Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CI

Concluding “Tom Sawyer”— Mark Twain’s “Editors”

Meantime the “inspiration tank,” as Clemens sometimes called it, had filled up again. He had received from somewhere new afflatus for the story of Tom and Huck, and was working on it steadily. The family remained in Hartford, and early in July, under full head of steam, he brought the story to a close. On the 5th he wrote Howells:

I have finished the story and didn’t take the chap beyond boyhood. I believe it would be fatal to do it in any shape but autobiographically, like Gil Blas. I perhaps made a mistake in not writing it in the first person. If I went on now, and took him into manhood, he would just lie, like all the one-horse men in literature, and the reader would conceive a hearty contempt for him. It is not a boy’s book at all. It will only be read by adults. It is only written for adults.

He would like to see the story in the Atlantic, he said, but doubted the wisdom of serialization.

“By and by I shall take a boy of twelve and run him through life (in the first person), but not Tam Sawyer, he would not make a good character for it.” From which we get the first glimpse of Huck’s later adventures.

Of course he wanted Howells to look at the story. It was a tremendous favor to ask, he said, and added, “But I know of no other person whose judgment I could venture to take, fully and entirely. Don’t hesitate to say no, for I know how your time is taxed, and I would have honest need to blush if you said yes.”

“Send on your MS.,” wrote Howells. “You’ve no idea what I may ask you to do for me some day.”

But Clemens, conscience-stricken, “blushed and weakened,” as he said. When Howells insisted, he wrote:

But I will gladly send it to you if you will do as follows: dramatize it, if you perceive that you can, and take, for your remuneration, half of the first $6,000 which I receive for its representation on the stage. You could alter the plot entirely if you chose. I could help in the work most cheerfully after you had arranged the plot. I have my eye upon two young girls who can play Tom and Huck.

Howells in his reply urged. Clemens to do the playwriting himself. He could never find time, he said, and he doubted whether he could enter into the spirit of another man’s story. Clemens did begin a dramatization then or a little later, but it was not completed. Mrs. Clemens, to whom he had read the story as it proceeded, was as anxious as her husband for Howells’s opinion, for it was the first extended piece of fiction Mark Twain had undertaken alone. He carried the manuscript over to Boston himself, and whatever their doubts may have been, Howells’s subsequent letter set them at rest. He wrote that he had sat up till one in the morning to get to the end of it, simply because it was impossible to leave off.

It is altogether the best boy story I ever read. It will be an immense success, but I think you ought to treat it explicitly as a boy’s story; grown-ups will enjoy it just as much if you do, and if you should put it forth as a story of boys’ character from the grown-up point of view you give the wrong key to it.

Viewed in the light of later events, there has never been any better literary opinion than that — none that has been more fully justified.

Clemens was delighted. He wrote concerning a point here and there, one inquiry referring to the use of a certain strong word. Howells’s reply left no doubt:

I’d have that swearing out in an instant. I suppose I didn’t notice it because the location was so familiar to my Western sense, and so exactly the thing Huck would say, but it won’t do for children.

It was in the last chapter, where Huck relates to Tom the sorrows of reform and tells how they comb him “all to thunder.” In the original, “They comb me all to hell,” says Huck; which statement, one must agree, is more effective, more the thing Huck would be likely to say.

Clemens’s acknowledgment of the correction was characteristic:

Mrs. Clemens received the mail this morning, and the next minute she lit into the study with danger in her eye and this demand on her tongue, “Where is the profanity Mr. Howells speaks of?” Then I had to miserably confess that I had left it out when reading the MS. to her. Nothing but almost inspired lying got me out of this scrape with my scalp. Does your wife give you rats, like that, when you go a little one-sided?

The Clemens family did not, go to Elmira that year. The children’s health seemed to require the sea-shore, and in August they went to Bateman’s Point, Rhode Island, where Clemens most of the time played tenpins in an alley that had gone to ruin. The balls would not stay on the track; the pins stood at inebriate angles. It reminded him of the old billiard-tables of Western mining-camps, and furnished the same uncertainty of play. It was his delight, after he had become accustomed to the eccentricities of the alley, to invite in a stranger and watch his suffering and his frantic effort to score.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00