Reading Tom Sawyer as a Child and as an Adult

 

It has been almost 60 years since my fifth-grade teacher read Mark Twain’s, The Prince and the Pauper, and Tom Sawyer, to our class for the last 15 minutes of each school day. These minutes were, by far, the favorite parts of my academic training: They motivated me to come to school and attend the lessons each day and they created a seed that helped me to love literature and become a lifelong reader. Somehow my teacher read thru both books by the end of the school year. I followed-up this enriching experience by checking out both of these books from my local library and re-reading them in their entirety before sixth-grade started in September. Through these years, I have kept both of these books near and dear to my heart.

Therefore, I thought it would be both nostalgic and fun to have my class at the Lifelong Institute(LLI) in Chesterfield, Virginia read and discuss both of Twain’s books in my classes this past summer. All of the participants at LLI are over age 50 or”better,” and all come to my sessions voluntarily. I have taught classes at this school for about four years now and have focused, thus far, entirely on American gems like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Little Women, The Old Man in the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and Twain’s most classic read, Huckleberry Finn. Many of the students have stated that they had read some of these classics in their youth but didn’t understand them very well. Or they noted that they had been required to read them in high school or college but received little meaning or inspiration from such books. In either situation, they say that their teacher had spoon-fed them with the meanings and interpretations of literary works as if they couldn’t be questioned or discussed any further.

In our alternate setting, reading for both enjoyment and for meaning as an adult, and particularly as a member of a book discussion group, lifelong learners have had the experiences of living full lives, which often gives them the advantage of having a greater understanding of literature than they had in their youth. In an earlier blog, earlier this summer, I discussed how The Prince and the Pauper demonstrated how each of the two main characters gained  a fuller understanding of each other’s world by reversing roles. Through that book, Twain demonstrated that both youngsters were flexible and could learn how to adapt well in each other’s world. It also demonstrated Twain’s disdain for the pompous display of wealth by the aristocracy and the royal family under the sixteenth-century  King, Henry the VIII. It also highlighted the hypocrisies and cruelties of the religious establishment and the obscenities of poverty that average people lived under.

Reopening the early chapters of Tom Sawyer reveals the complexity of understanding that Twain demonstrated of the intricate details of the relationship between his principal characters. Much of the nuances of these relationships were missed hearing or reading these two books as children.Tom Sawyer, is a mix between Prince Edward and Tom Canty. He has the street-smarts of the pauper but he acts like a prince among his peers. Of course, Tom Sawyer, living under the loose reign of Aunt Polly, has a better situation than Tom Canty but is even more mischievous. Both Toms’ have conflicts with peers and mean-spirited foils. Both the Prince and Sawyer uses their wits to trick their peers into performing work for them.

In the opening scene, Aunt Polly can’t bring herself to use the switch on Tom even though he has eaten the forbidden jam. Tom tricks her and runs out the door before she can consequence him. As a child, I thought that his shiftiness was funny. However, as an adult, I am more sympathetic to Aunt Polly, who was burdened with raising her dead sister’s child without an adult male presence in the house.The scene both demonstrates that Aunt Polly loves her nephew, but cannot control him and that Tom has no conscience about taking advantage of his aunt. Tom’s half-brother, Sid, is as unlike Tom as is possible. As much as Tom thrives on breaking the rules of  adults, Sid enjoys adhering to them. Tom plays hooky instead of going to school, while Sid is the teacher’s pet. Tom’s biggest gripe with Sid, however, is that he always tattles on Tom’s antics to Aunt Polly. My opinion of a snitch who tattles to the teachers for truancy has not been raised as an adult. However, as a former teacher, I appreciate that it would be difficult to put up with a truant and mischievous student like Tom Sawyer. The abrasive encounter between Tom and Alfred Temple, the city slicker from Chicago, demonstrates Twain’s interest in the class, social, and behavioral differences between the two youth. Sid is impeccably dressed and Tom is always ready to rumble in the dirt. Temple draws a literal line in the sand which he dares Tom not to cross. Eventually, the two boys end up in a physical altercation, of which Tom wins. Alfred cannot compete against the superior toughness of the country-raised boy, and can only try to best Tom by attempting to fight him unfairly. Through this encounter, Twain reveals that he favors Tom’s country breeding to that of an over-pampered city youth. As a lad growing up in the city neighborhoods of Philadelphia, I completely missed Twain’s point of view. Perhaps, though, Twain was commenting more on the types of training and experiences the two boys had, and their social distinctions, than about the setting they grew up in.

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Tom Sawyer Tricks Friends to Whitewash His Fence

As a punishment for missing school, Aunt Polly assigns Tom to whitewash the fence of their yard. Among the tricks that Tom tries to get out of the work, is to attempt to get a slave boy to paint the fence for him. However, Aunt Polly has anticipated that Tom might resort to that tactic and has forbidden the slave boy from performing the task for Tom. The mention of a slave in this nineteenth-century novel is only incidental in this novel but is significant in Huckleberry Finn. As a youth, I took it for granted that a slave would be mentioned in a children’s book. However, some of the students in my adult class noted that they didn’t remember reading about a slave when they read Tom Sawyer as a child and were surprised to notice it. Tom lets the slave off the hook but tricks several of his peers into painting the fence for him by acting like it was the most enjoyable experience in the world. Once the other boys saw the first friend, Ben, painting, they were even willing to offer Tom a reward for the privilege of taking his punishment for him. By the end of the afternoon, Tom has collected a small fortune from swindling his friends, which includes marbles, a jew’s harp, a kite, and a brass doorknob. The doorknob becomes an essential part of his quest to secure the love of his future child wife, Becky Thatcher. Every girl in my fifth-grade class admired Becky but the women in my adult class thought she was a flirt and a schemer. Through the whitewashing incident, Twain teaches children and adults one of the most valuable lessons about human nature. Today, the term, “whitewashing” has become synonymous with covering a thinly applied argument with a shiny coat. As fifth graders, most of us thought the incident was hilarious. However, as adults, my students understand is that Twain was observing how readily people are misled by a credible looking hype and how readily many people are to follow the irrational actions of a crowd. The LLI students bring up how the whitewashing story applies to the modern way that television and social media use commercials to make products seem desirable that would otherwise be unnoticeable and useless. For example, I can’t think of any other reason that people would pay good money and spend a week doing ranch chores and paying for the experience during their vacation. Also, we discussed consider how politicians misrepresent words and images to try to make people sign-up to participate in their campaigns and foolish causes. Perhaps,Twain understood that the practice of whitewashing was so powerful and beguiling, that children might need a whole lifetime to recognize it and learn how to respond to it.

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 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

 

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