10 October 2012

When Mark Twain Met Tom Sawyer

Smithsonian magazine offers a profile of Tom Sawyer, volunteer firefighter, saloon owner, and civil servant, whom Mark Twain—then still plain Samuel Clemens, aspiring journalist—met in the early 1860s in San Francisco.

Most of the article appears to be based on interviews with Sawyer in the 1890s, after Twain had become a famous author, in large part based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. At that time, Sawyer was telling people how he used to share anecdotes of his childhood with his drinking buddy Sam, and thus inspired the famous character.

How much can we rely on Sawyer’s memories and claims? A passage from Roughing It indicates that Twain did know someone named Sawyer in San Francisco. However, it also says the young writer met that Sawyer for the first time just before his first speaking engagement, and that doesn’t match the timeline that the real Tom Sawyer recalled.

Sawyer claimed Clemens had told him that he was ready to write a story about boys in 1864. But at that time Twain seems to have wanted to write a serious novel, not humor, and he didn’t start on Tom Sawyer until 1873.

Furthermore, Twain later denied naming the character Tom Sawyer after anyone. His 1923 biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine listed three people as inspirations for the character, one of them the author himself. Tom’s home town is based on Hannibal, Missouri, while Sawyer the San Franciscan had grown up in Brooklyn, New York. Tom’s house, as I wrote here, is clearly based on the Clemens house.

On the other hand, Twain never appears to have objected to Sawyer’s interviews and claims, which were published and reprinted in his lifetime.

What are we to make of all this? I suspect Mark Twain borrowed Tom Sawyer’s name as a rhythmic stand-in for this own Sam Clemens, but little else. Well, perhaps the braggadocio that’s so much part of Tom’s personality. And perhaps Twain felt a little guilty about that authorial appropriation, preferring not to mention it. Meanwhile, out in San Francisco, the saloon-owning Tom Sawyer’s stories got better and more detailed over the years. And now they’ve resurfaced in Smithsonian.


Rob Velella said...

I happen to agree with you - the name may be an inspiration, but little else. Creators and writers still do it today when trying to think up realistic-sounding names: just borrow one from a real person.

J. L. Bell said...

It's worse when you use a real acquaintance's name and don't realize it.