New York Times [unsigned]
1877: January 13

Shades of the venerable Mr. Day, of the instructive Mrs. Barbauld, of the persuasive Miss Edgeworth! Had you the power of sitting today beside the reviewer's desk, and were called upon to pass judgment on the books written and printed for the boys and girls of today, would you not have groaned and moaned over their perusal? If such superlatively good children as Harry and Lucy could have existed, or even such nondescript prigs as Sandford and Merton had abnormal being, this other question presents itself to our mind: "How would these precious children have enjoyed Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer"? In all books written for the amusement of children there are two distinct phases of appreciation. What the parent thinks of the book is one thing; what the child thinks of it is another. It is fortunate when both parent and child agree in their conclusions. Such double appreciation may, in most instances, simply be one in regard to the fitness of the book on the part of the parent. A course of reading entirely devoted to juvenile works must be to an adult a tax on time and patience. It is only once in many years that such a charming book as Little Alice in Wonderland is produced, which old and young could read with thorough enjoyment. If, thirty years ago, Tom Sawyer had been placed in a careful father's hands to read, the probabilities would have been that he would have hesitated before giving the book to his boy – not that Mr. Clemens' book is exceptional in character, or differs in the least, save in its cleverness, from a host of similar books on like topics which are universally read by children today. It is the judgment of the book-givers which has undoubtedly undergone a change, while youthful minds, being free from warp, twist, or dogma, have remained ever the same.

Returning then to these purely intellectual monstrosities, mostly the pen-and-ink offspring of authors and authoresses who never had any real flesh and blood creations of their own, there can be no doubt that had Sandford or Merton ever for a single moment dipped inside of Tom Sawyer's pages, astronomy and physics, with all the musty old farrago of Greek and Latin history, would have been thrown to the dogs. Despite tasseled caps, starched collars, and all the proprieties, these children would have laughed uproariously over Tom Sawyer's "cat and the pain-killer," and certain new ideas might have had birth in their brains. Perhaps had these children actually lived in our times, Sandford might have been a Western steam-boat captain, or Merton a fillibuster. Tom Sawyer is likely to inculcate the idea that there are certain lofty aspirations which Plutarch never ascribed to his more prosaic heroes. Books for children in former bygone periods were mostly constructed in one monotonous key. A child was supposed to be a vessel which was to be constantly filled up. Facts and morals had to be taken like bitter draughts or acrid pills. In order that they should be absorbed like medicines it was perhaps a kindly thinker who disguised these facts and morals. The real education swallowed in those doses by the children we are inclined to think was in small proportion to the quantity administered. Was it not good old Peter Parley who in this country first broke loose from conventional trammels, and made American children truly happy? We have certainly gone far beyond Mr. Goodrich's manner. There has come an amount of ugly realism into children's story-books, the advantages of which we are very much in doubt about.

Now, it is perfectly true that many boys do not adopt drawing-room manners. Perhaps it is better that little paragons – pocket Crichtons – are so rare. Still, courage, frankness, truthfulness, and self-reliance are to be inculcated in our lads. Since association is everything, it is not desirable that in real life we should familiarize our children with those of their age who are lawless or dare-devils. Granting that the natural is the true, and the true is the best, and that we may describe things as they are for adult readers, it is proper that we should discriminate a great deal more as to the choice of subjects in books intended for children. Today a majority of the heroes in such books have longings to be pirates, want to run away with vessels, and millions of our American boys read and delight in such stories. ln olden times the Pirate's Own Book with its death's-head and crossbones on the back had no concealment about it. It is true, edition after edition was sold. There it was. You saw it palpably. There was no disguise about it. If a father or mother objected to their child's reading the Pirate's Own Book, a pair of tongs and a convenient fireplace ended the whole matter. Today the trouble is: that there is a decidedly sanguinary tendency in juvenile books. No matter how innocent, quiet, or tame may be the title of a child's book, there is no guarantee that the volume your curlyhcaded little boy may be devouring may not contain a series of adventures recalling Capt. Kidd's horrors. In the short preface of Tom Sawyer Mr. Clemens writes, "Although 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." We have before expressed the idea that a truly clever child's book is one in which both the man and the boy can find pleasure. No child's book can be perfectly acceptable otherwise. Is Tom Sawyer amusing? It is incomparably so. It is the story of a Western boy, born and bred on the banks of one of the big rivers, and there is exactly that wild village life which has schooled many a man to self-reliance and energy. Mr. Clemens has a remarkable memory for those peculiarities of American boy-talk which the grown man may have forgotten, but which return to him not unpleasantly when once the proper key is sounded. There is one scene of a quarrel, with a dialogue, between Tom and a city boy which is perfect of its kind. Certain chapters in Tom's life, where his love for the schoolgirls is told, make us believe that for an urchin who had just lost his milk-teeth the affections out West have an awakening even earlier than in Oriental climes. In fact, Tom is a preternaturally precocious urchin. One admirable character in the book, and touched with the hand of a master, is that of Huckleberry Finn. There is a reality about this boy which is striking. An honest old aunt, who adores her scapegrace nephew, is a homely picture worked with exceeding grace. Mr. Clemens must have had just such a lovable old aunt. An ugly murder in the book, overminutely described and too fully illustrated, which Tom and Huck see, of course, in a graveyard, leads, somehow or other, to the discovery of a cave, in which treasures are concealed, and to which Tom and Huck fall heirs. There is no cant about Mr. Clemens. A description of a Sunday-school in Tom Sawyer is true to the letter. Matters are not told as they are fancied to be, but as they actually are.

If Mr. Clemens has been wanting in continuity in his longer sketches, and that sustained inventive power necessary in dovetailing incidents, Tom, as a story, though slightly disjointed, has this defect less apparent. As a humorist, Mr. Clemens has a great deal of fun in him, of the true American kind, which crops out all over the book. Mr. Clemens has an audience both here and in England, and doubtless his friends across the water will re-echo "the hearty laughs which the reading of Tom Sawyer will cause on this side of the world." We are rather inclined to treat books intended for boys and girls, written by men of accredited talent and reputation, in a serious manner. Early impressions are the lasting ones. It is exactly such a clever book as Tom Sawyer which is sure to leave its stamp on younger minds. We like, then, the true boyish fun of Tom and Huck, and have a foible for the mischief these children engage in. We have not the least objection that rough boys be the heroes of a story-book. Restless spirits of energy only require judicious training in order to bring them into proper use. In the books to be placed into children's hands for purposes of recreation, we have a preference for those of a milder type than Tom Sawyer. Excitements derived from reading should be administered with a certain degree of circumspection. A sprinkling of salt in mental food is both natural and wholesome; any cravings for the contents of the castors, the cayenne and the mustard, by children, should not be gratified. With less, then, of Injun Joe and "revenge," and "slitting women's ears," and the shadow of the gallows, which throws an unnecessarily sinister tinge over the story, (if the book really is intended for boys and girls) we should have liked Tom Sawyer better.

Homepage Next Page