I just finished re-reading this eternal classic, and I hope some of you will do the same. As a child, I had no idea of Clemens’ social commentary, which I can now appreciate a little more.
Then again, as a child of five, living in Kansas, I read it and immediately began to talk like a Missouri 1840s hillbilly kid. What you may not know about Kansas is that while there is definitely a fair bit of Cletusism in the state, the population is rather divided about it. As in: there is one segment that embraces country everything, speaks with a rural drawl and makes no apologies for it. My father comes from that stock, but more or less abandoned it to get an engineering degree. My mother doesn’t, despite her ranching upbringing, and always wanted not to be identified with backwoods habits. Not one bit.
Back home, this is somewhat accentuated by stereotypes and prejudices specific to Kansas and our Missourian neighbors, in which the perception is that Missouri has only one tooth and shares it out without even washing it. Of course, it’s not true; it’s mostly good-natured joshing but underneath it lie some authentic prejudices with deep roots more terrible than the rest of the nation understands. One of these days I’ll write about it. Suffice it to say that the folk memory runs deep on both sides, and neither side was a wagonload of saints. It’s a miracle we get along as well as we do now, probably because most sensible people realize the two states are not as different as the more prejudiced citizens of either would like to imagine.
So, along comes their son, a fairly precious little fellow whose idea of fun is to read through the whole encyclopedia, and he begins to talk like Tom Sawyer. As you may know, erudition ain’t a feature of Tom’s character.
It did not go over well at all. “But we wanted him to have access to great reading!” Oops.
Fortunately, I got over it. I still say ‘ain’t’ sometimes just to annoy her, or in cercles litteraires. I’m at ease with both. I like the down-to-earth rural life and basic practical wisdom of it all, and I like Brie. Zero reason one can’t have both, as I see it. If that doesn’t fit someone’s mailbox, they can refuse delivery and send it back.
This is the part where it’s about time to explain to why Tom Sawyer would be a good re-read. Where Clemens shines for me is in his cynicism about mob mentality, stuffiness, pretense and the fickle nature of mass opinion. The reader cannot miss it. Clemens is laughing at his characters, which seems to be his literary wheelhouse. In a lesser author, his laughter would come off mean-spirited and snooty; that’s probably how I’d ring if I set myself to the same storytelling task, which is why I don’t. Clemens laughs at people without malice, and has you laughing at them too. He ranks among our great.
Definitely a happy reunion.