In which I match, or mismatch, wits
I just reread The Adventures of Tom Sawyer after quite a number of years, possibly predating the last time I read Huck Finn. Not only is the prose as precise and entertaining as ever, this time around has elucidated something I’ve long struggled with concerning certain contemporaries of Mark Twain aka Sam Langhorne Clemens. Specifically Charles Dickens, who wrote to mirror the world he saw just as Twain did, and who often centered his stories on children just as Twain did, albeit with a style and tone that could not be more different.
For a while growing up I subliminally tried to convince myself that I liked Dickens. (I never had to resort to psychological tricks with Twain.) I haven’t even read very much of him, and ultimately made my peace with that after realizing I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel good after reading what I did, and of course an artist is perfectly within their rights to evoke unpleasant feelings; but nor did I feel productively or constructively bad—stirred to action, you might say. A Dickens reading experience was, for me, simply depressing.
Put another way: as far as Victorians demonstrating the world’s frightening and disorientating potential go, Lewis Carroll has done more for me than Dickens ever could.
Twain, meanwhile, was acclaimed for his sense of humor, which will always snag my attention. I should note that I spent the summer before entering college in a journalism apprenticeship at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, so I was at one time in my life intensively immersed in his aura. My work didn’t have to do with him exactly, but I inevitably learned more about him than I’d ever consciously thought to. I even wrote an article on the effect of dialect in his fiction. And I retain a special affinity for him given the time he spent in my neck of the woods. Despite that eventual move, though, he never stopped platforming his home state: the Tom/Huck stories probably constituted the most visible Missouri representation up until Cam Tucker on Modern Family.
It could well be my reverence for Twain, then, that throws my feelings about Dickens as a writer into such stark relief. Dickens’ work strikes me as extraordinarily exhibitionist—look at these miserable people, in what abject poverty they live, they’re not even sure it’s worth trying to survive…now congratulate me for deigning to show it to you. Distasteful, if you ask me. After all, nobody in either author’s universe has much in terms of money or assets, and yet I’m not confronted with that impinging perspective when I read about the villagers of St. Petersburg, Missouri. I’m discomfited for other reasons, but that’s the point! I don’t feel as though Twain is talking down to me.
What’s more, Twain isn’t talking down to his characters, and herein lies the thing I most enjoyed about rereading Tom Sawyer. Twain treats the problems of children seriously, because they are serious to the children. When you’re that age, and you have a falling-out with a girl you like, that’s a big deal to you. Twain, as author, honors that and makes space for it. And then maybe you encounter some problems that others would also consider “real,” such as being trapped in a cave for three days after you wandered too far in. Everything is on equal footing in this universe.
But then of course I enjoyed the read simply for the dynamic between characters. Joe Harper doesn’t get nearly his due anymore, given his pride of place as Tom’s original best friend (after all, he knows how to play Robin Hood); and Tom’s younger brother Sid is an excellent foil, everything a conniving sibling should be, especially one trying to live up to the standard set by his master-manipulator predecessor. Tom and Huck establish their alliance in this volume, having sized each other up for a while before witnessing a frightening event together. That trauma bond turns into a friendship so pure it just melts my heart. And I’m reminded that Huckleberry Finn is truly one of the great literary figures: his reasoning for not wanting to return to the Widow Douglas’ house, which he delivers to Tom at the end of the book in what amounts to a rant against civilization, is a self-affirming statement like no other. (He hasn’t said too much throughout the rest of the story by comparison—Tom is the gregarious, loquacious one—so this moment is particularly cathartic.) It’s no wonder at all that he gets his own spinoff, and that it’s more mature than this venture, because he occupies a more difficult and unique space than Tom does, wedged between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. I knew I was right to get attached to him all those years ago.
(Dickens, who arguably perfected the modern Bildungsroman, just doesn’t hit the same way.)
The entire community is so richly imagined, though, that one need not even focus on any singular character for an accessible point of entry. Around the middle of the story Twain portrays the final exams of the school year, in which all the children have to get up and do recitations. Tom appears in the scene but is not central to it; it’s about everyone. (He starts out brimming with confidence in his declaiming, predictably, but crashes and burns halfway through.) It provides a blueprint for the comedic montage sequences of the movies we love today. Twain openly inserts authorial commentary on the quality of the students’ “sermons,” and I am absolutely here for it.
So there you go. All this judgment I’ve also got to attribute partly to a matter of personality, because I would have hung out with Sam Clemens at any time ever (maybe not lend him money, but have dinner with him anyway), whereas I hear Dickens could be quite arrogant. I suppose it’s understandable for the bestselling novelist of the century to let that go to his head, but it doesn’t mean I’d want to be around him.
(And in case you needed another argument, Twain had that impressive mustache, while Dickens had this whole situation.)
Meanwhile, the next time something doesn’t go the way you hoped, just consider that you’ve hit upon “an unpromising market.” Not a word out of place in Twain.