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The following review appeared 20 January 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The Penguin Classics series has an established literary reputation for providing affordable mass-market paperbacks of American literature that showcase introductions and explanatory notes written by some of the country's most notable scholars. Previous Mark Twain scholars who have contributed to these editions include Louis J. Budd for The Gilded Age, James Cox for Life on the Mississippi, Hamlin Hill for A Tramp Abroad and Roughing It, and Justin Kaplan for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In 1986, Penguin published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, each with an introduction by John Seelye and notes by Guy Cardwell. These editions have proven popular with general readers and also found collectors who obtain them solely for the scholarly contributions, which are often cited in subsequent research. In 2014, Penguin reissued The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn featuring new introductions and notes by R. Kent Rasmussen, who also edited the entirely new edition of Mark Twain's Autobiographical Writings for Penguin in 2012.
As a teacher at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey, teaching both freshmen and junior courses in literature, I use the University of California Press editions in the classroom as they are the most authoritative texts, and because they contain original illustrations that students enjoy seeing. However, I always look for new material that helps bring Twain's classics to life and makes them relevant to my students. My goal is to use material that is well written and is helpful in rapidly and efficiently grabbing and holding students' attention in ways that make them want to read the texts. I am therefore writing this review from the perspective of a schoolteacher.
When the new Penguin Classics books came out late last year, updated with new material written by R. Kent Rasmussen, I tested their content by reading his introductions to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to my classes and asked for their impressions. At the time, we were at the climactic scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in which Nick Buchannan confronts Jay Gatsby about his past. My students asked if we could stop reading Gatsby and switch to the Mark Twain books. Rasmussen's introductions made them want to belt their younger siblings with mud clods, hoodwink their friends to whitewash fences, fall in love with young sweethearts, run away to make their parents worry, visit graveyards and witness murders, take savage beatings to protect their first loves, look for buried treasure near haunted houses, explore dangerous caves while protecting their sweethearts, and catch their breath on rafts on the mighty Mississippi River with Huck and Jim.
Rasmussen is the author or editor of nine books on Mark Twain and more than a dozen other books. He is best known for writing Mark Twain A to Z (revised as the two-volume Critical Companion to Mark Twain) and as editor of The Quotable Mark Twain and Dear Mark Twain. For the Penguin Classics editions of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he wrote entirely new introduction and notes, suggestions for further reading, and detailed chronologies of Mark Twain's life. Rasmussen's writing style is warmly intimate and clear; his words show that he loves and respects the stories, their heroes, and Mark Twain himself. And my students responded favorably to all that.
Modern youths find the setting of Tom Sawyer to be fundamentally different from that of their own lives, due to their strict schedules of being shuttled to and from school and lengthy organized afterschool activities. Tom has to go to school and church, but he and his friends are inspiringly unsupervised and can generally do whatever they want away from the adults. After all, no adult was present when Tom's independence allowed him to turn "a tedious chore into a major entrepreneurial success and emerge with wealth that will lead him to another gratifying success at church the next day" (x). Rasmussen emphasizes the need for today's readers to enjoy using their imaginations. Tom's simple life pleasures grow, like those of his friends, out of the imagination to develop complex games of Robin Hood, war, pirates, and robber gangs. These are fascinating activities and are striking contrasts to modern students' obsession with holding almost every type of video communications in their hands.
Rasmussen writes of the refreshing contrast between children's books published before 1876 and Tom Sawyer. He shows that while Tom is misbehaving, he is not a bad kid at all. Quite simply, he is delightfully normal. He is "a safe kind of bad boy. Yes, he breaks rules, but never to harm anyone" (xii). Thus, all kids, from the nineteenth to the present century can appreciate Rasmussen's interpretation of Tom and his adventures. By contrast, John Seelye's introduction to the previous Penguin Classics edition of Tom Sawyer called the book "informed to the point of plagiarism by the novels of other writers. Yet . . . it is a subversive book, and enlists the works of others in order to undercut the conventions those earlier stories established" (Seelye, xiii). For a high school teacher, Seelye's claim touching on plagiarism was extremely serious and made the teaching of students' accurate appreciation of the formation of Tom Sawyer needlessly difficult.
