacher at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey, teaching both
freshmen and junior courses in literature, I use the University of
California Press editions in the classroom as they are the most
authoritative texts, and because they contain original illustrations that
students enjoy seeing. However, I always look for new material that helps
bring Twain's classics to life and makes them relevant to my students. My
goal is to use material that is well written and is helpful in rapidly and
efficiently grabbing and holding students' attention in ways that make them
want to read the texts. I am therefore writing this review from the
perspective of a schoolteacher.
When the new Penguin Classics books came out late last year, updated with
new material written by R. Kent Rasmussen, I tested their content by
reading his introductions to _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_ to my
classes and asked for their impressions. At the time, we were at the
climactic scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's _The Great Gatsby_ in which Nick
Buchannan confronts Jay Gatsby about his past. My students asked if we
could stop reading _Gatsby_ and switch to the Mark Twain books. Rasmussen's
introductions made them want to belt their younger siblings with mud clods,
hoodwink their friends to whitewash fences, fall in love with young
sweethearts, run away to make their parents worry, visit graveyards and
witness murders, take savage beatings to protect their first loves, look
for buried treasure near haunted houses, explore dangerous caves while
protecting their sweethearts, and catch their breath on rafts on the mighty
Mississippi River with Huck and Jim.
Rasmussen is the author or editor of nine books on Mark Twain and more than
a dozen other books. He is best known for writing _Mark Twain A to Z_
(revised as the two-volume _Critical Companion to Mark Twain_) and as
editor of _The Quotable Mark Twain_ and _Dear Mark Twain_. For the Penguin
Classics editions of both _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_, he wrote
entirely new introduction and notes, suggestions for further reading, and
detailed chronologies of Mark Twain's life. Rasmussen's writing style is
warmly intimate and clear; his words show that he loves and respects the
stories, their heroes, and Mark Twain himself. And my students responded
favorably to all that.
Modern youths find the setting of _Tom Sawyer_ to be fundamentally
different from that of their own lives, due to their strict schedules of
being shuttled to and from school and lengthy organized afterschool
activities. Tom has to go to school and church, but he and his friends are
inspiringly unsupervised and can generally do whatever they want away from
the adults. After all, no adult was present when Tom's independence allowed
him to turn "a tedious chore into a major entrepreneurial success and
emerge with wealth that will lead him to another gratifying success at
church the next day" (x). Rasmussen emphasizes the need for today's readers
to enjoy using their imaginations. Tom's simple life pleasures grow, like
those of his friends, out of the imagination to develop complex games of
Robin Hood, war, pirates, and robber gangs. These are fascinating
activities and are striking contrasts to modern students' obsession with
holding almost every type of video communications in their hands.
Rasmussen writes of the refreshing contrast between children's books
published before 1876 and _Tom Sawyer_. He shows that while Tom is
misbehaving, he is not a bad kid at all. Quite simply, he is delightfully
normal. He is "a safe kind of bad boy. Yes, he breaks rules, but never to
harm anyone" (xii). Thus, all kids, from the nineteenth to the present
century can appreciate Rasmussen's interpretation of Tom and his
adventures. By contrast, John Seelye's introduction to the previous Penguin
Classics edition of _Tom Sawyer_ called the book "informed to the point of
plagiarism by the novels of other writers. Yet . . . it is a subversive
book, and enlists the works of others in order to undercut the conventions
those earlier stories established" (Seelye, xiii). For a high school
teacher, Seelye's claim touching on plagiarism was extremely serious and
made the teaching of students' accurate appreciation of the formation of
_Tom Sawyer_ needlessly difficult.
Rasmussen presents an enthralling argument that Tom Sawyer is strikingly
similar to his modern literary descendant Harry Potter in terms of their
backgrounds and adventures. This makes Tom relevant, not only to
fantasy-loving instructors who may be hesitant to teach _Tom Sawyer_, but
also to students who love J. K. Rowling's literary creation. In a proper
balance, Rasmussen notes that readers might argue that Harry's being a
wizard with magical powers makes him fundamentally different from Tom.
However, who believes in magic as well? Tom Sawyer. Would he want Harry's
magical powers? The answer is obvious.
