Sample Essay: Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

This 3,050-word sample of our "English Literature" essay writing expertise contains MLA style citations, tables, and an annotated bibliography in "combination" format (i.e., each entry includes summary, informative, indicative, and critical/evaluative info) on what many literary scholars believe to be the "original" American Novel.

Mark TwainIn 1876, Samuel Clemens, more commonly known by his penname of Mark Twain, published what would become the first true American novel with his now world-famous book and ever popular, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This novel has been the source of delight and inspiration for countless readers as well as being the source of its share of criticism and censorship over the years, though, based on its racial epitaphs, in ways that would likely mystify its author given the enlightened views on this subject that emerged from a careful reading. Unfortunately, most critics appear not to have carefully read the text and elect instead to point to the repeated use of the so-called "n" word rather than taking the whole work and its intended meaning in its proper context. To shed some light on these issues and the reasons for the novel's enduring popularity, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature concerning this Mark Twain book, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion of Tom Sawyer

Today, it is reasonable to suggest that many if not most Americans have enjoyed reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at some point in their lives. In this regard, de Saussure and Beidler (1984) note that, "Possibly the surest proof of continuing popularity is the fact that he is still being exploited commercially. One may sniff at such exploitation, but it would not occur if the man were not well known and widely respected: a legend, if you will" (4). Some Americans continue to first encounter Tom and Huckleberry Finn and the other colorful characters invented by Twain in school, where they are able to both study and enjoy the writing for what it is, rather than what its critics have suggested it is. Twain was a man of his time to be sure, and his writings are fully imbued with the vernacular that typified how African-Americans were popularly regarded as well as their peculiar manner of speech.

These characterizations, though, were not the result of a racist view on Twain's part, but were rather the author's attempts to portray the reality of black people during this period in American history. Indeed, taken together, it is also reasonable to suggest that there was not a racist bone in Twain's body (unless placed there by others). For example, just as modern readers may be shocked to learn about the efforts to censor the book over the years, Tom Sawyer is likewise shocked to learn that slaves have human feelings for their families and share the same emotional distress as white people. It is clear that Twain is using Tom as a vehicle through which to expose the profound ignorance that existed among the vast majority of white people during the 19th century concerning black people and their terrible fate at the hands of slave-owners, but this was a highly delicate affair in a country where the U.S. Constitution originally specifically stated that a black man was only worth three-fifths of a white person and these misperceptions about blacks were commonplace and institutionalized. It may be that the quality of the writing is attributable to Twain's own sense of justice and fair play or because the adventures that Tom experiences in this novel are based on some of the real events that occurred in Twain's own young life (Emerson 1984).

Furthermore, and even more importantly perhaps, Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to "make a buck," certainly, but this novel was also different from many of the author's other works for other reasons as well. In this regard, Emerson emphasizes that, "Tom Sawyer was not a book written to meet the demands of a contract, nor was it a sequel to the Innocents, as the diamond mine book and the English book were to have been. It was composed readily, from within, as suggested by the author's comment that in writing it he had ‘pumped myself dry' by summer's end" (quoted in Emerson at 80). In fact, Twain was confronted with a serious case of writer's block after completing the first part of the novel and put the work for a time until the words returned to the master and he was able to complete the novel without any further trouble (Emerson). According to this biographer, "Tom Sawyer was a real breakthrough for Mark Twain. He was not revising an earlier account, working from his brother's notes, editing someone else's reports, or working with a partner; he was relying on his memories: of his mother for Tom's Aunt Polly; of the cave where the real ‘Injun Joe' had been lost (but did not starve); of the schoolhouse" (Emerson 80).

Many of the events in Tom Sawyer have become part of the American landscape and iconographs in the process. For example, Sloane (2001) reports that, "The terrifying character Indian Joe and the adventures of Tom Sawyer with the cat and the painkiller and his rescuing of Becky from a caning in school were engaging to Twain's readers, but the sequence involving Tom's conniving to get other boys to white-wash Aunt Polly's fence while paying him for doing the unwanted painting chore has made the book a world-renowned classic since its publication" (18). Indeed, the white-washing of the fence has become virtually synonymous with any effort to persuade others to do one's work, but the real essence of the quality of the novel relates to the fact that the events in Tom Sawyer relate to real-life experiences that everyone continues to share even today.

