NEA Big Read
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by Mark Twain

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Mark Twain, 1867 (Library of Congress)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Greg Brown sings "Out in the Country "

Out in the country, gravel road a ramblin' all around.
Out in the country, gravel road a ramblin' all around.

Sam Elliott reads from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...

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.

Reed: That's Sam Elliott reading from Mark Twain's nostalgic hymn to American boyhood, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I'm Josephine Reed.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

David Ives: When I think of this book I think of a bright sunny day...

Shelley Fisher Fishkin: I think that Mark Twain had one of the best ears in the 19th century. He listened to how Americans talked and he captured that on the printed page.

Ken Burns: Twain wrote about the moment and he wrote about all time. He wrote about the human condition. And he did so in a vast array of books. And no one is more archetypal than Tom Sawyer.

Richard Rodriguez: Tom Sawyer is the first investigation of this theme of what it means to be a boy in the eternal summers of America in the nineteenth century at a time when Americans were beginning to realize that the country was settling. It was no longer so much exploring but it was beginning to have an address.

Reed: Today we're talking about Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: Of all the great literary figures in American history, none has been so widely and continually popular as Mark Twain. He was a witty humorist, a wise political voice, an internationally admired lecturer, and a sharp-eyed travel writer. But most importantly, Twain was a brilliant storyteller. His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and perhaps his greatest achievements in fiction were his tributes to boyhood along the Mississippi River—The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Burns: I see Tom Sawyer as several different things. He's Mark Twain, Sam Clemens.

Gioia: Filmmaker Ken Burns created the 2002 documentary, Mark Twain.

Burns: He is America in a way. He's this rough hewn frontier go-getter filled with a kind of native intelligence, not book-learned. He's got the “bark on,” as Twain I'm sure would say. And we now think of that barefoot boy in coveralls and a straw hat and a piece of straw sticking out of his mouth.

Ron Powers: So here comes Tom Sawyer and the genre is exploded forever.

Gioia: Twain biographer, Ron Powers.

Powers: Tom is not evil, but he's a con artist, he knows how to work people. He knows how to work people into painting the fence for him, he's always got a scheme, he's always got a trick, he's always the director.

Sam Elliot Reads from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...

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. [...]

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

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.”

“Oh 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 gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. [...] the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned for the slaughter of more innocents. [...]

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all.

Gioia: Writer Anne Fadiman.

Anne Fadiman: His entire being is built on rebellion. Everything he's told not to do he wants to do, everything he's told to do, he wants not to do.

PJ O'Rourke: Children are not fully civilized beings. There is a reason for the Christian doctrine of original sin.

Gioia: Satirist and writer P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke: They come into our world trailing clouds of a number of things, glory perhaps, but also diaper vapor, and many other things. They're selfish, they're greedy. While they have sympathy, they have no empathy.

Gioia: Tom revealed his lack of empathy daily by drugging the family cat with painkiller or deceiving his sweet and gullible guardian Aunt Polly with elaborate white lies. When he wasn't hooking candy or pummeling his half-brother, Tom was picking fights with neighborhood kids or sneaking out of the house to play with friends.

O'Rourke: You read it again. You read it at 60, like I am, and all your sympathies are with Aunt Polly. None with Tom, you know. Tom's a brat. If Tom were in my daughter's class in school, I would say to her to stay away from that fellow. I might have a word with his parents, for that matter.

Gioia: Playwright David Ives

Ives: Tom Sawyer has a kind of distanced view of boyhood and understanding of boyhood, but a very distanced one.

O'Rourke: But it is a true portrait of childhood. Truer, I think, even than Twain meant it to be.

Gioia: P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke: This was him. I mean we've all known that that this was semi-autobiographical. But, I mean, this was him deep down inside. I think he exposed more of himself than he ever meant to do.

Gioia: In 2005, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Powers wrote a highly-acclaimed biography about the man who would eventually take the pen name Mark Twain.

Powers: Sammy Clemens was born in 1835 in a little riverfront village.

Gioia: Ken Burns.

Burns: He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, a tiny just speck on the map.

Fishkin: And he moved to Hannibal, Missouri not far away shortly thereafter.

Gioia: Shelley Fisher Fishkin is a noted Twain scholar.

Fishkin: He spent his childhood in Hannibal, and that is the setting for St. Petersburg in Tom Sawyer.

Gioia: Like Sam Clemens, Ron Powers grew up in Hannibal, Missouri.

