Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/33

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15
"Tom Sayvyer"

Tom Sawyer, his second extended effort in fiction and his first masterpiece, he began as a play in 1872 and published in its present form in 1876. The long incubation contributed to its unsurpassed unity of tone. But the decisive fact is that his irresponsible and frequently extravagant fancy is here held in check by a serious artistic purpose, namely, to make an essentially faithful representation of the life of a real boy intimately known to him by memory and by introspection and by those deductions of the imaginative faculty which start from a solid basis of actuality. His own boyhood, we may believe, and that of his companions in Hannibal, lives in this intensely vital narrative. It is significant of his unwonted austerity in the composition that he wrote to Howells on its completion: "It is not a boy s book at all. It will only be read by adults. It is only written for adults." He had some justification for feeling that his newly finished manuscript broke a long taboo. He had taken a hero who was neither a model of youthful virtues nor a horrible example but was distinguished chiefly by pluck, imagination, and vanity, and had made him leader of a group of average little Missouri rascals running loose in an ordinary small river town and displaying, among other spontaneous impulses, all the natural cussedness of boyhood. Furthermore he had made a central incident of a rather horrid murder. Remembering the juvenile fiction of the Sunday-school library,[1] he suspected that the story of these fighting, fibbing, pilfering, smoking, swearing scapegraces was not for young people. But Howells, after reading about Aunt Polly, the whitewashing of the fence, Tom s schoolboy love, Huck and the wart-cure, and the pirates island, ordered the profanity deleted, and declared it the best boy story ever written; and that was near the truth. In the two sequels Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), the plots are rather flimsy contrivances of the humorous fancy, but the stories are partly redeemed by the established reality of the actors and the raciness of the narrative which comes from the mouth of Huck Finn.

The Prince and the Pauper (1881), a first venture in historical romance, was deliberately written for children and tested in the process of composition on the author's daughters. The

  1. See Book III, Chap. VII.