Sunday, April 04, 2010

Tom Sawyer, abolitionist

I have to admit, Tom Sawyer has been on my conscience for the past few years. I mean, I do stand behind what I said about him in my essay, which I wrote for a production of my play HUCK FINN - he was a jerk, and his appearance in Huck's story drove it right off the rails.

But Clemens loved him, and believed that the public loved Tom, which is why he put him in HUCK's story. But since Clemens' time, Tom's popularity has decreased while Huck's has increased. This web page makes a very good case for the decline in the popularity of Tom:
In the century since, Tom Sawyer has been the most frequently filmed of MT's books. It was filmed three times before Huck Finn was filmed at all, and Tom himself was the star of the second movie version of Huck's story (see below). The next century might tell a different story. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still widely read, in part because it is so frequently taught in high schools, but based on my students' experience, most Americans born since 1975 mainly know Tom through Huck's novel, and know the plot of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer only through the Disney film that ends the list below. In another generation it might be time for Tom to say, "You don't know about me except you have read a book by the name of 'Huckleberry Finn.'"

And I saw the results myself - when I went to see Mark Twain's study - a glorified gazebo his sister-in-law had built for him in Elmira NY, there was one sign from the 1950s which announced that the study was where Mark Twain wrote "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." But a much newer sign, posted closer to the study, said that it was where Twain wrote "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"!

So I feel a little bad for Tom for his being eclipsed by Huck.

Now it looks like I'm going to rehabilitate him. I already turned Huck into an abolitionist in my play HUCK FINN - although Huck was already an abolitionist at heart, I just made it more explicit: I have been working on a play about a slave women in 1850s Missouri and she has a white boyfriend. At first his name was Robert, but he gradually developed a cocky, romantic, trickster personality and I realized he was basically Tom Sawyer, all grown up and in love with a beautiful slave. I changed my character's name to Tom Turner - I don't want to have him literally be Tom Sawyer, but I wanted to acknowledge the connection, and it is fun to think of my play, CELIA as a sequel to the Tom/Huck stories. Clemens himself wrote Tom sequels - Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective and both are very bad. Clemens really needed money at the time, but the world has wisely forgotten about those books.

My play was inspired by a court case Slave State of Missouri v. Celia a horrendous true story of a slave girl who was hanged for killing her master in self-defense when he attempted to rape her. It was determined that as property, she did not even have the right to self-defense.

I dealt with the horrors of slave rape, a little, in my HUCK FINN play. This was something that Clemens avoided completely in any of his books set in the antebellum South. Even in Puddinghead Wilson, he doesn't go into details about how Roxana - whom I borrowed for my HUCK play - came to be so light-skinned and how her child came to look so white that he could pass for white his entire life. In my play, Roxana's master, Jack Turner - whom I substituted for Tom Sawyer's kindly old uncle Silas from the Huck story - is clearly using her. Although she takes some pride in it because it does give her some advantages, to be a favorite of the master, it's clear how brutal the arrangement is.

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, after the King and the Duke sell Jim out, Huck goes to search for him, and just happens to be taken in by Tom Sawyer's aunt and uncle (he doesn't know who they are at first) who think he is Tom Sawyer, come for a pre-arranged visit. The aunt and uncle are slave holders, but kindly if ineffectual people, easily fooled by Tom and Huck. One of the slaves is a "yellow gal" - a light skinned slave, who is called a "hussy" by Aunt Sally. Clemens doesn't address this issue, but how did Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas come to have a light-skinned slave? Maybe Uncle Silas wasn't so innocent after all.

At the time the Tom and Huck stories were published, the Civil War was very recent history and many people who might buy the novels were once slave-owners. Clemens knew better than to portray slavery in all its brutality, especially the sexual concubinage of slave women - his audience would not have stood for it and his speaking tours would have been very poorly attended - except perhaps by an angry mob.

And there are people in the United States of America in the early twenty-first century who still romanticize and feel nostalgia for the antebellum South.

I think Roy Edroso of Alicublog described this kind of thing best in his remark about the right-wing blogger Confederate Yankee: "someone whose cognomen proudly celebrates treason in defense of slavery"