Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Detective” (1896)

“You bet. Some day there’ll be a big reward offered for them—a thousand dollars, sure. That’s our money! Now we’ll trot in and see the folks. And mind you we don’t know anything about any murder, or any di’monds, or any thieves—don’t you forget that.” (768)

Surprisingly, the last of the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer, Detective—is not entirely superfluous. It is an extremely short novel (around 60 pages) covering Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s trip to the Phelps farm, sometime after the events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This was the location where they freed Jim. The plot centers on three brothers, the Dunlap. Jubiter Dunlap is Silas’ farm laborer. Jack Dunlap is a convict escaped from jail and stole some diamonds from his ex-partners. Brace Dunlap is a more established man in the community but no dear friend of Silas. Tom and Huck first get involved in this mess when they begin to aid Jack in evading his former partners. When Jubiter goes missing, Silas gets accused of murder and is put on trial.

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Indeed, Silas confesses to striking Jubiter. Perhaps this is to surprising in a slave society build on terror and violence. Of course, such violence only became a legal issue of import when a free man was harmed (women and slaves were not so protected by the law). “He [Silas] said Jubiter pestered him and aggravated him till he was so mad he just sort of lost his mind and grabbed up a stick and hit him over the head with all his might, and Jubiter dropped in his tracks. Then he was scared and sorry, and got down on his knees and lifted his head up, and begged him to speak and say he wasn’t dead.” (785) Jubiter only fled the scene, but it does show the true character of Silas and the nature of rural slave society in antebellum America.

The final chapter shows Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as detectives, trying to prove that Silas did not murder Jubiter. He did this before in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a witness, but he is closer to Silas’ lawyer in this novel, suggesting once again that Tom’s future is in the adult world of law, profit, and capital. I opened this post with a quote by Tom discussing the financial boon he could look forward too, if the duo played their cards right.

The resolution of the case is revealed by Tom at the trial. Jubiter came back to town, unable to talk and in disguise. The murdered man was Jake Dunlap, who was killed by his ex-partners for the diamonds, and his body was made up to look like Jubiter. Brace Dunlap used the murder as a way to get revenge on Silas for not allowing him to marry the young Phelps girl. In the end, Tom gets the reward for the missing diamonds and splits his financial windfall with Huck.

We see the return of several of the themes of the Tom Sawyer novels, such as the odious nature of the adult world, the violence implicit in the search for wealth and power, and the potential of vernacular understandings. Although Tom does seem to be growing up into his future role as a rich lawyer (or something akin to that), he still depended on Huck for solving the mystery and gained information through an understanding of the community from the perspective of the gutter. Lost in this (as in Tom Sawyer, Abroad) is the strong discourse on freedom that were in the earlier books in this series. Huck is important as a narrator and his is still humorous and fun to read, but he is more of a foil for Tom, giving him someone to talk to and at times correct. In both of these later Tom Sawyer novels, Huck makes few autonomous choices. This is in sharp contrast to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he confronted deep moral questions.

For me, the most tragic element of this novel is the growing gravitas of Tom Sawyer, seen in the final court scene. The child who tried to get out of going to school, fought neighbors, and played pirate is slowly dying. Any future novels in the series must be about Tom finding a career. As for Huck, by not following through on his wish to go West, he really does not have a place in the world. But there are signs in this novel and in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Huck is being slowly civilized. This is all very sad.

Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Growing Up

“’Who’s Robin Hood?’
‘Why he was one of the greatest men that was ever in England—and the best. He was a robber.’
“Cracky, I wisht I was. Who did he rob?’
‘Only sheriffs and bishops and rich people and kings, and such like. But he never bothered the poor. He loved ‘em. He always divided up with ‘em—perfectly square.’
‘Well, he must ‘a’ ben a brick.’
‘I bet you he was, Huck. Oh, he was the noblest man that ever was. They ain’t any such men now, I can tell you.’” (157)

That the main plot of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about children pretending to be robbers and praising the accomplishments of robbers while also engaged in a real serious life and death battle with a real robber, totally odious in practice with none of the nobility imagined by children, is very significant. Tom and Huck can play robber, but when they encounter a real robber, they face him with maturity, courage, and nobility. This tells us that Mark Twain did not believe that the line between play and reality was that far. Play did not create a false vision of the world, even as it did allow for playful imagination. We can believe that Tom and Huck after meeting Injun Joe still believe that robbers could be heroic and noble Robin Hoods. In fact, we know this is true because Tom recommits himself to being a robber even after becoming rich (even if that is to scam Huck into staying with the Widow Douglas).