Many of the pleasures that modern readers get from Harry Potter are the
same that readers enjoy within the covers of _Tom Sawyer_. As in the Potter
book, Tom's adventures involve seven distinct triumphs that also show Tom
growing in maturity. Rasmussen clearly keeps his discussion of each
triumph's literary complexity and significance separate for comprehensive
academic enjoyment of young and older readers as well as for teaching
purposes. These triumphs include the whitewashing scene, Tom's trading of
his "whitewashing loot" for Bible prize tickets, his appearance at his own
funeral, his taking Becky's whipping in school, his testifying in Muff
Potter's trial, his rescuing Becky and himself in McDougal's cave, and his
perseverance in winning Injun Joe's treasure.
Female teachers can appreciate Rasmussen's frank acknowledgment of _Tom
Sawyer_'s having a "decidedly antifeminist slant" (xix). He is fair-minded
with his comments about Aunt Polly, Mary, Amy Lawrence, and, of course,
Becky Thatcher. On balance, he writes how "girls seem to have liked the
books as much as boys have" and notes that a "surprising number" of letters
to Twain were from girls and he includes a portion of a complimentary
letter of an eleven-year-old Wisconsin girl in 1891 (xix-xx). Importantly,
Rasmussen notes Twain's expressed profeminist views later in life, though
they are not in _Tom Sawyer_. This will appeal to some female teachers who
might be reluctant to teach the book because of its lack of strong female
For the Penguin Classics edition of _Huckleberry Finn_, Rasmussen also
updated the map of the "Mississippi of Huckleberry Finn." The _Huck_ volume
also features a foreword by Azar Nafisi, the author of _Reading Lolita in
Tehran_ and _The Republic of the Imagination_.Nafisi writes that
_Huckleberry Finn_ is not only a work that praises American individualism,
it also condemns "its stifling conformity" (ix) and the violence of
slavery. Nafisi posits that Twain is different from other orphan-tale
writers because he denies Huck any permanent home, a unique prize and
penalty for straying from conformity. She acknowledges that all reactions
to the character and the work's meaning reveal more about us as readers
than about the book itself. All its characters are in the American
fictional landscape, but overridingly, the theme of the lone individual
with a persistent conscience would reverberate in future times and outlooks.
Rasmussen's introduction to _Huckleberry Finn_ makes us consider the book's
diverse passages, and realize that the total work touches our minds,
hearts, and souls, and in so doing, makes us intellectually smarter and
emphatically better human beings. He gives an excellent overview and
history of Twain's difficulties of writing the book, its diverse and
virulent negative reactions then and now, but again, he ensures that any
frustration of defining Twain and _Huckleberry Finn_ should not dissuade us
from reading and enjoying the book.
Rasmussen details the viewpoints of those who find problems with the work,
and respectfully shows where faultfinders are likely mistaken. While we
should consider opposing critical viewpoints, we must make the intelligent
determination of the book's value on our own. This helps teachers immensely
enabling them to overcome the same problems that earnestly
knowledge-seeking students might raise.
The chronology sections of both books are not only thorough, but also
detail numerous cinematic adaptations and authoritative updates to both
_Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_. Once again, Rasmussen's efforts make a
teacher's job that much easier in answering students' follow-up questions
on Twain's life, his times, and the work being done to this day in
understanding and presenting his two most famous literary works.
The extensive endnotes to both _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_ are
instructive in their explanations of historical, referential, and idiomatic
information. Many of the endnotes for _Tom Sawyer_ are also excellent
preludes to reading and getting students to read _Huckleberry Finn_. In
short, Rasmussen, the clarifying literary historian, takes a common sense
approach to interpreting _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_. A critic
could ask if yet another introduction could say something new about these
extraordinary literary works. In this technologically driven world in which
so many of us can sadly and easily fall for too long in the grip of our
laptop screens, Rasmussen's fresh thoughts remind us anew of our human need
for Mark Twain, his two most famous boys, and their lives.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: John Pascal is in his fourteenth year teaching ninth-
and eleventh-grade English at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey.
He holds a B.A. Cum Laude in English from Villanova University, an M.B.A.
from Seton Hall University, and an M.A. in English from Montclair State