127 years after its initial publication, Mark Twain's 'The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer' (1876) remains the definitive account of American boyhood. Bright, sassy, dauntless, charming, and shrewd, Tom embodies the archetype of every healthy, mischievous, and extroverted American boy.
The book's plot, probably better known to most readers today via cinematic versions of the story, is uncomplicated. Tom tricks and antagonizes his beloved, easily outraged Aunt Polly, develops a frustrating crush on young schoolmate Becky Thatcher, tricks his pals into doing his chores, reinvents himself as a pirate on the Mississippi, and, with Huckleberry Finn, runs afoul of Injun Joe when they unexpectedly witness a murder in a graveyard at midnight.
Like every good story with a traditional structure, the narrative offers a series of contrasts, here between the comfortable, familiar, sunlit world of St. Petersburg and the events that occur when curious Tom strips back daylight's veil and peers into the community's secret life.
Interestingly, with 'The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer,' the clever Twain was writing about present day (1880s) America, but simultaneously already portraying that era in nostalgic, sentimental terms.
Thus, today's readers may find in a double nostalgia in the novel: the first, their own, focused on a longing for America's mythological "simpler times," and the second a reflection of the homey, intimate, bumpkin-, eccentric- , and "character"-ridden American small town that Twain provided for the readers of his own era.
By writing so powerfully about boyhood, Twain offers readers of all eras yet another powerful provocation towards nostalgia: that for one's own lost childhood, youthful initiations, and passages from innocence into adulthood.
The novel contains seductive, lulling passages of great poetic beauty, such as the following: "He entered a dense wood, picked his pathless way to the centre of it, and sat down on a mossy spot under a spreading oak. There was not even a zephyr stirring; the dead noonday heat had even stilled the songs of the birds; nature lay in a trance that was broken by no sound but the occasional far-off hammering of a woodpecker, and this seemed to render the pervading silence and sense of loneliness the more profound. The boy's soul was steeped in melancholy; his feelings were in happy accord with his surroundings. He sat long with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, meditating. It seemed to him that life was but a trouble at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released. It must be peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream for ever and ever, with the wind whispering through the trees and caressing the grass and the flowers of the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more."
However, most of the book is written in a tone of buoyant theatrical artificiality: in episode after episode, Twain carefully sets his audience up for the punch lines to follow, and does so in a fashion that unabashedly reveals his own calculation as well as his intention that the reader be able to predict exactly what is to come. Even the narrative's tragedy-leaning moments are eventually punctured by corny, charming, tongue-in-cheek humor which seems to suggest that life, when well balanced, is primarily a pleasant affair of straw hats, freckled skin, rolled-up dungarees, molasses candy, indolent summer days, fishing tackle, white picket fences, and lovely chintz wallpaper.
A defining moment in American literature, 'The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer' is an evocative, light, and fanciful book littered with shrewd social commentary and fragments of wisdom and insight composed by an American master at the height of his powers.