Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Taste of Tom and Twain

As I mentioned yesterday, we're reading aloud The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, since our kids are involved in a musical production of the story. If, like me, you haven't read anything by Twain in years, I thought a few excerpts would be of interest--and demonstrate that he truly deserves his reputation as one of America's greatest writers! These are most fun if expressively read aloud.

A famous moment in literature:

As he was passing by the house where Jeff Thatcher lived, he saw a new girl in the garden--a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes. The fresh-crowned hero fell without firing a shot. A certain Amy Lawrence vanished out of his heart and left not even a memory of herself behind. He had thought he loved her to distraction, he had regarded his passion as adoration; and behold it was only a poor little evanescent partiality. He had been months winning her; she had confessed hardly a week ago; he had been the happiest and the proudest boy in the world only seven short days, and here in one instant of time she had gone out of his heart like a casual stranger whose visit is done.

He worshipped this new angel with furtive eye, till he saw that she had discovered him; then he pretended he did not know she was present, and began to "show off" in all sorts of absurd boyish ways, in order to win her admiration. He kept up this grotesque foolishness for some time; but by and by, while he was in the midst of some dangerous gymnastic performances, he glanced aside and saw that the little girl was wending her way toward the house. Tom came up to the fence and leaned on it, grieving, and hoping she would tarry yet a while longer. She halted a moment on the steps and then moved toward the door. Tom heaved a great sigh as she put her foot on the threshold. But his face lit up right away, for she tossed a pansy over the fence a moment before she disappeared.

My kids thought the pathos building up to the ending moment of this scene was hilarious:

[Tom] pictured himself lying sick unto death and his aunt bending over him beseeching one little forgiving word, but he would turn his face to the wall, and die with the word unsaid. Ah, how would she feel then? And he pictured himself brought home from the river, dead, with his curls all wet, and his poor hands still forever, and his sore heart at rest. ... He so worked upon his feelings with the pathos of these dreams that he had to keep swallowing, he was so like to choke; and his eyes swam in a blur of water... Then he thought of his flower. He got it out, rumpled and wilted, and it mightily increased his dismal felicity. He wondered if she would pity him if she knew? ...Or would she turn coldly away like all the hollow world? This picture brought such an agony of pleasurable suffering that he worked it over and over again in his mind and set it up in new and varied lights till he wore it threadbare....

About half past nine he came along the deserted street to where the Adored Unknown lived.... Was the sacred presence there? He climbed the fence, threaded his stealthy way through the plants, till he stood under that window; he looked up at it long, and with emotion; then he laid him down on the ground under it, disposing himself upon his back, with his hands clasped upon his breast and holding his poor wilted flower. And thus he would die--out in the cold world, with no shelter over his homeless head, no friendly hand to wipe the death-damps from his brow; no loving face to bend pityingly over him when the great agony came. And thus she would see him when she looked out upon the glad morning--and O! would she drop one little tear upon his poor, lifeless form, would she heave one little sigh to see a bright young life so rudely blighted, so untimely cut down?

The window went up, a maid-servant's discordant voice profaned the holy calm, and a deluge of water drenched the prone martyr's remains!

There are at least a dozen "vocabulary words" in these excerpts that I wouldn't expect my kids--none are high school age yet--to know. (I read expressively and in their context, the kids get the gist. I stop and explain words when I think it's needed.) But I wonder if, in Twain's day, the vocabulary was the hurdle that it is for kids today?


Dixie (wife of scholarly brother) said...

My siblings and I attended public school, so we brought home plenty of homework to complete in the evenings. Still, our mom read to us before bed-- only the best of the classics. I didn't know of any other kids whose mom read Hans Brinker And The Silver Skates and all the original Doctor Doolittle books out loud to them!

At A Hen's Pace said...


Yes! And it shows in your ear and aptitude for writing.

I'm eager to read Hans Brinker with the kids--one of these days.

It's fun to hear from you here!