Tom Sawyer Revisited: Reading the Book as a Child and as an Adult

On April 11, 2017, I will begin leading a discussion class on Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the OSHER Institute on the University of Richmond campus.  I will follow-up that up with a class this summer on the Twain’s greatest work, Huckleberry Finn. The Sawyer class will illustrate how Tom’s conscience is awakened and how Huck’s sense of morality are improved during his adventures with Tom. I will also attempt to show how Huck Finn became the central character of Tom Sawyer by the end of that story. In this article, I am listing some questions to help OSHER readers navigate or re-navigate their way through Tom Sawyer. I am following those questions up with a re-posting of an article I previously published on re-reading Tom Sawyer. That article also discusses some of my experiences teaching literature classes at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, VA.

Discussion  Topics and Questions for April 11 OSHER Class:

*(In considering Several these questions, please highlight brief passages that address the issues. I may ask you to read them in class – if you agree. Thanks).

How have your experiences been changed after reading Tom Sawyer as a child and then as a mature adult?

Consider the impact that Twain had on literature.

*What type or genre of novel is Tom Sawyer? Beware, no one answer can be accepted.

*What are Twain’s views on the importance of family and community?

*Consider the relationship between Tom and Aunt Polly. What changes and doesn’t change about that relationship through the book.

*What is Tom’s attitude toward work and responsibility?

*Consider the ways that Tom and Huck’s sense of conscience change through the book?

*What are some of the Nineteenth-Century cultural trends that readers can view by reading Tom Sawyer?

*What are Twain’s views on the authority figures of established institutions like churches and schools? Why does he feel that way?

*What are the situations where Twain uses irony, humor, and/or satire? Hint, it may be harder to find situations where he doesn’t.

*How and where does Twain represent local dialect? Does he go too far into racial and cultural prejudiced views?

*What are Twain’s attitudes toward women, as represented in Tom Sawyer? What do you think about the ways that Tom courts Amy Lawrence and Becky Thatcher?

Twain said that a classic novel is one that everyone reveres, but no one reads. Is Tom Sawyer out-of-date; or in what ways does it still speak to us today?

I am looking forward to seeing you in class. Please write me at ellisonms2@vcu.edu if you have any questions or input before or after my class. You may also comment on this blog electronically in the space provided below and sign up to automatically receive Litchatte.com as soon as I write it, by providing your email in the box provided at the bottom of this blog.

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 Excerpts from my re-posted article on reading Tom Sawyer as a child and as an adult below:

It has been almost 60 years since my fifth-grade teacher read Mark Twain’s, Tom Sawyer to our class for the last 15 minutes of each school day. Those minutes were, by far, the favorite parts of my academic training: They motivated me to 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 both Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper 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 these and other Twain’s books near and dear to my heart, re-read them to myself and to my children, and, more recently, attempted to transmit my interest to senior adults in various class settings. Please note that the image I have shown in this post is the “frontispiece from the 1876 first edition of  Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The illustrator was named True Williams (Public Domain – Library of Congress).

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 the book last summer. All of the participants at LLI are age 50 or”better,” and all came to my sessions voluntarily. I had taught classes at this school for about four years and had focused 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. However, the last sessions I taught there were a poetry workshop and a discussion of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Many of the students 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, 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 experienced in their youth.

Reopening the early chapters of Tom Sawyer reveals the complexity that Twain demonstrated about the intricate details of the relationship between his principal characters. Tom Sawyer is living under the loose roof and reign of Aunt Polly. In the opening scene, she can’t bring herself to use the switch on Tom even though he has eaten her forbidden jam. Tom tricks her and runs out the door before she can discipline 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 demonstrates that Aunt Polly loves her nephew but cannot control him and that Tom has little to no conscience about taking advantage of her. As the book advances, readers can decide whether Tom develops a sense of conscience or not as he interacts with Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher, and Muff Potter. 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 low opinion of a snitch who tattles to the teachers for truancy has not been changed 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 the slickly dressed youth from the big city demonstrates Twain’s interest in the class, social, and behavioral differences between the two youth. The unnamed youth, Becky Thatcher’s brother, is impeccably dressed and Tom is ready to rumble with him in the dirt. The boy draws a literal line, on which he dares Tom not to cross. Eventually, the two boys end up in a physical altercation, of which, Tom easily wins. The city-slicker cannot compete against the superior toughness of the country-raised boy and can only try to best Tom by continuing to taunt him even as he is running way. 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 in which 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 their young negro slave, Jim, to paint the fence for him. However, Aunt Polly has anticipated that Tom might resort to that tactic and has forbidden Jim from performing the task. 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 they were surprised one was included. Jim is too smart to fall for Tom’s tricks. But Tom gets several of his peers to paint 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 Harper 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 included 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 understood 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 discussed 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 take part 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 of practice with it to recognize it and learn how to respond to it.

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Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coordinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is co- organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

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