Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tom Sawyer Abroad

by Pa Rock

Last year I paid homage to the American Library Association's annual "Banned Book Week" by drafting a list of ten regularly banned books to read over the coming year.  Five of those were books I had already read but wanted to revisit, and five were first-reads for me.  I completed that task with months to spare.

This year I let "Banned Books Week" slip by with no recognition.  (It was September 27th through October 3rd.)  Now, playing catch-up, I have decided to honor the very worthy event by doing something fun - reading several books by Mark Twain, one of the most banned authors in American literature.  I have read a few of Twain's short stories as well as "The War Prayer," Pudd'nhead Wilson, Tom Sawyer, and of course his classic, Huckleberry Finn.  Sadly, though, I have never read many of the great author's better known efforts.  This year I am determined to address that shortcoming.

So I have begun an effort to read the works of Mark Twain - at a leisurely pace.

For my first dip into the Twain pool I selected a lesser-known work of the author,  but one that featured familiar characters.  Tom Sawyer Abroad was written by Twain during a single month in 1892.  The story, narrated by Huck Finn, tells the tale of Tom and Huck and the freed slave Jim touring a giant balloon airship in St. Louis when the craft's commander, a professor, suddenly set the big balloon free and into the wind.  A few days later as the balloon is sailing east, the professor falls overboard during a storm, and the threesome from Hannibal are left on their own in a high-flying adventure.

Prior to his sudden demise, the professor had told them that they were headed for London, but before they could learn how to navigate and control the craft, it began to drift southeastward.  The balloon crossed the Atlantic Ocean and eventually reached Africa and the Sahara Desert.  The adventurers sailed above the entire width of the desert while observing caravans of merchants, a mighty sandstorm, an oasis, and the pyramids and sphinx of Egypt, before finally coming to rest on Mt. Sinai.  From Egypt they eventually turned and headed home, knowing that there would be hell to pay from Aunt Polly when she caught up with them.

Tom Sawyer Abroad was written at a time when Mark Twain was experiencing some business and financial failures, and many believe that the quick novel with familiar characters was more about crass commercialism than it was literature.   In fact,  Twain pounded out the novel so quickly that he seems to have inadvertently (one would hope) lifted extensive material of Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon, a novel that Twain had read and enjoyed thirty years prior.  Twain apparently had plans to develop a series of books for boys (and men who had once been boys) based on his three most famous characters - perhaps flying the balloon from country to country and from volume to volume.  That effort would have presaged the Hardy Boys  by three decades.

But the publication of this quickie novel had its own unique challenges.  Twain sold first publication rights to novelist and publisher Mary Mapes Dodge (author of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates) for serialized inclusion in her magazine for children, St. Nicholas.  Mrs. Dodge took issue with some of Twain's language and his use of the vernacular, and she edited freely.

Mark Twain did not take kindly to the meddling of Mrs. Dodge.  According to the magazine's illustrator, Daniel Carter Beard, who witnessed Twain's visit to the magazine's headquarters, the great author exploded before those present:   "Any editor to whom I submit my manuscripts has an undisputed right to delete anything to which he objects but, God Almighty himself can't put words in my mouth that I did not use!"

The Twain outburst was so intense that Mrs. Dodge and members of her editorial staff reportedly had to be resuscitated with smelling salts!

While Tom Sawyer Abroad, in its original form before Mrs. Dodge took her pen and scissors to it, is a good read, it is far from Twain's best.  It was a suitable format for Tom to show off his knowledge of geography and The Arabian Nights, and also presented several opportunities for Huck and Jim to conspire to deflate Tom's considerable ego.  But the tale remained simple, and at times it even bordered on being boring.  Clearly Mark Twain wasn't operating at the same heights as the boys and Jim were - but his wind, nonetheless, gave them flight.

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