lundi 29 septembre 2014

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, 1876

In the history of literature, some books have complex lives, falling in and out of favour with critics, readers, school boards and even courts of law. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, unlike its sibling The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has had a relatively smooth ride for most of its 140 year life. Of course, the presence of the despicable Injun Jo
e and the occasional use of sensitive racial tags has led to debates about the appropriateness of teaching Tom Sawyer, unexpurgated, in secondary schools, but in large part the book remains on reading lists and library shelves.

One way to test the appeal of a book that is being read today, whether it was written generations ago or is newly published, is to read the book reviews. In the case of Tom Sawyer the verdict of the initial reviewers was largely the same, summed up by The London Examiner in 1876 as such: "the book will no doubt be a favourite with boys … (but) it might be most prized by philosophers and poets". Essentially, there is something there for everyone.

The opinion of both American and British reviewers was positive, with the exception of a couple, one of whom conflated the purpose of literature and a preacher's homily: "One gets very fond of Tom notwithstanding his grave faults, some of which you almost wish had been omitted. One cannot help regretting that so fine a fellow as Tom lies and smokes...".

The review which best summed up the contribution that Mark Twain made to American letters and to the psychological and sociological understanding of his country came from W. D. Howells who wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1876, "The whole little town lives in the reader's sense with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the Wilder West which has passed away." The whole review is worth reading because the opinions stated and the quality of the analysis are as valid today as they were when Howells published the piece.

Now, we might want to add that race and class are the determining categories through which we view the institution of slavery, puritan-based religion, rural and small-town prejudices. Similar ideas, slightly different language.

Regarding the style, both Twain’s contemporaries and readers today would say that Mark Twain’s wit, timing and good writing breathe life into the complex humanity of pre-civil war America. Quite a feat for the father of a fictional twelve year old orphan who just wanted to play hooky and search for pirate gold!

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