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The adult worlds and the creative constructions of young people are mostly separate through the first half of the novel, but they become increasingly intertwined and combined in the second half. One example of this is the introduction of the summer activities to St. Petersburg, which brings, momentarily, a childish spirit to the entire town. A black minstrel show, the Fourth of July celebrations, a circus, a phrenologist and a mesmerizer all came in turn and “left the village duller and drearier than ever” when they left. By and large, it is the children who are forced into adult responsibilities, fears, and troubles.

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The murder trial of Muff Potter was the first time in the novel when Tom Sawyer was given a truly adult responsibility. The burden was on him to defend Muff Potter’s innocence. Of course to do so meant witnessing against Injun Joe, who sat in the audience looking fearsome. Although this made him a town hero, he remained in perpetual fear of Injun Joe. “Injun Joe infested all his dreams, and always with doom in his eye. Hardly any temptation could persuade the body to stir abroad after night fall.” (148) While most of us, I hope, enter adulthood without such a traumatic experience, fear is a component of that transition for most. Fear of money, fear for safety, fears of eternal loneliness. These are all ways that we are brought into adult responsibilities of college, careers, marriage, and saving.

Despite this, Tom is able to defend his freedom in the face of the pressures of creeping adult responsibility and he embraces them with greater seriousness and stoicism. This is what makes his assurance to Huck at the end of the book that he remains committed to being a robber feel so tragic. If he does grow to be a robber, it might very well be as a land speculator…although we do not share such fears for Huck. We already see in Tom some attraction to wealth that seems to be lost on Huck, when he looked on Injun Joe’s “treasure.” “He never had supposed for a moment that so large a sum as a hundred dollars was to be found in actual money in any one’s possession. If his notions of hidden treasure had been analyzed, they would have been found to consist of a handful of real dimes and a bushel of vague, splendid, ungraspable dollars.” (165) We can appreciate this childish approach to money (especially when people today hoard wealth that is literally inconceivable). There is some end to Tom’s innocence when looking at the wealth. It is clear from later passages that he wanted that treasure.

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Both of the young boys get their chance to become local heroes, but again we find a different between the two. Huckleberry Finn’s heroism is anonymous as he informs on the actions on Injun Joe to the Welchman. Tom is more famous as he saves Becky from their (quite scary) adventure of being lost in a cave occupied by Injun Joe, at his final hideout. After his escape he did not tell about noticing Joe there, an oversight that had tragic consequences.

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Tom’s role in killing Injun Joe needs to be addressed as part of his more harsh entrance to adulthood. Huck will enter adulthood through a moral question. Tom’s entrance to adulthood is shaped by violence and the acquisition of wealth. For two weeks, Tom did not mention bumping into Injun Joe in the caves. During those two weeks, the people of St. Petersburg locked the cave shut to prevent other children from getting lost. Only then does he tell the adult that Joe was there. Twain’s description of Injun Joe’s is one of the most horrible descriptions I have ever read and it has stayed with me for years. It conveys not only the horror of his death but the isolate that helped create Injun Joe and the insignificance of a single human life in the context of time.

In the final scene, Tom tricks Huck into becoming civilized. He perhaps does not know that civilizing Huck would end what Tom and the others of the town so admired about Huck. Tom perhaps just wanted him around him as a friend. He uses the attraction of a robber gang to convince Huck to be adopted by the Widow Douglas. In a way the final dialog between the two is a battle between adulthood and childhood, civilization and freedom.

Huck commits to staying with the “widder,” but it is his earlier words that stay with us. “The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything’s so awful reglar a bodyc an’t stand it. . . . I ain’t everybody, and I can’t stand it. It’s awful to be tied up so. And grub comes too easy—I don’t take no interest in vittles, that way. I got to ask, to go a-fishing; I got to ask, to go in a-swimming—dern’d if I hain’t go to go ask to do everything. Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort—I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out a while, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she woundn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks.” (212)

Welcome to the adult work Huckleberry Finn. I am glad you see it my way.