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Tom v. Huck
June 20, 2008 - 3:39pm


My son Starbuck, who’s six, is home a lot this summer, so I figured we might find some time to do a little home-school unit on Twain: Read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, drive over to Springfield to the Lincoln Museum and out to Hannibal, ride a steamboat, watch some grave robbers, smoke a few pipes. That sort of thing.

I tried to re-read Tom Sawyer a few years ago, thinking I might use it in a class with Huck Finn to compare early and mature artistic vision. I must have had a case of the vapors that day, because it seemed so bad I couldn’t get beyond the first pages. Twain does say in the intro, “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,” but its tone of boyish adventure is not the problem. That aspect of the novel teaches you to appreciate its successors, the way, say, the Beatles’ “Help!” leads you to “Don’t Let Me Down.” (Sorry; working on a Beatles piece with my other hand.)

The book is tolerable better than I recalled, but the first chapter has gone sorely slow because the language felt as difficult as Stevenson’s in Kidnapped. With Tom I spent so much time explaining colloquialisms and attempts to represent dialect in print, not to mention old technologies and the economics of why a dead cat is a desirable commodity, that the narrative hit a snag by a towhead and wrecked for sure.

We took a break and watched the 1973 film Tom Sawyer, which I loved as a kid, in part because Becky Thatcher was played by Jodie Foster.

“Guess there were two of you guys in love with her,” Mrs. Churm said. “She’s a lesbian now, isn’t she?”

I hadn’t remembered the film being a musical, with both screenplay and songs by the Sherman brothers, who were in the Disney Studios stable for years. (Do yourself a favor and take a look at these guys’ lives.) The child actors are awful. Huck is flat, and Tom is miscast, played too young and innocent by the boy from Family Affair with that butler Mr. French. But Kunu Hank, who plays Injun Joe, is terrific. (I can’t find a filmography for him. Could it have been his only role?) He’s menacing, but there’s depth in his anger. In the film Dr. Robinson has botched some procedure with Joe’s leg, reminiscent of that awful scene in Madame Bovary where the inept Charles cuts the wrong tendon in a man’s leg and further deforms him.

The great Warren Oates plays Muff Potter. I also didn’t remember the melancholy when Muff leaves town near the end, his mule supposedly packed for prospecting. Tom shakes his head as Muff pulls out yet another bottle of rotgut hidden in a water trough. Muff tells him not to be sad, it’s for medicinal purposes but then chuckles and sings a refrain of “Man's Gotta Be (What He Was Born to Be).” We’ve come to like him, and he’s clearly lost to Tom, to us—to life—due to alcoholism.

That sadness continues in a scene at the end that’s so disjointed it looks like a mistake, so strange one wonders if the director intended something that’s important and true to the difference between the two novels. Tom boards a big gingerbready steamboat with Becky and her family; Judge Thatcher’s taking everybody down to St. Louis for holiday. Tom stands at the rail and waves excitedly to Huck Finn, who’s poling a raft away from the bank. The shot reverses, and Huck stares at Tom, Becky, the boat—us—but he barely waves. His expression is exactly uncanny. He’s a boy adrift, forlorn, totally alone on that enormous river, but he knows things we don’t. Borne on the current, he is in that moment being born, and we who’ve read both books know where his life will go: That unloved, illiterate boy, abused son of the town drunk, will be forced to choose between everything his society has told him is right, or humanity. Miraculously, he’ll do the right thing. He is Twain the artist.

The book Huck Finn is predicated on that choice, not merely on hijinks, and the entire tone is different as a result. The word “lonesome” occurs 18 times in Huck, as in, “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” The word is used only five times in Tom. Often, Huck sounds like some existential nightmare:

…I laid down in the canoe and said I wouldn't bother no more. I didn't want to go to sleep, of course; but…when I waked up the stars was shining bright, the fog was all gone, and I was spinning down a big bend stern first. First I didn't know where I was; I thought I was dreaming; and when things began to come back to me they seemed to come up dim out of last week. It was a monstrous big river here, with the tallest and the thickest kind of timber on both banks; just a solid wall, as well as I could see by the stars.

Other word frequencies in the case of Tom v. Huck:

“Mournful”: Tom, 1. Huck, 6.
“Tears”: Tom, 13. Huck, 21.
“Afraid”: Tom, 4. Huck, 18.
“Sick”: Tom, 16. Huck, 42.
And maybe most tellingly, “Boy”: Tom, 296. Huck, merely 82.

Huck has his boyhood taken from him in ways that Tom Sawyer never will, and in those eerie seconds of film, Huck stands as a moral being also stripped of pretense. His gaze condemns us, all these years later, for ours.


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