London Times [unsigned]
1876: August 28

Mark Twain belongs to a somewhat different school of writers from Miss Yonge, and Tom Sawyer is a characteristic production of his genius. We recognize the germ of it in the stories of the good and bad little boys, which went some way towards making their author's popularity. Tom Sawyer, as we are told in the Preface, is intended primarily for the amusement of children, but it is hoped that "it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves." How far Master Sawyer's eccentric experiences may come home in that way to American citizens we cannot pretend to say. To our English notions, Tom appears to have been a portentous phenomenon, and his eventful career exhibits an unprecedented precocity. His conceptions were as romantic as their execution was audacious. Holding all sedentary occupations in aversion, his cast of thought was as original as his quaint felicity of picturesque expression. We are very sure there are no such boys in this country, and even in the States it may be supposed that the breed has been dying out, for fully more than a generation has gone by since Tom was the glory and plague of his native village on the Mississippi. His remarkable talent for mischief would have made him an intolerable thorn in the flesh of the aunt who acted as a mother to him had it not been that his pranks and misconduct endeared him to that much-enduring woman. "Cuteness" is scarcely the word for Tom's ingrained artfulness. Take, by way of example, one of his earliest achievements. He is caught by his aunt in some flagrant delict, and condemned to whitewash the fence that runs in front of her cottage. Tom had planned to make one of a swimming party, and, what is more, he knows that he will be jeered by his playmates, and contempt is intolerable to his soaring spirit. So, when he sees Ben Rogers, whose satire he stands most in dread of, come puffing along the road, personating a high-pressure steamer, Tom buckles himself to his task with a will. He is so absorbed, in fact, in artistic enthusiasm that Ben's ribald mockery falls on unheeding ears, and Tom has actually to be twitched by the jacket before he turns to recognize his friend. Ere long Ben, who was bound for the river, is begging and praying to be permitted to have a turn with the brush. Tom is slow to be persuaded; had it been the back fence it might have been different, but his aunt is awful particular about this front one --

"Ben, I'd like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly -- well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn't let him. Sid wanted to do it, but she wouldn't let Sid. Now, don't you see how I'm fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it."

The result is that Tom, as an immense favour, trades the privilege of a few minutes' painting for an apple. Each of the other boys, as he comes up in Ben's wake, makes a similar deal on his own account. Tom amasses a wealth of miscellaneous treasure, which he subsequently barters for a sufficiency of tickets of merit at the Sunday school to entitle him to walk off with the honours for which meritorious children have been toiling; while his aunt, to her intense surprise, finds her fence covered with several coatings of whitewash, and goes into raptures over Tom's capacity for work on the rare occasions when he chooses to apply himself. But, though anything but a bookish boy, Tom had paid considerable attention to literature of an eccentric kind, and, indeed, his knowledge of men and things was very much taken from his favourite authors. He runs away with a couple of comrades to follow the calling of pirates on an island of the Mississippi, the grand inducement being "that you don't have to get up mornings, and you don't have to go to school and wash and all that blame foolishness." After some days, when the trio are bored and half-starved and rather frightened, Tom plans a melo-dramatic return, and the missing ones emerge from the disused gallery of the church and present themselves to the congregation of weeping mourners, just as the clergyman's moving eloquence is dwelling on the virtues of the dear departed. Afterwards Tom, who "all along has been wanting to be a robber," but has never been able to find the indispensable cave, stumbles on the very thing to suit him. So he carries off a devoted follower who has been hardened for an outlaw's life by the habit of living on scraps and sleeping in empty hogsheads -- Republican freedom from class prejudices seems to have been a marked feature among the boys of the Transatlantic St. Petersburg. He teaches Huck his duties as they are flying from the society of their kind out of the accumulated stores of his own erudition. "Who'll we rob?" asks Huck. "Oh, most anybody -- waylay people; that's mostly the way." "And kill them?" "No, not always. Hide them in the cave till they can raise a ransom. You make them raise all they can off o' their friends, and after you've kept them a year, if it ain't raised, then you kill them. That's the general way. Only you don't kill the women; you shut up the women, but you don't kill them. They're always beautiful and rich and awfully scared. You take their watches and things, but you always take off your hat and talk polite. There ain't everybody as polite as robbers; you'll see that in any book. Well, the women get to loving you; and after they've been in the cave a week or two weeks they stop crying, and after that you couldn't get them to leave. If you drove them out they'd turn right round and come back. It's so in all the books.' In the course of their researches in the cavern they come on what Tom pronounces "an awful snug place for orgies." "What's orgies?" inquires Huck. "I dunno," says Tom very frankly; "but robbers always have orgies, and of course we've got to have them too."

We fear these elegant extracts give but a faint idea of the drollery in which the book abounds; for the fact is that the best part of the fun lies in the ludicrous individuality of Tom himself, with whom we have been gradually growing familiar. But we should say that a perusal of Tom Sawyer is as fair a test as one could suggest of anybody's appreciation of the humorous. The drollery is often grotesque and extravagant, and there is at least as much in the queer Americanizing of the language as in the ideas it expresses. Practical people who pride themselves on strong common sense will have no patience with such vulgar trifling. But those who are alive to the pleasure of relaxing from serious thought and grave occupation will catch themselves smiling over every page and exploding outright over some of the choicer passages.

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