Mark Twain is, according to critics and readers alike, the first great American novelist (Reuben). Throughout his lifetime
Twain, born Samuel Longhorn Clemens, held an eclectic mix of jobs, and, wrote a great deal about his experiences and his
boyhood. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (AOTS) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (AOHF) are a pair of novels by
Twain that: present the new and radical changes in the early 1800s in contrast to the old fashioned ways; mirror Twain’s life
as a young boy growing up in a one-horse town on the Mississippi River; and, give the reader an idea of his view that the
loss of innocence signals the coming of age.
Twain was born in 1835 and Tom Sawyer grew up in the 1840s. Around this time, America, especially the North, was
undergoing “revolutionary changes in transportation and communication” (Geise 93). The river steam boat was invented in
1807 (Roberts and Kennedy 305) and subsequently took over mass transportation from sailboats using the ocean (Geise).
This was a big change from the previous small scale or trans-ocean transport. After the steam boat came the steam train
which revolutionised transportation in a similar fashion, and they synergistically opened the West to all people and boosted
trade and commerce enormously–not just of the big industrial towns but of the en-route towns and the farms, In 1849,
agriculture accounted for over half of the nation’s economy, whereas today it is one-fiftieth (Roberts and Kennedy A27).
Canals, turnpikes and clipper ships also greatly affected transport and communication between distant places (311). The
times were revolutionary in that the old ways of taking dirty, bumpy roads long distances with little profit were over.
Another sign of the times was slavery. Racism was widespread during this time period because many large farms and
plantations held slaves. Feelings towards slaves in Missouri were not generally sympathetic, and abolitionists were not well
accepted because the economy would collapse without the slave based agriculture. Rudyard Kipling wrote at the end of that
century “The White Man’s Burden,” (643) that was taken to mean that blacks must accept their position as underlings. While
a false interpretation, it shows that many Confederates and sympathisers held the view that blacks and slaves deserved to be
oppressed even after the Civil War (1861-1864).
TAOTS accurately reflects the small town economy. The river trade is the centre of all commerce and without it, town life
would end. In Chapter Two of TAOTS, Ben Rogers, a local boy, pretends to be a steamboat. This exemplifies how
important the boats were to the town. Everything in the town–the mill, the taverns–they all depended on the trade from the
river. The town, consisting of a church, a school, a general store, taverns a mill and a docking area for the boats also reflect
how important the river really was. The minister’s fire and brimstone sermons (35) preach against the evils of drink,
gambling and lust, all of which would have been demonstrated by the passing river sailors and conmen.
In the AOHF, the town life is not so much the focus of description as river life. But it is the description of the treatment of
slaves that truly stands out. Huck was poor, but still he was socially above Jim because he was white and not owned.
TAOHF was set a few decades before the civil war so when Huck and Jim escaped down the Mississippi and headed south,
they were putting Jim in more peril. When they took on board the King and the Duke these other travelers wanted to turn Jim
in. Many non-slave states actually had laws that allowed for the returning of runaway slaves (Geise 109). Both TAOTS and
AOHF are accurate in their description of the situation (slave-wise and town-wise) at that time.
Mark Twain’s views about childhood and the subsequent loss of innocence are a product of childhood experience growing
up in Hannibal, Missouri (pop 500), a small town on the Mississippi River. As a young boy, he enjoyed skipping school to
go fishing on the nearby island; playing with the off-limits Tom Blackenship (Draper 3713), the son of the town drunk; or
spending time with his sweetheart Laura Hawkins (Thayer 5). Twain once had a harrowing experience as a child when he
got lost in a local cave with Laura. Living in the small river town, whose only commerce was from the steamboat trade, he
witnessed at least four murders (Sanderlin). When he was eleven, his father died (Meltzer 75). He quit school in fifth grade
(twelve years old), just as most children did at that time (Kaplan 356). He then became an apprentice in a printing shop,
where he began to write down stories his overactive imagination created. Twain had an ideal life in Hannibal. Even though
he was poor (Roberts 5), he went to school and Sunday School where he got some education and made many friends, and
much mischief. He and his friends had exiting experiences together, some of which jolted him out of his innocence. Once
Twain and his friends were playing in the creek and a clumsy German boy, who makes an appearance in TAOTS, dived into
the creek and drowned. The boy had memorised 3000 verses of the Bible for Sunday school, so Twain had a hard time
figuring out how God could be that cruel. Or, for that matter, how people could be cruel. He once saw a master brutally
murder his slave: not a rare occurrence in Missouri, a slave state. As a result, Twain underwent ups and downs in his mood
as a child had bad dreams and sleep-walked (Sanderlin 13).
All, or most, of the experiences and feelings Twain had growing up in Hannibal are mirrored in Tom Sawyer’s story. In
fact, at the beginning of the novel, Twain tells the reader that Tom’s adventures were the same as the ones he and his friends
had, albeit exaggerated. Tom grew up in a small river town in the 1840s, just like Twain. It was essentially Hannibal,
renamed St. Petersburg, Missouri. St. Petersburg had the same characters as Hannibal. There was the town drunk, Mr.
