Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Living Like Tom Sawyer

“The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that they were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.” (63)


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is my candidate for the book that serves as a primer on freedom. It is not insignificant that it was published in 1876, when the United States was celebrating its centennial. He wrote these words at a time when Americans were that they were trying to tell the world of their success as a bastion of freedom. “Although my book it intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” (Preface) It is almost as if he is challenging his readers to look elsewhere for models of freedom. It exists not in the political realm, but in social relations, such as those created by children as they imagine their world.


The first half of the Tom Sawyer centers on the experiences of Tom in St. Petersburg as a boy living under the care of his Aunt. He gets in fights, completes chores around the house, goes to Sunday school, plays with Huckleberry Finn, had various adventures as pirates. The major plot point that occurs during this first half is that Tom and Huck witness Injun Joe’s murder of Dr. Robinson. This terrifies the boys and they spend some time hiding out on an island. Tom is able to turn even that into a game as he crashes his own funeral, but only after playing pirates. In the second half of the novel, the plot is more significant, as Tom and Huck manage to find Injun Joe’s treasure (the money he stole). Injun Joe dies in the cave that he fled to, but only after Tom’s harrowing escape from the same cave. I will assume most people know this basic outline and the details. I want to talk more about what we can learn from Tom Sawyer (and Huck as well) about freedom.

If the novel has an argument, it is that the adult world is corrupt, exploitive, controlling, and overall despicable, while children, engaging the world freely, are creative, cooperative, and basically good. Injun Joe, for all the racial interpretations we can give his character is basically a representative of the adult world. The solution to Injun Joe by other adults is to lock up the cave, essentially imprisoning their most conspicuous problems. But even when not so dramatic, we are given to see the rules and antics of the adults as ridiculous and certainly not conducive to a free environment.


One thing that Tom Sawyer does that we should learn from is that he turned work into play. As readers of my blog already know, I am post-leftist in my attitude toward labor. The primary purpose of technology, in my view, is the abolition of work. Most work that is being done now should be covered to various forms of play. This is what Tom achieved in the white-washing scheme, but it is rather impure, which leads me to think that Tom would (unfortunately) grow up to be a boss or a lawyer or something. He tries to convince others to do his work for him, by suggesting to them that it is play. Is this not the approach of many managers (think of the antics of Michael Scott from The Office)? Still the philosophy behind this, when not used for exploitation is valuable. “If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would not have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that Ply consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (20)

Tom Sawyer is an example of infrapolitics at work, almost all of the time. He is in constant rebellion against authority and he has no shortage of strategies to manipulate the powerful toward his will, or simply finding pleasure in them. Whether it is evasion of school, methods of recalling Bible verses (and maybe getting a free Bible in the process), or finding ways to pleasurably hack the strange rituals and sentiments of adults, Tom Sawyer was an expert. Sometimes they very much reflect the weapons of the weak and take the form of foot dragging and open declarations of exhaustion and frustration. At times, his resistance was more open and courageous, such as his open confession: “I STOPPED TO TALK TO HUCKLEBERRY FINN.” (49) Combined, however, various forms of infrapolitics created the space within which Tom Sawyer was able to craft his world.

There is a moment in the early part of the book, where Tom Sawyer ponders the questions that all children get at one point in their life: What do you want to be when you grow up? He goes through several options, such as becoming an Indian, a soldier, or a clown before settling on his future as a pirate. One way to look at this is that Tom Sawyer is not being as creative as I am suggesting above. It seems he is copying the archetypes (heroic and villainous) that he had picked up from the adult world, through literature and stories. But I do not think it is that simple. Because we cannot deny the role of play in constructing the meaning of these professions for Tom and his friends. If on the one hand, Tom Sawyer was using play to train himself to be a pirate, learning sword fighting and how to ransom prisoners. On the other hand, Tom was also re-creating the meaning of being a pirate. Even when engaging with texts (Tom liked to complain that a certain response is not how it is done in the books), he is pushing the boundaries of these heroic ideals, as in the gang’s decision at the end to tradition of stealing. And for those who say that Tom could not have ever grown up to be a pirate, I need merely point out the long tradition of outlaws in the Wild West, which really came alive during the Great Depression.

Something should be said about Huckleberry Finn.  If we can imagine Tom Sawyer growing up to be a lawyer, it is because he is still within the realm of the civilized. He may grumble and chores or going to Sunday school, but he still shows up eventually—even if always in some mode of resistance. Huck Finn exists completely in the world created by himself and the other children. The consequences of this is one of the major tensions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The opening description is worth reading (and should be required on all naturalization examinations instead of a list of presidents). “Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim. . . Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anyone.” (45) It goes on, but you get the point. Please look up the entire description yourself. Bear in mind, this is the narrator’s (apparently adult) point of view, not that of Tom or (as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) Huck himself. That narrator is a nostalgic adult who looks back on his childhood as containing a lost freedom. Huck is important because he is the freest in this social space, exactly because he is the only figure that is totally de-institutionalized.


In short, Huck is able to be establish himself as more free than Tom (in both image in reality) because he was able to free himself from the adult world entirely. At the end of the day (or the end of the adventure) Tom goes back to Aunt Polly. Huck goes back to the barrel.

One area where the freedom of the children of St. Petersburg is particularly strong is in culture. This is not uncontested, as the chapter dealing with Sunday school suggests. One child was even became an “idiot” after memorizing 3,000 useless Bible verses. Certainly there are efforts by the adults to control how the children view the world, but they also cannot keep form them the stories of pirates and robbers that so inspired their play. The children are also deep believers in superstition and tend to put value in odd places. Examples of this include the odd collection of valuables that Tom collected during his whitewashing scheme and Huck Finn’s belief that dead cats (one of which he owns) cures warts. As Twain explains in the brief preface, these were beliefs that were common “among children and slaves in the West.” He is hinting at not only a biracial culture, but also a strongly vernacular one.

Although this post is long enough, I really cannot move on until I say a few words about Injun Joe. Like Huck, Injun Joe is a notorious outsider. His physical strength, his racial otherness, and his use of violence make him a much more dangerous outsider. If we do not suspect that Huck will grow up into another Injun Joe, it is because of the later’s racial otherness and Huck’s good nature. As The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells us, the people of St. Petersburg were willing to invest great resources to “redeem” Huck. No such investment is given to the total outsider Injun Joe. I still want to read Injun Joe as a mirror image of Huck. The fact is, given “civilization” Huck cannot remain free. There is a dark cloud over our joyful appreciation of the children’s freedom. They must grow up. Even Huck must grow up. If he remains socially isolated he is really at risk of becoming a criminal outsider (not just a notorious one). Again, the sequel shows that he does not respect the social rules when he tries to free Jim—who he wrongfully believed was still a slave. We imagine he would be a good-hearted criminal. Twain paints Huck and essentially good and Injun Joe as essentially vile. However, who is to say the result of years of exclusion and built up resentment. At the very least, we can see that Injun Joe is a possible result of forced exclusion. Huck Finn (in his youth at least) is an example of exclusion by choice.
(I am ambivalent about this train of thought.  If anyone can help me, please comment below.)

The solution to this is to make growing up unnecessary. I think we can start by turning work into play, but this may be a job we need to leave to the young.


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