03 August 2010

Tom Sawyer’s Window

One of the oldest and most resonant images in American children’s literature is Tom Sawyer sneaking out his bedroom window, here portrayed by Norman Rockwell.

I think this moment from Mark Twain’s novel is so well known that it’s become an archetype of how kids slip away from home, even though most American houses have at least two doors that are easier to exit.

About a decade and a half ago, I visited Mark Twain’s childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and came away with a new understanding of this scene. In that house, the stairway comes up from the ground floor into the parents’ bedroom. So the window was definitely young Sam Clemens’s best hope of getting out undetected.

To be sure, a character in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, published a year before Twain’s novel, describes climbing in and out of windows as a boy. But Tom Sawyer made that relatively rare activity part of the mythical all-American childhood.

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