Mark Twain As Philosopher Mark Twain is, according to critics and readers alike, the first great American novelist (Reuben). Throughout his lifetime Twain, born Samuel Longhorn Clemens, held an eclectic mix of jobs, and, wrote a great deal about his experiences and his boyhood. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (AOTS) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (AOHF) are a pair of novels by Twain that: present the new and radical changes in the early 1800s in contrast to the old fashioned ways; mirror Twain’s life as a young boy growing up in a one-horse town on the Mississippi River; and, give the reader an idea of his view that the loss of innocence signals the coming of age. Twain was born in 1835 and Tom Sawyer grew up in the 1840s. Around this time, America, especially the North, was undergoing “revolutionary changes in transportation and communication” (Geise 93).
The river steam boat was invented in 1807 (Roberts and Kennedy 305) and subsequently took over mass transportation from sailboats using the ocean (Geise). This was a big change from the previous small scale or trans-ocean transport. After the steam boat came the steam train which revolutionised transportation in a similar fashion, and they synergistically opened the West to all people and boosted trade and commerce enormously–not just of the big industrial towns but of the en-route towns and the farms, In 1849, agriculture accounted for over half of the nation’s economy, whereas today it is one-fiftieth (Roberts and Kennedy A27). Canals, turnpikes and clipper ships also greatly affected transport and communication between distant places (311). The times were revolutionary in that the old ways of taking dirty, bumpy roads long distances with little profit were over.
Another sign of the times was slavery. Racism was widespread during this time period because many large farms and plantations held slaves. Feelings towards slaves in Missouri were not generally sympathetic, and abolitionists were not well accepted because the economy would collapse without the slave based agriculture. Rudyard Kipling wrote at the end of that century “The White Man’s Burden,” (643) that was taken to mean that blacks must accept their position as underlings. While a false interpretation, it shows that many Confederates and sympathisers held the view that blacks and slaves deserved to be oppressed even after the Civil War (1861-1864).
TAOTS accurately reflects the small town economy. The river trade is the centre of all commerce and without it, town life would end. In Chapter Two of TAOTS, Ben Rogers, a local boy, pretends to be a steamboat. This exemplifies how important the boats were to the town. Everything in the town–the mill, the taverns–they all depended on the trade from the river.
The town, consisting of a church, a school, a general store, taverns a mill and a docking area for the boats also reflect how important the river really was. The minister’s fire and brimstone sermons (35) preach against the evils of drink, gambling and lust, all of which would have been demonstrated by the passing river sailors and conmen. In the AOHF, the town life is not so much the focus of description as river life. But it is the description of the treatment of slaves that truly stands out. Huck was poor, but still he was socially above Jim because he was white and not owned.
TAOHF was set a few decades before the civil war so when Huck and Jim escaped down the Mississippi and headed south, they were putting Jim in more peril. When they took on board the King and the Duke these other travelers wanted to turn Jim in. Many non-slave states actually had laws that allowed for the returning of runaway slaves (Geise 109). Both TAOTS and AOHF are accurate in their description of the situation (slave-wise and town-wise) at that time. Mark Twain’s views about childhood and the subsequent loss of innocence are a product of childhood experience growing up in Hannibal, Missouri (pop 500), a small town on the Mississippi River.
As a young boy, he enjoyed skipping school to go fishing on the nearby island; playing with the off-limits Tom Blackenship (Draper 3713), the son of the town drunk; or spending time with his sweetheart Laura Hawkins (Thayer 5). Twain once had a harrowing experience as a child when he got lost in a local cave with Laura. Living in the small river town, whose only commerce was from the steamboat trade, he witnessed at least four murders (Sanderlin). When he was eleven, his father died (Meltzer 75). He quit school in fifth grade (twelve years old), just as most children did at that time (Kaplan 356).
He then became an apprentice in a printing shop, where he began to write down stories his overactive imagination created. Twain had an ideal life in Hannibal. Even though he was poor (Roberts 5), he went to school and Sunday School where he got some education and made many friends, and much mischief. He and his friends had exiting experiences together, some of which jolted him out of his innocence. Once Twain and his friends were playing in the creek and a clumsy German boy, who makes an appearance in TAOTS, dived into the creek and drowned.
The boy had memorised 3000 verses of the Bible for Sunday school, so Twain had a hard time figuring out how God could be that cruel. Or, for that matter, how people could be cruel. He once saw a master brutally murder his slave: not a rare occurrence in Missouri, a slave state. As a result, Twain underwent ups and downs in his mood as a child had bad dreams and sleep-walked (Sanderlin 13). All, or most, of the experiences and feelings Twain had growing up in Hannibal are mirrored in Tom Sawyer’s story.
In fact, at the beginning of the novel, Twain tells the reader that Tom’s adventures were the same as the ones he and his friends had, albeit exaggerated. Tom grew up in a small river town in the 1840s, just like Twain. It was essentially Hannibal, renamed St. Petersburg, Missouri. St.
Petersburg had the same characters as Hannibal. There was the town drunk, Mr. Finn; his son Huckleberry; a loving and generous mother figure (Aunt Polly, based on Mrs. Clemens) taking care of a brat (Sid in the novel, brother Henry in life) and a responsible girl (Mary in the novel, sister Pamela in Twain’s life). Injun Joe was a miscreant in Hannibal, Becky Thatcher is the Laura mentioned before, and Judge Thatcher is similar to Twain’s father, an unemotional lawyer.
Becky and Tom once got lost in a cave just as Twain and Laura did. Tom once witnessed a murder and experienced conflicts of emotions and had bad dreams until he gave into his conscience and told the …