Finn; his son Huckleberry; a loving and generous mother figure (Aunt Polly, based on Mrs. Clemens) taking care of a brat
(Sid in the novel, brother Henry in life) and a responsible girl (Mary in the novel, sister Pamela in Twain’s life). Injun Joe
was a miscreant in Hannibal, Becky Thatcher is the Laura mentioned before, and Judge Thatcher is similar to Twain’s father,
an unemotional lawyer. Becky and Tom once got lost in a cave just as Twain and Laura did. Tom once witnessed a murder
and experienced conflicts of emotions and had bad dreams until he gave into his conscience and told the true murder story,
letting an innocent man go free (Twain 147). Twain wrote a better closing for Tom than he ever had in real life, because in
real life murder was a part of everyday life.
Huck’s life is also similar to Twain’s, but not in such a direct way. Twain, and many of his main characters (Paul 1175),
including Tom, are fatherless. Huck, and assumedly his real-life counterpart’s father is a “filthy,” abusive drunk and is often
absent (Twain 17, 27). Huck is a dirt-poor boy who is practical for the sake of survival. Huck sees things in such a
straightforward manner–as opposed to the soft-focus way of both Twain as a child and Tom– that the coming of age is very
abrupt. Huck also grew up on the river, but, unlike Tom and Twain, he was so poor that he could not live in a house, or
have the motivation to go to school or Sunday School. One of Tom’s dreams was to live a carefree, rule-free life on the
Mississippi River, and he attempts that when he escapes to the island. Twain wanted a life on the river, and eventually
became a steam-boat pilot (Sanderlin 25). But Huck, on the other hand, actually lived the river life as a boy. His oppressive
father abducted him (31), so he ran away and floated down the lazy Mississippi with Jim (the slave of Miss Watson), who
was escaping the most oppressive level of society. For a time, Huck and Jim lived a carefree life. This is the true realisation
of Twain’s boyhood dream. Because Jim was a runaway slave, Huck himself actually considered turning Jim over to the
authorities. In a grand moment of “crisis of conscience” (Derwin 6), Huck finally decides to do what is wrong and not turn
Jim in. This is evidence of his practical mind leading to a heart-warming conclusion. But Tom is such a romantic that he
instigates an elaborate plot to liberate Jim, even though he knows the truth that Miss Watson died and Jim was made free.
This demonstrates Tom’s lack of conscience over the conscience that is blatant in Huck. Twain wrote Huck’s character to be
the boy he should have been morally, and wrote Tom to be the boy he was.
TAOTS lets the reader into the mind of Twain. When a boy witnesses evil and loses his innocence, he becomes an adult.
Tom witnesses the murder in the graveyard and becomes very sad until he tells the truth. This period of melancholy is a
transition for Tom. He can no longer see the world as his playground, he now has to see the shadows, the ‘bad’ people of
society, along with what is good. He told the truth about the gold and the haunted house, even though he did not want to.
Tom ran away to Jackson Island to escape society that was oppressing him by not letting him have fun. It was on the island
that he learned independence was not all it ‘cracked up to be.’ Twain had to act like an adult at that age, so here he was
saying that boys have to behave like boys before they can become men. When Tom was lost in the cave in Chapter Thirty he
was forced to become the adult because Becky was behaving like a child. He had already been exposed to reality so he was
prepared to take the responsibility of comforting her and not letting her worry. In Chapter Sixteen Tom and Joe were not
ready to smoke, but Huck was ready to experience some part of adult life.
Huck had always taken care of himself. When he was abducted by his father he was realistic about his situation and practical
in his plan of escape.
Philosophically, Twain wants to show the reader that the boys’ loss of innocence is how they became mature adults rather
than remain impractical or conscienceless boys as they had been before. Adulthood could be a culmination of events ending
in a review that brings one to change their outlook. But Twain’s life was more dramatic. His father died and he was thrust
into the ‘real world,’ his school of life without much warning. Tom saw the murder and came to an eventual conclusion: that
men can be cruel and so can God, but what one does personally is what is important. Huck came to this same conclusion
more smoothly. He had always seen society as bad for him. The social mores of education and religion never did much for
him, and social institutions like class structure and manners were even worse. He accepts having to behave civilised, but
thinks his own way, for example that slavery is not fair.
Mark Twain began writing AOHF before TAOTS, but had to put it aside. When he started up again he wrote TAOTS for
money but kept TAOHF in it’s pure form. TAOHF is his commentary on: society–that it does no good; on religion–that
only fools believe in it; and on men–that they do evil but can do good. But essentially the novels are simple local-colour
stories of boyhood and the journey to manhood in a romantic, and alternatively, in a realist.
Bailey, Thomas A; and Kennedy, David M. The American
Pageant: A History of the Republic. Lexington, MA:
D.C. Heath and Company, 1991.
Derwin, Susan. “Impossible Commands: Reading Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn.” 1990-1995. 13 pages,