Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain (1874) - A Modern Second Look

I just read a few scenes of this to my daughter, and immediately something became apparent.  This thing can be hard to understand.

That's actually one of the first things I noticed when I first read it back in high school.  Combine Mark Twain's flowery descriptions with the 19th century vernacular, along with the various slang terms thrown in with characters' speech, and that's a bad combination.

As he was passing by the house where Jeff Thatcher lived, he saw a new girl in the garden—a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long-tails, white summer frock and embroidered pan-talettes. The fresh-crowned hero fell without firing a shot. A certain Amy Lawrence vanished out of his heart and left not even a memory of herself behind. He had thought he loved her to distraction; he had regarded his passion as adoration; and behold it was only a poor little evanescent partiality. He had been months winning her; she had confessed hardly a week ago; he had been the happiest and the proudest boy in the world only seven short days, and here in one instant of time she had gone out of his heart like a casual stranger whose visit is done.
We may think of this as a fine bit of writing.  But my daughter was scratching her head over it.  Why is she a "creature"?  What is an evanescent partiality?  What did she confess a week ago?  The point is this is supposed to be a book for younger people but it's written in true literary style.  Perhaps kids were smarter a century and a half ago.
"You'll tell."
"No I won't—deed and deed and double deed won't."
What she is saying is "indeed I won't", or "of course I won't".  That sort of slang is peppered throughout the book, and can be confusing at the very least.
The old lady was bending down, Tom watching, with interest emphasized by anxiety. Too late he divined her "drift."
Sure, we get it.  But younger people read that and wonder what on earth is meant by divining her drift.  I know, because I had a lot of trouble with this book when I was young.  I've often wondered why Mark Twain wrote in that fashion.  He made himself out to be from the backwoods of a midwestern state.  What kind of education could he have had?  But then consider that his father was a justice of the peace, his brother was a printer, and by the time he was a teenager he had already worked as a printer and editor in various midwestern cities.  The whole backwoods thing was more of a persona than anything.

Here's an example taken not from Tom Sawyer, but from Life on the Mississippi.
Brown gathered up the big spy-glass, war-club fashion, and ordered me out of the pilot-house with more than Comanche bluster. But I was not afraid of him now; so, instead of going, I tarried, and criticized his grammar; I reformed his ferocious speeches for him, and put them into good English, calling his attention to the advantage of pure English over the bastard dialect of the Pennsylvanian collieries whence he was extracted. He could have done his part to admiration in a cross-fire of mere vituperation, of course; but he was not equipped for this species of controversy
It just feels like he's overdoing it.  He's studied his grammar, no doubt.  He knows all those fancy-schmancy words and he uses them.  But is he showing off?  I mean, "Pennsylvanian collieries whence he was extracted"?  And "cross-fire of mere vituperation"?  Or "this species of controversy"?  The reason I use this example from another book is because it helps explain Twain's own understanding of his gift of grammar along with his realization that this gives him an edge up in some situations.  So in a way, it becomes his badge of honor.  But for the rest of us, it can be hard to take.

Reading it isn't so bad.  But hearing someone say it brings out just how weird it is.  Listen to it on audiobook and you will understand.

Anyway, I'm not knocking this wonderful book.  But I should point out the writing is a little bit old fashioned.  Be warned, but don't be warned off.

No comments:

Post a Comment