According to Sloane (2001), Twain went to great lengths to capture this sense of realism in Tom Sawyer: "The realist writer attempted to depict real life as events that happen to normal people in normal settings, as in the novels centered around Tom Sawyer, which is not to say that some events may not be exaggerated. But at least plots and characters were not supposed to be sentimentalized romanticism" (25). Indeed, Mark Twain managed to capture the essence of the human condition in his works, and Tom Sawyer stands out as being one of the best in exemplifying what it means to an ordinary person in ordinary times. Based on his careful observations of humanity, Twain became convinced that what he was writing in Tom Sawyer was some true-to-life examples of what people actually thought and did as they wandered through life, and the fact that these accounts offended and even outraged some people was a startling revelation for the author. In this regard, Sloane also notes that, "Twain once expressed surprise that it made people mad that he spoke of the biblical Joseph of Arimathea's backyard as if it were his own backyard, but he held to the principle that human beings had much the same characteristics in every time and place, granted some national variations" (25).

In the preface to the novel, Twain even points out that "Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine" (Twain quoted in Emerson at 80). Twain also informed an interviewer in 1895 that he ". . . knew those boys so well that it was easy to write what they said and did" (quoted in Emerson at 80). Indeed, Tom's character is based in very large part on the experiences of Twain's own childhood (Emerson). Given the realistic qualities of the source for the material, adventures and various characters in the novel, the fact that Twain was able to identify and ridicule this misperceptions while keeping a sense of humor about things is proof positive of the man's genius and brotherhood of all men, but not everyone has shared his sense of egalitarianism since the book's publication. When people read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer without taking into account the real-life nature of the events it portrays and focus rather on the racial slurs and epitaphs used which were reflective of the contemporary vernacular, they are missing the author's point and such closed-mind approaches to reading this novel have ". . . led to trouble, for many readers did not understand that to portray something might be a way of discrediting rather than advocating it" (Sloan 2001: 25).

Although the novel has been the target of censors and school boards that feared its content, it would appear that some authorities wanted to censor Tom Sawyer from the very outset. In this regard, de Saussure and Beidler advise, "It often comes as an enormous surprise to such people to learn that the first nine chapters of the first American printing of Tom Sawyer contains scores of alterations imposed by Mary Mapes Dodge when she ‘purified' the text for the little innocents" (11). Informed readers will readily understand that Twain was both poking fun and criticizing these social institutions in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but a casual reader might overlook some of the more subtle nuances involved. Therefore, an examination of some of the more salient commentary contained in the novel can help illuminate what Twain was really trying to accomplish (besides making a buck) with the publication of this novel as described further in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Summary of Racial Epitaphs
in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Page No.
Textual Excerpt
Interpretation and Comments
p. 56

"Why, he told Jeff Thatcher, and Jeff told Johnny Baker, and Johnny told Jim Hollis, and Jim told Ben Rogers, and Ben told a nigger, and the nigger told me. There now!"

"Well, what of it? They'll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. I don't know him. But I never see a nigger that wouldn't lie. Shucks! Now you tell me how Bob Tanner done it, Huck."

This youthful exchange between Tom and Huckleberry Finn is qualified by the addition of a common racial stereotype that Twain uses to highlight the fallacy of such beliefs.
p. 202

"He didn't have any other name. Kings don't have any but a given name."


"But they don't."

"Well, if they like it, Tom, all right; but I don't want to be a king and have only just a given name, like a nigger. But say--where you going to dig first?"

Slaves and even free blacks were typically referred to by a given name absent a surname. According to White (1989), "In the first census in 1790 only the given names of most free blacks were included, with less than 15% of the small number of the listed free black heads of household having a surname" (29).
pp. 227-228

"That's all right. Now, where you going to sleep?"

"In Ben Rogers's hayloft. He lets me, and so does his pap's nigger man, Uncle Jake. I tote water for Uncle Jake whenever he wants me to, and any time I ask him he gives me a little something to eat if he can spare it. That's a mighty good nigger, Tom. He likes me, becuz I don't ever act as if I was above him. Sometimes I've set right down and eat with him. But you needn't tell that. A body's got to do things when he's awful hungry he wouldn't want to do as a steady thing."

