The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the first novel Mark Twain wrote by himself. It's probably #2 by a whisker on the list of his most famous works. But I'd never read it: it was too much a relic for me to have any interest in it as a child, but was apparently considered insufficiently literary to appear on any of the syllabi I encountered in college and grad school. I can see why not. It's not as funny as Twain's comedy pieces, and the plotting is frustrating, chock full of anticlimaxes and poor timing in switching between threads. Still, Tom Sawyer became one of the keystones of American popular culture, both in the 1870s and again in the 1990s when it was reincarnated as The Simpsons.

I assumed this was a well-documented link and so I did a web search on it, but didn't find a whole lot: interviews with the creators acknowledging the influence, and a paper on the subject being sold by one of those outfits to make money off of cheaters, but not the hundred thousand hits I was expecting. To me, it was the most striking thing about the book. I got a few chapters in, and thought, y'know, this is eerily familiar: a town where everyone knows everyone else; community life centered around a Protestant church to which the whole town belongs and an elementary school with a stuffed shirt for a principal; an obsessive attention to the superstitions and rituals of childhood, so obsessive that the only other person I could think of with that much investment in it was Matt Groening; and at the center of it all, a boy just mischievous enough to be a class clown, a little scamp, but with a solid family structure and mainstream enough not to be remotely threatening. That's both Tom Sawyer and Bart Simpson; take the first few chapters of Tom Sawyer or the first couple of seasons of The Simpsons and swap the two characters and there'd be no difference.

Of course, though Bart was the key figure when Simpsonmania hit in 1990, within a couple of years he became a supporting character and Homer was the lead; similarly, Mark Twain seems to decide in the middle of Tom Sawyer that Huck Finn is a lot more interesting, and Tom actually drops out of the story for long chunks of it. I can see why. Twain makes a point of the fact that he won't (as he was originally planning to) follow Tom into adolescence and adulthood... which makes sense, because it seems pretty apparent that he's just going to become like any other member of the community, occasionally chuckling over a drink about the hell he raised as a kid. But Huck, now — who knows how he'll turn out? (Well, anyone who ever took an English class in the United States of America, but that's still four books away.)

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