Powers: To this day Hannibal, Missouri is a little cluster of civilization out there on the great prairie, it's not near anything. And you can hear that and think how unfortunate, but really it gives Hannibal its majesty. Because it was a civilization unto itself. He thought of Hannibal as holy. In fact, in his books, he called it St. Petersburg ... heaven.

Gioia: As a boy, Sam Clemens was mesmerized by the sounds of the Mississippi River – the steamboat whistles, the spinning wheels, and the rushing water. Sam was also deeply affected by the mournful songs of the slaves on his uncle's farm.
Ron Powers.

Powers: They sang their spirituals and they told their stories. And outsiders, the white overseers, thought they were being charming. And they were, but they were also speaking to one another in a very secret codified way of escape, and little Sam internalized it. And I always have believed that he heard language as music.

Gioia: The tall tales and ghost stories told to him by slaves not only captured his imagination, they also helped develop his ear for dialogue. When he began writing, Twain rejected the ornate Victorian style that characterized the literary mainstream of the mid-19th century. “My works are like water,” he said, “The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.” Twain tuned his ear to the timbre of the common folk, the poor, the uneducated, the delinquent, and the slave—and he translated those voices to the page with extraordinary authenticity.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Fishkin: Voices of children, voices of slaves, voices of servants, voices of ordinary people. Mark Twain listened and he made us listen to the stories that they told and to the truths that they conveyed, and he still has a lot to say that we need to hear.

Gioia: Clemens left home for the first time at 17 and trekked east. Seemingly always in the right place at the right time, he passed through Saratoga Springs, New York as the potato chip is invented, and later witnessed part of the great debate over the Missouri Compromise in Washington, D.C. At 21, he broke from his eastern sojourn and returned home.

Fishkin: He returned to the Mississippi River Valley and pursued his childhood dream of becoming a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi.

Gioia: Ron Powers

Powers: And he was not only a riverboat pilot, he was the best chronicler of what he called life on the Mississippi. He gave us that mythos. The riverboat pilot as a god-like figure on a river that was powerful and mysterious, the river that T.S. Eliot called a “strong, brown god.”

And then the Civil War happens, and he is part of the Civil War. For three weeks. He's part of a little ragtag militia group in Missouri and then he realizes that you might get shot in a war, so he goes West with his brother Orion to Nevada and is present at the creation of the Wild West.

The important part of that experience is that the young Sam Clemens, he hasn't yet called himself Mark Twain, although he's about to, the young Sam Clemens hears American language as it is spoken at the grassroots, and he absorbs it.

Gioia: Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Fishkin: Sam Clemens took the name Mark Twain in 1863.

Gioia: Ken Burns.

Burns: And of course he borrowed for his pen name the soundings that would take place.

Fishkin: He chose his name based on the leadsmen, the steamboat call, Mark Twain which meant the water is two fathoms deep.

Gioia: Ken Burns

Burns: I think that in some ways taking that name, Mark Twain, was realizing how poised we are on the edge of safety and danger at any given moment.

Gioia: The riverboat call of “mark twain” could mean either the entrance into a safe depth of water—two fathoms, or twelve feet deep—or else the passing from safe into dangerous waters. Twain likely relished the dark ambiguity of the name.

Ken Burns.

Burns: Around the edges of Tom Sawyer is a world of slavery, of death, of illness, of danger on the river, that is never too far away.

Gioia: Twain had a complicated and mostly negative opinion of organized religion. Tom and Huck, like many kids, avoid church and Sunday school at any expense. They are, however, obsessed with superstition.

P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke: And one thing that's interesting about Twain's attitude towards religion is he makes Tom a sort of superstitiously religious kid.

Fadiman: Tom and Huck go to the graveyard at midnight.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: We don't expect anything serious to happen because the reason that they're there is to satisfy one of Huck's superstitions, which is that you can get rid of a wart by bringing a dead cat to a graveyard at midnight on the day after a bad person has been buried.

Sam Elliot Reads from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer... (page 70-72)

It was a graveyard of the old-fashioned Western kind. It was on a hill, about a mile and a half from the village. It had a crazy board fence around it, which leaned inward in places, and outward the rest of the time, but stood upright nowhere. [...]

A faint wind moaned through the trees, and Tom feared it might be the spirits of the dead, complaining of being disturbed. The boys talked little, and only under their breath, for the time and the place and the pervading solemnity and silence oppressed their spirits. They found the sharp new heap they were seeking, and ensconced themselves within the protection of three great elms that grew in a bunch within a few feet of the grave.

