The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an American classic that has been cherished by readers for generations. From its first publication, in 1876, this adventure into childhood has captured the imagination of Mark Twain fans. As we had already discovered, Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was a master of drawing from life, when creating his memorable characters. Tom Sawyer was one of his greatest accomplishments, as it appealed to a broad base of readers. While the youth find the exciting adventures captivating, adult readers will have moments of nostalgia for the days of their own youth. This particular tale brings to life Becky Thatcher, who would become the love of Tom’s life.
We want to thank the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum for hosting our visit. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
Drawing from Life
Mark Twain disguised himself as a character in many of his novels. Pulling from his childhood memories, he crafted Becky Thatcher from a boyhood friend named Laura Hawkins. Laura lived across the street from Clemens and the house has been preserved as part of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Inside, we discovered that a museum that not only covers her life, but also the lives of children during the mid-1800s. Much like Tom and Becky, Clemens and Hawkins were childhood sweethearts.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a series of comical and exciting events that take place in a boy’s life. Early in the book Tom first catches sight of Becky. Even though he doesn’t yet know her name, he is determined to capture her attention. His attempts at showing off fail in his eyes, but they are things that readers can relate to on a personal level. After all, how many of us acted a little crazy when we found ourselves infatuated with someone?
Becky Thatcher House
It was early in our visit to the Becky Thatcher House that we discovered the connection with Laura Hawkins. It must have been quite interesting growing up across the street from Samuel Clemens. During my research, I found comments made by Laura in subsequent years. Her vivid memories of Samuel shows the impact he made on her. She recalled how their first meeting involved Clemens attempting to show off, much like Tom does for Becky. Clearly, he freely used his memories to build the stories he would share with the world.
Life in the 1800s
As Clemens builds out the characters in his book, the class disparities become apparent. Huck Finn, the vagabond friend of Tom, has no responsibility. Tom envies Huck’s freedom from living a structured life, while overlooking the uncertainties that Huck faces. As a way to highlight the inequalities of life in the mid-1800s, Clemens uses Aunt Polly’s young slave, Jim. Here we see a life that has no control of his own destiny and has his life decisions controlled by another. The same disparity can be found in each of the boy’s duties and daily activities.
As we made our way through the displays at the Becky Thatcher House, we found that the exhibits are designed to help showcase these inequalities. It was nice to see that these were not done with a heavy hand, but instead allowed the visitor to come to certain conclusions on their own. For instance, the home or lack thereof that each of the children had to bed down in each evening. Although Tom was jealous of Huck’s seemingly free lifestyle, he still had the comfort of knowing where he would sleep each night.
School’s in Session
Education was another place that the disparity of class shone it’s light. Becky and Tom would each enjoy the opportunity for an education. Jim, being a slave, was not afforded this option. Huck, being a vagabond, was against the idea of any formal education, even if it was readily available. Clemens was drawing from life experiences when he created each of these characters. Spending his childhood days in Hannibal allowed him plenty of subjects to use for inspiration.
A Different Time
The museum displays include some other eye-opening information. Over the generations much has changed in the style of education. In the mid-1800s, corporal punishment was an acceptable way to grab the attention of a misbehaving youth. Seeing the forms of punishment that were doled out on the children was one of those cringeworthy moments.
Kids will be Kids
Moving through the Becky Thatcher House, we came to a display on the games children played in the mid-1800s. While some of the names were familiar from our own youth, others were a little foreign. All-in-all, while the games changed with time, it was still dependent upon the use of imagination. This commonality is why Clemens books have stood the test of time. It is easy for readers to relate to the subject matter and characters actions and motives.
Tom & Becky
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer make stars of Tom and Becky, who capture the heart of readers. To play off of this, the Hannibal Chamber of Commerce created a program that allows boys and girls to compete to be ambassadors for the city. Each year, a selection panel chooses from the field of seventh graders in the local schools to represent the essence of Tom and Becky. This fun program has recently been moved to the oversight of the Mark Twain Museum. During our visit, we were fortunate to meet the 2020 Tom and Becky and watch them perform a short skit.
Taking Our Turn
Tom Sawyer captured the essence of childhood in a way that few novels have done. The stories of his escapades and adventures are still as entertaining to read. You know that a book has made an impact on you when you cannot wait to have a chance to whitewash the picket fence. Of course, it didn’t cost us a kite or any of our marbles. I guess we got the best of both worlds.