The following review appeared 11 September 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1997 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Carolyn Leutzinger Richey <email@example.com>
San Diego State University
San Diego, CA
One of the things that first drew me to the study of Mark Twain was the connection the author and I share. This common connection is that we both grew up in Missouri, not far from the Mississippi River; he grew up in Hannibal, and I grew up in St. Louis. I think this same desire to establish a connection is what draws many to the study of Twain. Perhaps, for the reader of Huck Finn, the connection is a shared abhorrence of the injustices one sees in society. These can be the same injustices that Mark Twain wrote about--inequality among the races or classes, despite the separation of a century.
The readers of Twain's classic boy's tale Tom Sawyer also look to make connections. With the young audience, the connection might be the similar adventures of growing up; with the older audience, the connection might be the nostalgic remembrance of those same adventures. Whichever audience, John D. Evans' Tom Sawyer Companion makes and explains those connections for all readers of Tom Sawyer.
When I first received and read this book, I was scheduled to speak on Mark Twain in a local junior high English teacher's classes. Her students, my twelve-year-old daughter among them, were in the midst of reading Tom Sawyer, some struggling to keep up with the nineteenth-century vernacular dialect of Missouri, and others totally immersed in Tom, Joe, Becky, and Huck's escapades. From the beginning of my talk, I could tell which students were in which of the two groups, because those from the latter group eagerly raised their hands to ask questions about Twain and his story. They wanted to make connections between the story and the author and themselves. As I began to answer their questions and offer those connections to them, the former group became involved. They began to make their own connections.
Now I can't say that I had all the answers to their questions. But without Evans' book, subtitled An Autobiographical Guided Tour with Mark Twain, I would not as readily have been able to answer their questions or make those connections. Evans' book provides the link from the escapades of Tom Sawyer to Sam Clemens' boyhood in Hannibal. As Evans states in the introduction to his book, his "focus is Twain, and [his book] is written for anyone who has read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and enjoys Mark Twain as both a writer and a unique individual" (xii). To achieve these purposes, Evans divides his book into chapters that look at, one by one, scenes from Tom Sawyer; each section is partitioned into three segments. In the first segment, Evans offers in italics a brief summary of the scene, then quotes in boldfaced type the referenced text from Tom Sawyer, which he claims are "the events or experiences that have their roots in reality" (xii). Finally, in the third part of each section, he gives, in plain type, an autobiographical account from Clemens' life that, as he expresses it, "reveals those roots" (xiii). Thus, Evans connects the dots to give us a sketch of Sam Clemens the real man through Tom Sawyer the fictional boy.
The body of this book comprises 47 chapters referring to the same number of reality-based scenes from Tom Sawyer. From the "opening scene of Tom Sawyer [where] Aunt Polly searches for Tom and finds him hiding in a closet with the tell-tale evidence of jam on his face and hands" (1) to "the end of [the] chronicle" (101) where Twain writes that "most of the characters that perform in this book still live" (101), John Evans amplifies Clemens' remembrance of his boyhood through Tom Sawyer via such scenes as this first distraction from punishment that Tom successfully carries out. Evans cites Twain's autobiographical reference to his thirteen-year-old daughter Susy's biography of him as verification of the history of this particular incident. He quotes and explains, "Susy wrote: 'Clara and I are sure papa played the trick on Grandma about the whipping, that is related in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.' Mark Twain's terse comment was: 'Susy and Clara were quite right about that'" (1).
Any reader of Mark Twain will recall his frequent references to cats and will also realize that Clemens loved cats. But Evans, in chapter 29, "The Cat and the Painkiller," also clarifies Jane Clemens' own befriending of animals. In this section, Evans first summarizes chapter 12 of Tom Sawyer, in which "Tom professes to like painkiller and requests it so often that Aunt Polly allows him to take it unsupervised," and eventually administers an overdose of the painkiller to his cat (61). Evans goes on to quote Aunt Polly (the character whom he has already explained is based on Sam's mother Jane Clemens), when she "raised him up by the usual handle--his ear--and cracked his head soundly with her thimble. 'Now, sir, what did you want to treat that poor dumb beast so, for?'" (61). Evans completes this link from Tom to Sam by quoting Twain's Autobiography:
That sort of interference in behalf of abused animals was a common thing with her [Jane Clemens'] life. . . . All the race of dumb animals had a friend in her. . . . We had nineteen cats at one time, in 1845. . . . They were a burden to us all--including my mother--but they were out of luck, and that was enough; they had to stay. . . . An imprisoned creature was out of the question--my mother would not have allowed a rat to be restrained of its liberty. (61)
Weaving them throughout A Tom Sawyer Companion, Evans makes abundant connections between the author and his character. Some are obvious; some are more obscure. But Evans effectively offers the reader a detailed road map of Clemens' young life in Hannibal, even to the famous cave. In chapter 41, "Caves," Evans offers a photograph of the real "McDowell's Cave" and makes the connection to the fictional "McDougal's Cave" in which the children get lost and Injun Joe perishes. The legendary cave described in Tom Sawyer as "a vast labyrinth of crooked aisles that ran into each other and out again and led nowhere" (89) was virtually "an uncanny place, for it contained a corpse--the corpse of a young girl of fourteen" (89). In this passage from the Autobiography, Evans corroborates the legend of Dr. McDowell and his "experiment to see if a human body would petrify" (89). On my own recent pilgrimage to Hannibal and tour of the cave, the guide related--almost verbatim from the Autobiography--Dr. McDowell's experiment and the childish games the local spelunkers played at the expense of his poor deceased daughter's body.
Throughout the book, Evans furnishes even more connections to Twain by providing 22 photographs that allude to many of these same scenes and characters from Clemens' life. In chapter 12, for example, Evans displays an 1874 photograph of Clemens that "reveals his 'dense ruck of short curls,'" which in chapter 4 of Tom Sawyer "filled [Tom's] own life with bitterness" (22-23). Evans includes other pictorial links, including the Boyhood Home, the School House, the Steamboat Philadelphia, and the home of Tom Blankenship. Evans explains the significance of Blankenship in chapter 18, "The Homeless Outcast." Again he quotes both Tom Sawyer and the Autobiography. In the fictional tale, Huck is described as "the pariah of the village . . . [who was] idle and lawless and vulgar and bad--and . . . all [the] children admired him so," while the Autobiography reveals that
'Huckleberry Finn' was Tom Blankenship. Tom's father was at one time Town Drunkard, an exceedingly well-defined and unofficial office of those days. . . . He was the only really independent person--man or boy--in the community, and by consequence he was envied by all the rest of us . . . and therefore we sought and got more of his society than that of any other boy's." (35)
Again, another connection is made, not only between Tom Sawyer and Clemens' life, but also between Twain's quintessential American novel Huckleberry Finn and the author's life.
Evans concludes his enlightening saga of Twain's fictionalized autobiography with a letter Sam wrote to his wife Livy from Quincy, Illinois, on 17 May 1882: "I have spent three delightful days in Hannibal, loitering around all day long, examining the old localities and talking with the greyheads who were boys and girls with me 30 or 40 years ago. It has been a moving time. . . . That world which I knew in its blossoming youth is old and bowed and melancholy now. Its soft cheeks are leathery and wrinkled. The fire is gone out in its eyes and the spring from its step. It will be dust and ashes when I come again" (101). Through this and the myriad of other explanations and links, the readers of Tom Sawyer and A Tom Sawyer Companion are allowed the same "delightful days in Hannibal."