[...] Tom's reflections grew oppressive. He must force some talk. So he said in a whisper:

“Hucky, do you believe the dead people like it for us to be here?”

Huckleberry whispered:

“I wisht I knowed. It's awful solemn like, ain't it?” [...]

Some vague figures approached through the gloom, swinging an old-fashioned tin lantern that freckled the ground with innu­merable little spangles of light. [...]

Potter and Injun Joe were carrying a handbarrow with a rope and a couple of shovels on it. They cast down their load and began to open the grave. The doctor put the lantern at the head of the grave and came and sat down with his back against one of the elm trees. He was so close the boys could have touched him.

“Hurry, men!” he said in a low voice; “the moon might come out at any moment.”

Gioia: Moments later, Tom and Huck watch from the shadows as the three grave robbers begin to argue. When tempers escalate and Muff Potter is knocked unconscious, Injun Joe fatally stabs the doctor. Then, he cleverly frames the unaware Potter for the crime.

The boys escape unseen. Afraid for their lives, they make a blood oath that they will tell no one about what they witnessed. But with Muff Potter in jail and the real killer on the loose, Tom lives in constant fear of the ruthless outlaw, Injun Joe.

Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: He has, I think, real reason to worry that Injun Joe might come after him if he ever realized that Tom had in fact witnessed the murder.

Gioia: Writer Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: Injun Joe, he's a half-breed. That is, he is a figure of both civilizations. He is part white, but he's also an Indian, so he lingers around town but he's never fully in town. He's just at the edge of town.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

O'Rourke: I think that it's hard to top when the boys become pirates and live on the island.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: When they have escaped from civilization, when everyone thinks that they have drowned...

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: These were days out of time in which they could be entirely boys.

Gioia: P.J. O'Rourke.

O'Rourke: Anybody who's ever been a boy (or a girl for that matter, I'm sure) has had that kind of moment when a piece of extended play gets out of hand. We're going to steal this rowboat and we're going row across the lake, and about half way across they lake you go, "What am I doing? I'm going to get in so much trouble for this!"

Sam Elliot Reads from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...

“Who goes there?”

“Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Name your names.”

“Huck Finn the Red-Handed, and Joe Harper the Terror of the Seas.” Tom had furnished these titles, from his favorite literature. [...]

The Terror of the Seas had brought a side of bacon, and had about worn himself out with getting it there. Finn the Red-Handed had stolen a skillet and a quantity of half-cured leaf tobacco, and had also brought a few corn-cobs to make pipes with. But none of the pirates smoked or “chewed” but himself. The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main said it would never do to start without some fire. That was a wise thought; matches were hardly known there in that day. [...]

They felt no longing for the little village sleeping in the distance beyond the majestic waste of water. A vagrant current or a slight rise in the river had carried off their raft, but this only gratified them, since its going was something like burning the bridge between them and civilization.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: Not having had children I have to say that I still sympathize with Tom Sawyer and I've been trying to run away to that island and be a pirate for my entire life.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: They broke every rule that they could possibly break, and they were completely free. There's no doubt in my mind, that's freedom.

Rodriguez: When they are on the island they feel both the pleasure of fishing. They feel also the danger of nature. Nature is this fierce storm that suddenly comes and the necessity for a roof, or shelter.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: That's a very rich segment in the book because when it balances between the adventure of leaving home and the yearning for home.

Gioia: Ron Powers.

Powers: The coincidences and the convergences of Mark Twain's life are just inexhaustible and infinite. His capacity to be where famous people or famous events were, or were taking place. The publishing of Tom Sawyer in 1876, the centennial of the country's birth, he's given us an archetypal American character and, of course, his being born and dying with the convergence of Halley's comet.

Fishkin: Twain died in 1910. He was 75. At his death he was a revered national figure. The country loved him, and the obituaries and the notices that appeared all over the world showed that the world loved him.

Gioia: Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Fishkin: Twain's later years were marked by a lot of very painful personal loss. During the last 14-15 years of his life, almost everyone he loved was taken from him.

Gioia: Ken Burns.

Burns: His own son died. Then another daughter, and then another daughter. His beloved father in law a little before that. His wife. By the time he was at the end of his life, he was down to one child, and I think, that he had retreated into the persona of Mark Twain, only because the life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens was so unbelievably painful and impossible to bear.

Gioia: Ron Powers.

Powers: Humor saved his life, he had that covered. He knew it. He understood it. He said “the real source of all humor is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” And he's absolutely right. One of his gifts was to be able to convert the grief and the anger into humor.

Gioia: Ken Burns.

