"London Letter," by M[oncure] D. C[onway];
published in the Cincinnati Commercial, 26 June 1876

London, June 10, 1876.--Next week all England will be enjoying a new story by Mark Twain, with a piquant sauce supplied by the novelty of reading it before the Centennial land. Carlyle told me that the first bound book of his he ever saw came to him by mail from New England, and presently Mark Twain may say that the last bound book of his was sent him from Old England. By what means it happens that we are to have "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" before you I cannot tell; all I know is that, through the kindness of Messrs. Chatto & Windus, who are its publishers, by special arrangement with the author, I have before me early sheets of this story, and have good reason to believe that some notes concerning it will be "news" to the author's countrymen.

It is, as I think, the most notable work which Mark Twain has yet written, and will signally add to his reputation for variety of powers. His dramatis personae are mainly some boys and girls residing in the magnificently small village of St. Petersburg, somewhere on the Missouri, the Czar of which village is Tom Sawyer, who settled his western questions more satisfactorily, I suspect, than the chief of the larger St. Petersburg is likely to settle in his Eastern one. Under pretext of this boy-and-girl's romance, Mark Twain has written a book which will not only charm elder readers--especially if they have that age which, as the Book of Wisdom says, "consisteth not in length of years, but in having made the most of them"--but will be of value to philosophers. I shouldn't wonder if Mr. Edward Tylor, in his next book on human evolution--and we are looking for one--should find reason to refer to the survivals of ancient Oriental and Greek myths and beliefs in the elaborate folklore of Tom Sawyer and his comrades. Heine, in his "Exiled Gods," has traced a classic legend of some magnificent deity--Apollo, I believe--until he finds it interesting as an anecdote [about] an old miller in a German parish; and I think it would not be difficult to trace some of the attributes of Siva and Odin, and perhaps the Eleusynian rites, in the notions of these children about their village witch, and the power of a dead cat thrown in a graveyard with precise rules, to remove warts, and sundry other superstitions. No doubt most of us remember such things in our early life--especially if we were born in remote southern or western villages, where the Semitic had not, as in New England, trampled out the Indo-Germanic varieties of superstition; but it was a "happy thought" in Mark Twain to recover them and twine them in with his story. It is a valuable bit of social embryology, for instance, when we find that those barefoot western boys, who know nothing of Catholicism, have somehow got the belief that the devil can't get at them if a cross is near by; and it reminds us of the fact that in the country districts of Europe the most determined Lutheran, if he thinks himself bewitched, will repair to the Catholic priest for the exorcism, and never to his Protestant pastor.

However, this is but a small part, however valuable to certain minds, of the interest of this work. Incidental, also--but very striking--are the indications in it of how, amid all the spars and fragments of a past that has gone to pieces and been washed up on the beach of a new moral continent, new tendencies are seen forming, and new themes, which are still harmonious with what is eternal in human nature. Children report the past and foreshadow the future. Here in England the boy repeats the history of his ancestors,--aye, and the girl, too. The boy is a savage, and then a Viking and a pirate in his tastes, a nomad in his love adventure, and passing through the age of the huntsman, affects agriculture and mechanic art for a time, becomes a knight errant, and so advances to be an Englishman. These embryological states of development are very marked at some points. Thus there is a phase in the life of English children of both sexes--and a phase which lasts inconveniently long--when they madly desire to run about in the garden naked. It requires the utmost vigilance to prevent them from doing this in the little gardens of London. Many a boy and girl here will feel an agony of envy when they contemplate the scene of Mark Twain's three boys painted with mud to look like Indians racing up and down the beach to their heart's content. Many other scenes and notions, too, will correspond to the familiar feelings of the healthy British boy and girl. But now and then they will pause with some wonder, and it will be at some point where the village of Missouri has unfolded some unprescribed tendency in human nature or, perhaps, recovering one that was lost. It will introduce a novel ethical problem in the young circles of England when they read about Tom Sawyer's lie. Tom has been deeply offended by a little girl whom he had adored. She was soon after in great trouble, having torn a valuable book belonging to the teacher while surreptitiously examining it at his desk. The teacher is going down from boy to boy and girl to girl, switch in hand, asking each if he or she had done the dreadful deed. The guilty, terrified girl is reached at last, and the fearful question is being asked: "Becky Thatcher, did you--." Just here a boy's voice sounded through the breathless school. "I done it." It was Tom; he took his unmerciful flogging. The girl's father, when he heard of this long after, declared "it was a noble, a generous, a magnanimous lie--a lie that was worthy to hold up its head and march down through history breast to breast with George Washington's lauded truth about the hatchet." Besides this perilous accident, there is an interest of an equally doubtful kind surrounding a unique and vigorously drawn character called Huckleberry Finn, the juvenile Pariah of the village, son of the town drunkard thus described:


Huckleberry comes into fortune at last, or what respectable people think fortune, and is taken into a respectable home by kind people, who try to educate and civilize him, but he finds it irksome, cannot bear it, disappears, and is found afterward sleeping in such quarters as tradition assigns to Diogenes, and begging Tom to take the wealth that has befallen him and allow him to continue in his old felicity of vagabondage.

There is in this work more that is dramatic than in any of Mark Twain's previous works, and some scenes that are impressive, and even weird., There is a thrilling murder- scene, a graphic trial-scene, and a solemn retribution-scene,--the murderer, a half-breed called "Injun Joe," being barred up in a cavern where he was accustomed to hide the money got by robbery. He is entombed there accidentally, it having been thought necessary to close up the cave after Tom and Becky had been lost in it, and nearly perished. When "Injun Joe" is finally tracked to it, the villagers rush to the spot, and, opening the cave, find him there dead.


The humor of the book breaks out everywhere in little touches, and is, of course, the chief characteristics of many of the chapters. The showing-off day at a boarding-school, when the young misses parade in their ribbons, is portrayed with exquisite drollery; and the poetical compositions recited on the occasion are given with a realistic exactness which cannot be surpassed. The author assures us that these compositions are genuine, and so I think I must quote some of the specimens:


There are some respects in which Mark Twain excels any living humorist--if we can still so describe a writer who has shown such various powers (which is doubtful)--and one in his innate refinement and self-restraint. With perfect freedom in his style he is never coarse, and spontaneous as his fun is it never overpasses the temperance of all true art. And another unique feature of his is the stately and dignified way in which he deals with the seemingly small subject which has excited his sympathy. Landseer gave grandeur to a donkey, and Mark Twain paints a scene between a dog and a pinch-bug with such true perception of universal laws, that is quite worthy to occur, as it does, in church, and to extinguish the parson's sermon, which is not half so important. That Mark is a philosopher is amply proved by the following incident:


Tom Sawyer, having offended his guardian, Aunt Polly, is by that sternly-affectionate dame punished, by being set to whitewash the fence in front of the garden. The world seemed a hollow mockery to Tom, who had planned fun for that day, and who knew that he would be the laughing stock of all the boys as they came past and saw him, set to work like a 'nigger.' But a great inspiration burst upon him, and he went tranquilly to work. What that inspiration was will appear from what follows. One of the boys, Ben. Rogers, comes by and pauses, eating a particularly fine apple. Tom does not see him. Ben. stared a moment, and then said:


In a brief preface the author tells us that most of the adventures recorded in his book really occurred with himself or his schoolmates; that Huck Finn is drawn from life, and others are composite characters; and the odd superstitions touched upon are such as prevailed among children and slaves in the west thirty years ago. "Although," he says, "my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for a part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and talked and what queer enterprises them sometimes engaged in." I feel quite sure that the book will be a favorite in England, among grown-up folk, and also among the boys and girls of the fifty thousand governesses, enumerated in the new census, who guard the Hesperides of youth, permit anything so fresh, and natural, and free from cant and pietism, to find its way into their little heads and hearts. But however this may be, Mark Twain has written a book which will cause all sensible people to love and honor him, and at the same time will inspire a doubt whether it will be really true that, as he states in an article in Temple Bar, he has found perfect happiness in Connecticut by the simple plan of killing his conscience. Meanwhile, to Americans abroad, it will be a proud centennial fact that if we have our Belknaps and Babcocks, we also have our Twain of a different stamp, and if Missouri is for the time presented in the White House by a Grant, Tom Sawyers, though at present in the rough, are growing up in the background, and may come to the front. Nay, as these things happened thirty years ago, Tom must be somewhere about, and I recommend the political conventions, in choosing our next president, to look out for him. No doubt information may be obtained in the neighborhood of Hartford. "There's millions in it."