Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

One of the great problems of reading Mark Twain now is his casual use of the N-word and, by extension and even worse, his depictions of racism both explicit and implicit. I want to say this is a "boy's book," perhaps even YA in the parlance, but sadly I think it takes a bit of maturity to take it for what it is. I know in a way criticizing Twain is killing the messenger, but nonetheless he is delivering the message—racism exists—and delivering it in ways designed to normalize it from the 19th century on. I believe people still defend this book. Twain was born and raised in the slavery state of Missouri, and fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War (and deserted though likely not for reasons of conscience), so he comes by it honestly, but still. He was alarmingly racist himself—or benighted, if you like—and it is seen all over his writing. Sure, he may have been more enlightened in general than a majority of his peers. And he didn't hold white people in such high regard either. But certainly he can seem less enlightened to us now. There's some residual snips / snails / puppy dog tails charm to the boy's life stories in Tom Sawyer, Twain's first novel on his own. And I admit I felt a bit of a rock star presence in the first appearance of Huckleberry Finn, even if his novel, which is much better, is similarly aggravated by racism. Another objection, perhaps a stodgy one, is the kind of code of corruption by which Tom Sawyer lives. It's comical enough but at the moment looks too much like the way you get to you-know-who and his gang of 75 million. They're out there whitewashing harder than ever, as a matter of fact. Of course, perhaps the real problem here above all others is that the novel is clunky and obvious. Even the beloved whitewashing episode, which comes early, involves way too much explanation. Twain the writer is not always able to stay out of the way of the story. Even as this delivers us a number of wry observations and witty bon mots, it often leaves the story puttering in place. There are some nice ideas here, such as Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral out of curiosity. But then you have a noxious character like "Injun Joe" and a lot of unpleasant passages that are quite painfully ignorant about Native Americans. Twain's racism was hardly confined to Black Americans. In fact, except for all the N-words, that type of racism is mostly out of sight here—mostly. Unfortunately, Twain comes with the racism and the racism is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For that reason, it's neither fish nor fowl. Too crude for children, and otherwise too lightweight, childish, dated, and/or offensive for everyone else. Alas.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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