Burns: I think when you just survey the whole arc of this man's life, it is filled with the most delicious kind of humor that I know. This is a man who said, “It's not that the world is filled with fools, it's just that lightning isn't distributed right.”

Gioia: Tom's guilty conscience eventually begins to get the better of him. He has a hard time ignoring the fact that the imprisoned Muff Potter is an innocent man. Tom and Huck slowly admit to themselves that they alone have the knowledge to set things right—but at their own great peril. The boys visit Potter at the jailhouse several times to bring small comforts to the poor prisoner, but also to comfort their troubled hearts.

P.J. O'Rourke.

O'Rourke: I think we're to see in Tom Sawyer a certain moral development. One of the stories being told in there is how an ordinary heathen boy, an ordinary, conscienceless, little creature attains a conscience, which according to Twain's philosophy is basically through love and sympathy for others.

Sam Elliot Reads from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...

The boys had a long talk, but it brought them little comfort. As the twilight drew on, they found themselves hanging about the neighborhood of the little isolated jail, perhaps with an undefined hope that something would happen that might clear away their difficulties. But nothing happened; there seemed to be no angels or fairies interested in this luckless captive.

The boys did as they had often done before—went to the cell grating and gave Potter some tobacco and matches. He was on the ground floor and there were no guards.

His gratitude for their gifts had always smote their con­sciences before—it cut deeper than ever, this time. They felt cowardly and treacherous to the last degree when Potter said:

“You've been mighty good to me, boys—better'n anybody else in this town. And I don't forget it, I don't. Often I says to myself, says I, ‘I used to mend all the boys' kites and things, and show 'em where the good fishin'-places was, and befriend 'em what I could, and now they've all forgot old Muff when he's in trouble; but Tom don't, and Huck don't—they don't forget him,' says I, ‘and I don't forget them.'” [...]

Tom went home miserable, and his dreams that night were full of horrors. The next day and the day after, he hung about the courtroom, drawn by an almost irresistible impulse to go in, but forcing himself to stay out.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: Eventually he knows that he has to do the right thing, and he comes forward in court as a witness on Muff Potter's behalf.

Gioia: As Tom uncovers the facts of the graveyard murder to an enthralled courthouse audience, Injun Joe suddenly springs from his seat and dives through a nearby window to escape. For the rest of the novel, Tom and Huck fear their next encounter with the murderous fugitive.

Powers: What is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer about?

Burns: Well I think there's lots of ways to interpret it.

Gioia: Ken Burns.

Burns: What it clearly is about is this lament for the freedom that childhood represents.

Gioia: Ron Powers.

Powers: He wasn't sure whether it was a boys' novel or a novel for adults about boyhood. And ultimately it doesn't matter, because what Tom Sawyer is about is the same as what every book ever written by Mark Twain is about, and that is about human nature.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: There is something in the American soul that fears the coming of autumn, the chill in the woods, the starched white shirt, the beginning of school, the end of summer.

Abigail Washburn sings "Red & Blazing"

And I knew that day was ending...

Rodriguez: If only this book could go on, if only the summer did not have to come to an end.

Abigail Washburn sings "Red & Blazing"

I knew you'd seen your happiest day...

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created for the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Adam Kampe. Executive producer: Dan Stone. Readings from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were by Sam Elliott. "Out in the Country" performed by Greg Brown from his album The Iowa Waltz used with permission of Red House Records. Mississippi sounding calls recorded by Herbert Halpert performed by Joe Shores from the album Negro Work Songs and Calls used courtesy of Joe Shores and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. "Red & Blazing" from Abigail Wasburn's album Song of the Traveling Daughter used courtesy of Nettwerk Productions. Original piano music by Lee Blaske. Original guitar and harmonica by Clint Hoover and Pat Donohue. And the following tracks used by permission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: Negro Spirituals performed by Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward, Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Volumes 2 & 5; Banjo selections from A.L. Camp Plays the Banjo. Sound effects by Casey Langfelder and Frank Rinella at Skywalker Sound. Research assistant: Pepper Smith. Administrative assistants: Liz Mehaffey and Erika Koss. Special thanks to Pam Bockham, Bob Gershon, Kip Orneo and to our contributors Ken Burns, Anne Fadiman, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, David Ives, P.J. O'Rourke, Ron Powers and Richard Rodriguez. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to That's

Abigail Washburn sings "Red & Blazing"

I'll turn my back to the calling sun
If you'll rise and meet me.
I walk the road I took from you.
Oh, stay a while and the red sky is blazing.
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