President's Journal

Volume I. #2

Childhood, Caves, and Conscience

Mark Twain and the Joy of Childhood

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

 

by Mark Twain

Winter in Houston doesn’t quite inspire Ishmael’s damp dreary “November in the soul” and his need for adventures on the big wide ocean  (interior motions which lead him to join a ship whose captain, Ahab, is consumed and “empowered” by vengeance and to a dramatic encounter with a great white whale—which, of course, is more than just a great white whale).   Nor does this time and place quite conjure the images of snuggling up to a fire draped in an old hand-knit blanket, and armed with a good book.  Comfortable and lost in another world, while outside in the dark of a Northern or Midwestern afternoon, Winter moans and snarls and bares those sharp canines that really do bite.

 

No, here and now is a time of spring, of mid 60’s/70’s, of t-shirts and outdoor (and winter) escapes.  But, hey, any time can be a good time and most places can be decent places to take a quick step out of time and enter the world of a great book.  Recently for me this meant an evening trip on a plane.  I settled (or squeezed or sidled) in.  Luxuriously, I stretched my legs in the aisle of a packed flight (semi-mindful of carts and moving feet) and reached for a book in a leather bag tucked tight under the seat.  Somehow not really, mostly by imagination, I tried to filter or limit the intake of the beautifully dank stagnant recycled air hovering in the sealed tube, which was “delayed” and waiting (and, presuming for smart economic reasons, providing no relief or flow from the air nozzles above).

 

The book was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  And regardless of the tight quarters or of the air seasoned with imported swamp-like ingredients, the book, unopened for years, took me in.

 

Here’s a portion of one of the classic chapters in American literature to enjoy.  From Chapter 2, The Glorious Whitewasher

 

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation, and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

  Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence, nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged…

 

  …He began to think of the fun he had planned for this day, and his sorrows multiplied. Soon the free boys would come tripping along on all sorts of delicious expeditions, and they would make a world of fun of him for having to work—the very thought of it burnt him like fire. He got out his worldly wealth and examined it—bits of toys, marbles, and trash; enough to buy an exchange of work, maybe, but not half enough to buy so much as half an hour of pure freedom. So he returned his straitened means to his pocket, and gave up the idea of trying to buy the boys. At this dark and hopeless moment an inspiration burst upon him! Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.

  He took up his brush and went tranquilly to work. Ben Rogers hove in sight presently—the very boy, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been dreading. Ben’s gait was the hop-skip-and-jump—proof enough that his heart was light and his anticipations high. He was eating an apple, and giving a long, melodious whoops, at intervals, followed by a deep-toned ding-dong-dong, ding-dong-dong, for he was personating a steamboat. As he drew near, he slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to starboard and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance—for he was personating the “Big Missouri,” and considered himself to be drawing nine feet of water. He was boat, and captain, and engine-bells combined, so he had to imagine himself standing on his own hurricane-deck giving the orders and executing them:

  “Stop her, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling!” The headway ran almost out and he drew up slowly toward the sidewalk.

  “Ship up to back! Ting-a-ling-ling!” His arms straightened and stiffened down his sides.

  “Set her back on the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow! Ch-chow-wow! Chow!” His right hand, meantime, describing stately circles,—for it was representing a forty-foot wheel.

  “Let her go back on the labbord! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow-ch-chow-chow!” The left hand began to describe circles.

  “Stop the stabbord! Ting-a-ling-ling! Stop the labbord! Come ahead on the stabbord! Stop her! Let your outside turn over slow! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow-ow-ow! Get out that head-line! Lively now! Come—out with your spring-line—what’re you about there! Take a turn round that stump with the bight of it! Stand by that stage, now—let her go! Done with the engines, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling! Sh’t! s’h’t! sh’t!” (trying the gauge-cocks.)

  Tom went on whitewashing—paid no attention to the steamboat. Ben stared a moment and then said:

  “Hi-yi! You’re up a stump, ain’t you!”

  No answer. Tom surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist; then he gave his brush another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before. Ben ranged up alongside of him. Tom’s mouth watered for the apple, but he stuck to his work. Ben said:

  “Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

  Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

  “Why it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

  “Say—I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work—wouldn’t you? ‘Course you would!”

  Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

  “What do you call work”

  “Why ain’t that work?”

  Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

  “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

  “O come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

  The brush continued to move.

  “Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

  That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

  “Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

  Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

  “No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

  “No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

  “Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”

  “O, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

  “Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”

  “I’ll give you all of it!”

  Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer “Big Missouri” worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next change to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had beside the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six firecrackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass doorknob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

  He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while—plenty of company—and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village…

 

 

With the mention of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, I think many feel a touch of nostalgia and with a smirk and perhaps a twinkle in the eye, recall childhood memories, which by their very nature include mishaps, wild imaginings, and (hopefully) mischief.  And I think for many, these characters and their stories conjure a sense of the joy of childhood, and in particular of boyhood.

 

These boys are friends and share common interests, such as visiting graveyards at night (submit your own emoticon here), and know they can confide in another.  (Though, as we’ll touch on later, after much inner turmoil Tom does break a most solemn oath, signed in blood, as is only proper.  The sacred oath reads:  “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer swears they will keep mum about this and they wish they Drop down dead in their tracks if they ever tell and rot.”)

 

These boys are more comfortable and more themselves when trekking through the woods or floating on the Mississippi than when in a classroom or Sunday school.  While Tom is more epic minded and his imagination is ever dancing with romantic images of knights and robbers and beautiful damsels, and Huck is more practical—a quiet observer, with a little more suffering and less “book-learning” —both their imaginations are alive.  Properly donned with polished weapons (poles and broomsticks) and a host of flags, these fearless seekers of treasure some days aspire to be noble errant knights saving distressed damsels and at other times, with no sense of contradiction, to be robbers or pirates (the latter groups being more common).

 

If I may digress to one such scene from Huckleberry Finn, with “Tom Sawyer’s Gang.” Of course, this gang must be “classy” and official.  Huck almost doesn’t make the cut as he explains:

 

 

They talked it over, and they was going to rule me out because they said every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn’t be fair and square for the others.  Well, nobody could think of anything to do—everybody was stumped, and set still.  I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her.

Everybody said:

        “Oh, she’ll do, she’ll do.  That’s all right.  Huck can come in.”

 

~ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, C. 1

 

 

The offer requires qualification.  Miss Watson is the sister of the kind Widow Douglas, who has recently adopted Huck.  Miss Watson is “visiting” and is the kind of proverbial aunt who is the bane of any boy’s existence.  She was quick and constant with moral corrections and “oughts” and “don’ts” and warnings of eternal judgments and brimstone.  She carried an ever-watchful eye that viewed basic boyness as suspicious and most likely bad and to be restrained.  While not wishing malice, Huck’s offer may not be as noble as his friends think.  But, continuing with the digression, the gang doesn’t last too long:

 

 

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned.  All the boys did.  We hadn’t robbed nobody, we hadn’t killed any people,.. One time Tom…said he got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow wih two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers,..we rushed out of the woods and down the hill.  But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants.  It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that.

 

~ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, C. 3

As we’d expect the disbanded gang doesn’t last too long either, and the forming and disbanding cycle of a “holy” band of thieving, knightly, robbing, brothers who honor and respect women (part of the rules of chivalric piracy or robbery according to Tom and his books) will continue.

 

But these boys aren’t just outdoor hunter/gatherer/warrior types.  They are that, but like all children, they wonder about the big Cosmological questions of life.  For example, Huck struggles between two visions of Providence and introduces this theme early in his story.  The version portrayed by Widow Douglas was enough “to make a body’s mouth water”, but if Miss Watson’s version got a “chap”, “there warn’t no help for him any more.”  Huck says, “I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s, if he wanted me,..” (HF, C.3)

 

Both Tom and Huck describe moments of enjoying the powerful beauty of nature.  Huck gives a description of enjoying a summer storm from a cave: “ It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely;..” (HF, C. 9)  He waxes poetic for some time at this moment and finishes with words that mark he has experienced true leisure and has seen and known for certain, even if for just a moment, it’s all very good.  He tells Jim, “I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here.”  Later on his journey and while living on the raft, he says, “We had the sky, up there, all speckled

with stars, and we used to discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened…” (HF, C. 14)

 

As we know, Tom is a bit of a helpless romantic, falling in and out of love, finding ways to display his feathers, savoring the depths of longing and indulging in long moments of self-pity—hoping he could die “just for a moment” so that others, especially his beloved would pain for his loss.  However, something different and deeper happens with Becky.

 

A bit surprising, however, is Huck’s eye and search for beauty and his lasting, life-changing impression of Mary Jane.  “Mary Jane was red-headed, but that don’t make no difference, she was awful beautiful, and her face and her eyes were all lit up like glory…” (C. 25)  He continues:

 

 

You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand.  It sounds like flattery, but it ain’t no flattery.  And when it comes to beauty—and goodness too—she lays over them all.  I hain’t ever seen her since that time that I see her go out of that door; no I hain’t ever seen her since, but I reckon I’ve thought of her a many and a many million times, and of her saying she would pray for me; and if I ever I’d thought it would do any good for me to pray for her, blamed if I wouldn’t a done it or bust.

~ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, C. 28

 

 

As we see here with Mary Jane, the real adventures our orphan heroes have are the primary adventures of the stories and shape and make the boys who are on them and to some degree shape us—the beholders, the readers.    That said, even though these boys come face to face with real life pirates and robbers and liars and thieves, and the callous horrors such persons are capable of—at least as they finish the story of Tom Sawyer—our heroes can still return as boys and to a life of imagination not yet focused and pressured with goals and responsibilities and survival.  They can return to being “noble” robbers—a step up from pirates as Tom explains.

 

As is the course for epic heroes, it is not surprising that young Tom loses his way and descends into and wanders for days in deep caverns, the deep abyss—the place of doubt and despair—and returns again to the light his beloved (a Ulysses and a successful Orpheus, if you will).  In many ways it is the love for his young friend, Becky, that spurs him beyond his own weakness to find the passage out.

 

But the denouement, the playing out of events from the dominant struggles, and the climaxes of these action adventure tales is a bit surprising and non-formulaic.  There are no climactic clashes of the hero and the anti-hero—no climactic clash of Tom with Injun Joe, even though they’re both in the cave at the end of the story—something Tom knows but Injun Joe never discovers.  There is no final confrontation of Huck with the terrible, despicable “King” and “Duke.”  No, rather, there is a defeat of the enemies, but there is little relish by their boy foes.  Tom, when he discovers the cave has been sealed rushes there in hopes of saving Injun Joe.  Huck, for his part tries to save the King and Duke from gruesome justice.  (In many ways he acts counter to the feelings of many of his readers —and perhaps educates with respect to a compassionate tuned moral imagination.  We all despise the king and duke by this time).  Huck is horrified and sickened to see these men tarred and feathered and ridden on a rail:

 

 

…here comes a raging rush of people, with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side to let them go by; and as they went by, I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail—that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human—just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes.  Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world.  It was a dreadful thing to see.  Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.

 

~ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, C. 33

 

Both of these boys display mature judgment and insight near the conclusion of each of their tales.  Through all the vices and decrepitude they still see these villains as persons.  These mature judgments and mature feelings—and the two elements go hand in hand—are actually at the heart of each story’s primary climax and primary action.   For each orphan hero, they are perceptions decisions of Conscience!  (not typical of action/adventure in the least—vengeance was at that time and still is today pretty much the prime driver and highlight for such stories and films).

 

This theme of conscience is introduced at the very beginning of Tom Sawyer.  Aunt Polly remarks: “Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.” (TS, C.1)  This issue picks up tension and drama with Tom and becomes a primary driver of the story.  (Of course, this serious topic is handled with wit and depth in the hands of Clemens and never devolves into easy platitudes or sentimental caricature). Chapter 11 is titled Conscience Racks Tom.  And this brings us back to the sacred oath signed by Tom and Huck.  Their midnight adventure into the graveyard turned tragic and they witnessed the murder of young Dr. Robinson and saw a man, a town drunk, Ol’ Muff Potter, get framed for it.  (Potter was there and during a scuffle got knocked out.  He woke up next to a murdered man and with the weapon in his hand—placed there by his friend/companion Injun Joe).  The two boys make the document and swear the oath because they know if they accuse the real murderer they put their own lives on the line.  They ease their minds for this most rational decision by being kind to Potter while he’s in jail awaiting justice.

 

The trial finally arrives—the big to-do of the town. Tom and Huck are troubled and swear the oath again.  They feel bad for Potter and remember his kindness to them and again give him little gifts (tobacco, matches, food), but this racks them more:

 

“His gratitude for their gifts had always smote their consciences before—it cut deeper than ever this time.  They felt cowardly and treacherous…” (TS, C. 23)

 

Keeping tabs on the trial, but not quite able to go in and watch, the boys learn the deal is pretty much done.  The evidence is solid, the defense is weak, and poor Potter is sure to hang.  “Call Thomas Sawyer!” (C. 23)  The wild-eyed, scared boy courageously takes the stand and answers questions.