In this passage, Twain makes it clear that even this simple act of equanimity of the part of Huckleberry Finn would have resulted in social chastisement and even further ostracization for the young man if the fact that he treated a mere slave as an equal was made publicly known. Finn even qualifies his actions by excusing them with the hunger rationale to his good friend, Tom.
p. 236
"But her husband was rough on me--many times he was rough on me--and mainly he was the justice of the peace that jugged me for a vagrant. And that ain't all. It ain't a millionth part of it! He had me horsewhipped!--horsewhipped in front of the jail, like a nigger!--with all the town looking on! HORSEWHIPPED!--do you understand? He took advantage of me and died. But I'll take it out of her" (emphasis author's).
Notwithstanding the racial stereotyping also contained in the appellation, "Injun Joe," this excerpt was used by Twain to clearly emphasize the inhumane practices that characterized the manner in which African-Americans were treated during the 19th century.

Sources: Twain 1920; White 1989.

That's it. That's what all the fuss is apparently about. In fact, that is the sum total of all of the racial epitaphs and pejoratives contained in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (again, notwithstanding the Native American references), but these isolated references have resulted in this most excellent American novel being excluded from being taught and interpreted in many schools across the country as well as actually being banned from numerous public libraries over the years, a fact that would have likely dismayed and disappointed Twain a great deal because he liked what he had created in this novel. For example, according to de Saussure and Beidler, Twain was not above self-promotion when it came to this book: "Tom Sawyer -- the book he was to call a hymn written in prose to give it a worldly air" (108).

Even during his own lifetime, Twain's works had been banned from a number of public libraries, including the Omaha Public Library Denver Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and even the New York State Reformatory (Foerstel 2002). Good grief! It would seem that from the view of some closed-minded librarians, even hardened criminals would be further criminalized and degraded simply by reading exploits of the boy-hero in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What were these people thinking? Moreover, the fuss has not died down but has rather intensified it would seem. For example, Foerstel reports that, "In February 1997, the Reverend Charles Sims and about twenty members of the African American community in Columbus, Indiana, attended a school board meeting to protest the use of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in the local high school's classrooms. Sims said exposing African American children to the books was ‘degrading, insensitive, and oppressive'" (191). Yet Twain was anything but a racist. In fact, Sloane points out that, "He paid the scholarships of several Negro students, one to Yale Law School, remarking it was part of the debt owed by every white man to every black man for the fact of Negro slavery" (10).

While Twain would go on to experience some profound financial problems later in his life as a result of his investments in an ill-fated typesetting machine, he was also faced with some serious copyright issues with the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that diminished his income early on. In this regard, Sloan adds that, "Pirated editions of Twain's works in London and Toronto were irritants, and many reviewers dismissed him as a literary clown, but a growing number of authors and critics recognized the hero Tom's accuracy to life and Twain's importance as a writer" (p. 18). Despite the criticisms that have been heaped on Twain and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer over the years, it would seem that many educators recognize the inherent value in teaching and interpreting this great American novel in the classroom today. Based on the results of a survey of U.S. educators conducted by Leonard (1999), besides Huckleberry Finn (the most popular text), other works by Twain being used in American classrooms today include those listed in Table 2 below, with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer running a close third place in its popularity.

Table 2: Survey Results Regarding Which of Twain's
Non-Huck Finn Works Professors Assign in Class

Title of Work
Number of Responses
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Roughing It
The Innocents Abroad
"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"
The Mysterious Stranger
"The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"
Life on the Mississippi
Selected Short Stories
Letters from the Earth
The Gilded Age
The Prince and the Pauper

Source: Leonard: 19-20.

Based on the foregoing survey results, it is clear that Twain has assumed an important place in American education and provide numerous invaluable snapshots of what life was really like during 19th century America as well as the author's perception of the human condition and its effect on the frail human animal. Critics that take an isolated excerpt out of context are missing Twain's points and are doing themselves and others a disservice by ignoring these inestimable contributions to the literary world.


