Friday, April 08, 2005

Book 2: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

To be fair, I don’t think anyone, Mark Twain included, has ever claimed Tom Sawyer is as great a piece of literature as Huck Finn. I’m sure if I had read the book as a child I would have marveled at Tom’s impish adventures and treacherous searches for lost treasure. But, reading it now, as a (semi) adult, I can’t help but focus on the blatant and rather revolting racism and class divisions spattered throughout the work. Characters make comments on the savagery of Injun Joe and the status of African American slaves in Tom that are rather revolting. Clemens, like William Faulkner, has always walked a fine line with racism throughout the historical course of the literary criticism regarding their fiction. There’s no debating racism stalks the pages of Clemens’ novels. The question is whether Clemens’ was merely documenting the South during the mid-to-late 19th century, or if his own bigoted opinions were slipping into the stories. My opinion is he’s somewhere in-between. Afterall, he was a southern white man living through slavery and segregration, but the satirical manner in which he looks at the institutions around him highlight how he was aware of the injustices surrounding him. I recognize I’m reading his work with 21st century eyes and I’ve never been a fan of destroying a book’s aesthetic quality by forcing a cultural context reading. However, jaded liberal that I am, I reacted to the biased language despite myself.

This isn’t to say that Tom Sawyer is worthless. Not by any means. It made enjoyable subway reading on my workday commute and Clemens certainly captures his subject well. But, in comparison to his later work, it comes up well short. Even if you were forced to read Huck Finn by a matronly 9th grade English teacher, with a nose for convention, a bulbous pouch for an abdomen, and a knack for killing all pleasure in reading, it would be hard to dispute the later novel’s merits. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I liked Tom much less for what it is and much more for what it shows a writer can become.

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