 

“The strain of pent up emotion reached its climax when the boy said:

 “’—and as the doctor fetched the board around and Muff Potter fell, Injun Joe jumped with the knife and—‘“ (C. 23)

 

Of course, Tom becomes the town hero, and as the narrator relates: “There was some that believed he would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging.”  (C. 24)

 

But, showing again a touch of Clemens’ humor, to Huck and his boyhood sense of things, it’s all a little troubling:

 

 

Since Tom’s harassed conscience had managed to drive him to the lawyer’s house by night and wring a dead tale from lips that had been sealed with the dismalest and most formidable of oaths, Huck’s confidence in the human race was well-nigh obliterated.”
(C. 24)

 

 

This theme of conscience and its centrality to the story’s drama, is even more pronounced in Huckleberry Finn.   More than Aunt Polly, Huck is torn throughout the story between what he thinks his conscience should say—according to the current proverbial wisdom and hardened/justified prejudices—and what his heart and own will tell him.  The problem, of course, is his aiding a fugitive slave, Jim.  Time and again he is determined to do the “right thing” and turn Jim in, and time and again something within wells up and counters his resolve.  And, one way or another—usually with some artful lies—he protects Jim and saves him from capture.  While throughout the book he makes “final” decisions, the big decision and Huck’s big moment finally occurs in Chapter 31.  He is willing to risk public shame, alienation, and even worse, but he is going to free Jim.

 

Like Tom, it is a moment of true conscience.  It’s not a moment of recalling and hearkening to some Kantian categorical imperative or to a host of lessons by a Miss Watson.  It is a true, interiorly unified and liberating moment of insight and decision, emanating from some fibers woven deep within that tunes to the Reality without.  These true and profound acts of conscience are not manifestations of a flimsy anything goes type of conscience, something like “my conscience says I can abuse people, yours doesn’t, well, to each his own.”  These acts and Clemens’ understanding are rooted in seeing that these characters, Potter and Jim, although easily discarded and seen as less than human, are persons and that what was unfolding was injustice.  Even if such words do not come to the young heroes’ lips, the sense of each villain’s inherent (and God-given) dignity as a person, and the injustice are seen and felt and tasted and understood.

 

Let’s wrap up. (Fear not, most journals will be much shorter than this.)

 

Clemens’ understanding of boys is not simply rosy and no one could call him sentimental (without receiving deserving wrath from one source or another, alive and dead).  He is gifted in his perception and honed in his craft.  His realism has romance fused in it or his romance has realism fused in, whichever.  He is sympathetic, affectionate, and affirmative and he clearly delights in beholding what makes boys boys—and it is this affirmative beholding that leads to insight and renders him open to the gifts that inform his craft.  (The eyes of a Miss Watson as they are will never perceive the gift and nature of boys, and thus are not capable of seeing a way to guide or educate them, let alone to make a story).

 

Clemens is well aware of the ranges of humanity and capable of bringing that broad range to life (Not all great artists are capable of portraying such a range.  Dickens, for example has dark seedy characters who are gritty and real, but his good characters tend to be a bit sentimental and left in the form of a caricature rather than a believable person).  And as an artist, he is interested in the imagination, the mysteries of the heart and the powers of perception, including truthful and moral vision.  While perhaps the furthest thing from a pedantic moralist, it would be a mistake to not recognize the seriousness underlying much of his work and his concern for truthful perception and moral vision.  And most of all, I’d like to note that his works are worth returning to time and again, especially because they are so enjoyable.

 

But, if you don’t mind, let’s return to our nostalgia and memory and ask some questions with respect to education—whether in the home or at school.  (It is always good to remember, for the sake of perspective, that so much of the prime time of a child’s life is often in school).

 

As much as these stories can bring fond recall of our own childhood, we have to ask ourselves if our children and today’s children, and here we have a focus on boys, will have similar memories.  Not to end with a negative turn, but working from the enjoyment of these great stories, and bearing in mind how much education and growth occurs by simply enjoying good things, we can’t help but raise a few relevant issues and topics.  Each of these are matters of real conversation and debate today and are worthy of continued serious exploration as they bring a wholeness and an energy to the experience of education, and, well, are just important for humans striving for being.

 

Here’s a short list:

 

  • free imaginative play, undirected and at most lightly observed by adults
  • exploration of nature and the wild
  • experiences of quiet and of beholding beauty
  • exploration of Big Questions via real conversation and via great works of art
  • the connection of affirmation and affection to truthful insight into another
  • the power of an educational (or home) culture in which children—boys as boys and girls as girls—respecting the differences and gifts of each—feel understood and affirmed and can exercise their natures

 

We have gone on long enough…

 

‘til then,

 

Jeff

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