Rasmussen presents an enthralling argument that Tom Sawyer is strikingly similar to his modern literary descendant Harry Potter in terms of their backgrounds and adventures. This makes Tom relevant, not only to fantasy-loving instructors who may be hesitant to teach Tom Sawyer, but also to students who love J. K. Rowling's literary creation. In a proper balance, Rasmussen notes that readers might argue that Harry's being a wizard with magical powers makes him fundamentally different from Tom. However, who believes in magic as well? Tom Sawyer. Would he want Harry's magical powers? The answer is obvious.
Many of the pleasures that modern readers get from Harry Potter are the same that readers enjoy within the covers of Tom Sawyer. As in the Potter book, Tom's adventures involve seven distinct triumphs that also show Tom growing in maturity. Rasmussen clearly keeps his discussion of each triumph's literary complexity and significance separate for comprehensive academic enjoyment of young and older readers as well as for teaching purposes. These triumphs include the whitewashing scene, Tom's trading of his "whitewashing loot" for Bible prize tickets, his appearance at his own funeral, his taking Becky's whipping in school, his testifying in Muff Potter's trial, his rescuing Becky and himself in McDougal's cave, and his perseverance in winning Injun Joe's treasure.
Female teachers can appreciate Rasmussen's frank acknowledgment of Tom Sawyer's having a "decidedly antifeminist slant" (xix). He is fair-minded with his comments about Aunt Polly, Mary, Amy Lawrence, and, of course, Becky Thatcher. On balance, he writes how "girls seem to have liked the books as much as boys have" and notes that a "surprising number" of letters to Twain were from girls and he includes a portion of a complimentary letter of an eleven-year-old Wisconsin girl in 1891 (xix-xx). Importantly, Rasmussen notes Twain's expressed profeminist views later in life, though they are not in Tom Sawyer. This will appeal to some female teachers who might be reluctant to teach the book because of its lack of strong female characters.
For the Penguin Classics edition of Huckleberry Finn, Rasmussen also updated the map of the "Mississippi of Huckleberry Finn." The Huck volume also features a foreword by Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of the Imagination. Nafisi writes that Huckleberry Finn is not only a work that praises American individualism, it also condemns "its stifling conformity" (ix) and the violence of slavery. Nafisi posits that Twain is different from other orphan-tale writers because he denies Huck any permanent home, a unique prize and penalty for straying from conformity. She acknowledges that all reactions to the character and the work's meaning reveal more about us as readers than about the book itself. All its characters are in the American fictional landscape, but overridingly, the theme of the lone individual with a persistent conscience would reverberate in future times and outlooks.
Rasmussen's introduction to Huckleberry Finn makes us
consider the book's diverse passages, and realize that the total work touches
our minds, hearts, and souls, and in so doing, makes us intellectually smarter
and emphatically better human beings. He gives an excellent overview and history
of Twain's difficulties of writing the book, its diverse and virulent negative
reactions then and now, but again, he ensures that any frustration of defining
Twain and Huckleberry Finn should not dissuade us from reading and
enjoying the book.
Rasmussen details the viewpoints of those who find problems with the work, and respectfully shows where faultfinders are likely mistaken. While we should consider opposing critical viewpoints, we must make the intelligent determination of the book's value on our own. This helps teachers immensely enabling them to overcome the same problems that earnestly knowledge-seeking students might raise.
The chronology sections of both books are not only thorough, but also detail numerous cinematic adaptations and authoritative updates to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Once again, Rasmussen's efforts make a teacher's job that much easier in answering students' follow-up questions on Twain's life, his times, and the work being done to this day in understanding and presenting his two most famous literary works.
The extensive endnotes to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are instructive in their explanations of historical, referential, and idiomatic information. Many of the endnotes for Tom Sawyer are also excellent preludes to reading and getting students to read Huckleberry Finn. In short, Rasmussen, the clarifying literary historian, takes a common sense approach to interpreting Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. A critic could ask if yet another introduction could say something new about these extraordinary literary works. In this technologically driven world in which so many of us can sadly and easily fall for too long in the grip of our laptop screens, Rasmussen's fresh thoughts remind us anew of our human need for Mark Twain, his two most famous boys, and their lives.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: John Pascal is in his fourteenth year teaching
ninth- and eleventh-grade English at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New
Jersey. He holds a B.A. Cum Laude in English from Villanova University, an
M.B.A. from Seton Hall University, and an M.A. in English from Montclair State