Mark Twain SignatureThe research showed that Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain was an enormously prolific writer as well as an inventor and keen observer of the humanity that swirled around him. Having read everything the author has ever written, this writer can report without reservation that few others have the ability to make one laugh out loud, but Mark Twain was a humorist extraordinaire and his ability to capture the essence of life was nowhere better exemplified than in his great American novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876. Although Twain would go on to make some poor business decisions later in life that would create enormous problems for him and his family, he left a rich legacy of literary works that stand apart in their quality and the richness of their content. While it is reasonable to conclude that most young people today do not enjoy the opportunities to get into trouble in ways that are identical to Tom Sawyer's puckish exploits because things have changed in substantive ways since its publication, it is also reasonable to conclude that most young people will get into the same kinds of trouble that the characters in this novel experienced. The research also showed that some misguided and narrow-minded critics of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer have used the few racial stereotypes and pejoratives contained in the text as an excuse to exclude it from curricular offerings and even public libraries over the years, something that astonished Twain during his own era and remains equally disturbing for enlightened readers today. As emphasized by most educators, Twain used these references to criticize these social practices rather than as a means of expressing approval of them, and a more careful reading of this novel will make this point clear.

Works Cited (Annotated Bibliography)

de Saussure, Sara D. and Philip D. Beidler. The Mythologizing of Mark Twain. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1984.

The authors present a comprehensive review of Twain's work in an effort to understand his place in American literary history as a serious author or simply a humorous one. Of particular interest was the authors' use of examples of the monetary value attributed to Twain's first editions and how modern readers have sought out his works for an inflation-resistant investment rather than for the sheer joy of reading them. Although the authors provide numerous examples of Twain's Dave Barry-like qualities in being the funniest man in America at the time, they also maintain that his other works qualify him as a truly serious writer who deserves the accolades that have been directed his way and suggest that his critics are failing to grasp the totality of his work in the process. Their discussion of the relevance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its place in modern America was regarded as especially relevant of the purposes of this paper.

Emerson, Everett. The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

This author emphasizes that not only is Mark Twain regarded as a great American writer today, he remains enormously popular around the world, as well. This is not surprising, Emerson suggests, because of the universal quality of the observations about humanity that Twain makes in his various works. With a number of Twain's works set in Europe and elsewhere abroad, it is little wonder that foreign readers would be drawn to Twain's works, but the quality of his writing is what Emerson suggests is the enduring feature that keeps his work fresh and exciting for modern readers. The author presents a number of biographical aspects of Twain's life that helped explain how and why he write Tom Sawyer based on his own boyhood experiences, and it was these aspects of the book that were considered most useful for this study.

Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.A: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

The First Amendment takes a beating when schools and library staff pick and choose what offerings they will provide their clientele based on their own warped sense of what is appropriate and what is not. The author provides an analysis of what books have been singled out over the years and suggests that despite the innocuous content of many of these books, authorities have managed to find something offensive in many works including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and especially Huckleberry Finn. If the scenarios described by Foerstel were not so serious, some of these bans might be considered humorous, especially the banning of Tom Sawyer by a state reformatory. When public libraries and schools that are supported by taxpayer funds, though, refuse to carry the first true American novel, Foerstel argues that something is fundamentally wrong with the system and changes in the authorities making such decision are required rather than changes in the textual content of the books they so callously ban in disregard of the supposed best interests of their constituents. This text was considered very useful for the purposes of the instant study.

Leonard, James S. Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Although targeted at classroom teachers, this text provides some valuable insights concerning the historical events that surrounded Twain's writings and how these events can be used to interpret works such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for modern readers. Of particular interest is the author's analysis of how racial issues are addressed in Twain's works besides Tom Sawyer, and the author explains that Twain's use of racial epitaphs and characterizations of slavery were not intended to support the peculiar institution but rather to highlight the fundamental injustices these represented. All in all, Leonard presents a useful series of analyses of Twain's major works and how they are being used in the classroom today that was deemed highly relevant for the purposes of this project.

Sloane, David E. E. Student Companion to Mark Twain. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

The author prefaces this work with an interesting overview of Twain's early, middle and later life to help interpret his body of work for modern readers. A description of Twain's contributions to modern literature is followed by a discussion of his various travel narratives and the historical basis for his works such as Tom Sawyer. Particularly useful was the description of Twain's use of racial references in the text as a way of emphasizing the inhumanity of slavery rather than endorsing it, which was the thrust of the instant project, as well.

White, S. (1989). "A Question of Style: Blacks in and Around New York City in the Late 18th Century." Journal of American Folklore, 102(403): 29.

This work was consulted for an interpolation of one of the excerpts used in the tabular analysis of Twain's racial epitaphs only but provides some interesting insights into the status of blacks during his era as well.

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