Undoubtedly the most famous of Mark Twain's works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two novels show Twain at the peak of satirical and storytelling prowess, using an identical cast of characters to tell widely divergent stories.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, follows the life of the miscreant of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the shores of the mighty Mississippi River. In this otherwise sleepy town, the eponymous character gets into mischief and becomes embroiled in a murder plot. In the process, he comes to represent everything about rural life in America... The bygone age when children were allowed to explore, get dirty, hurt themselves, and run free on the wild outskirts of the village, fettered only by their own imaginations. This life, lived as recently as 30 years ago, seems to have dissipated under the weight of electronic devices and helicopter parents. To call it a "simpler time" would be a misnomer. Sawyer and his ladyfriend Becky Thatcher do find themselves chased through caverns by a murderer after all. It was a more fearless time, and thus seems more simple. Getting scuffed up was part of childhood.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in 1885. The Gilded Age romps of Sawyer, for as much murder and mayhem as they involved, were traded in for a sincere examination of life in the American South with all its harsh, squalid, unromantic realities. Quite early on, for instance, the reader is revolted by the horrible situation that the return of Huck's father puts him in. A barbaric man, he punishes the boy for "putting on airs" by being taught to read and proceeds to try and weasel Huck's trustfund (a legacy of the reward in the previous novel) as his "right" he is justly owed. No wonder Huck fakes his death and runs off with Jim, the escaped slave. As an unlearned, rural vagabond, Huck becomes Twain's "wild man" voice of satirical innocence.
Through the eyes of two social outsiders – Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores not only the Mississippi’s shoreline but the American zeitgeist in a manner that is still shockingly relevant today. Huck and Jim are left to navigate the eternally turbulent waters where morality, race, politics, religion, economics, slavery, and the lingering fallout of the Civil War intersect. In American literature and the American mind, geography and psychology blend together. Pursuit of the frontier drove Americans westward and skyward, hitching up Conestoga wagons and revving up Harley-Davidsons, and in doing so shaped who Americans are. The fundamental form of American literature is the road trip… The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and the first truly American novel is a trip on one of America’s first natural roads. Twain’s Mississippi is a geographic artery reaching into America’s metaphorical heart. Where it flows is sometimes quite ugly, and needs airing out.
A further ten years later, Twain took a true flight of fancy with Tom Sawyer Abroad. Rather than reflecting on the realities of life in America, he instead wrote up a parody of Vernian Scientific Romances and dime novel Edisonades. The author takes Tom, Huck and Jim and throws them in with a mad inventor who takes them aloft in his dirigible. One can tell from this short novella and its follow-up Tom Sawyer, Detective that the gas had gone out of Sawyer and Finn for their author. Nevertheless, it does provide him with a few good moments of good-natured fun to poke at the genre.
Jealousy and ambition drove Tom, dragging Huck and Jim with him, to truck up to St. Louis to see the flying machine of a would-be "errornort." He had gotten some pretty good mileage out of being a worldly traveler and taking a bullet at the end of The Adventures of Huck Finn, but like any gossip-hungry people, the citizens of St. Petersburg got tired of Tom's old stories and resumed their rapt awe of the local postman, who once went all the way up to Washington DC. Tom figured that inspecting a real-life airship would be enough to regain his status... He had no idea that the madman who invented it would kidnap them!
The scientist probably couldn't help himself though, on account of his being a genius. Huck Finn, narrator of the story, tells us why:
He was a good enough sort of cretur, and hadn't no harm in him, and was just a genius, as the papers said, which wasn't his fault. We can't all be sound: we've got to be the way we're made. As near as I can make out, geniuses think they know it all, and so they won't take people's advice, but always go their own way, which makes everybody forsake them and despise them, and that is perfectly natural. If they was humbler, and listened and tried to learn, it would be better for them.
The bulk of Tom Sawyer Abroad are little witticisms like this. The story is paper-thin, as betrayed by the novella's low page-count, but the funny episodes and quips that fill the dialogue more than make up for it. Most of that are Huck and Jim ganging up on Tom Sawyer, using their logic to disprove everything he says, especially when it's right.
"Well, you heard what the professor said when he was raging round. Sometimes, he said, we was making fifty miles an hour, sometimes ninety, sometimes a hundred; said that with a gale to help he could make three hundred any time, and said if he wanted the gale, and wanted it blowing the right direction, he only had to go up higher or down lower to find it.""Well, then, it's just as I reckoned. The professor lied.""Why?""Because if we was going so fast we ought to be past Illinois, oughtn't we?""Certainly.""Well, we ain't.""What's the reason we ain't?""I know by the color. We're right over Illinois yet. And you can see for yourself that Indiana ain't in sight.""I wonder what's the matter with you, Huck. You know by the COLOR?""Yes, of course I do.""What's the color got to do with it?""It's got everything to do with it. Illinois is green, Indiana is pink. You show me any pink down here, if you can. No, sir; it's green.""Indiana PINK? Why, what a lie!""It ain't no lie; I've seen it on the map, and it's pink."You never see a person so aggravated and disgusted. He says:"Well, if I was such a numbskull as you, Huck Finn, I would jump over. Seen it on the map! Huck Finn, did you reckon the States was the same color out-of-doors as they are on the map?""Tom Sawyer, what's a map for? Ain't it to learn you facts?""Of course.""Well, then, how's it going to do that if it tells lies? That's what I want to know.""Shucks, you muggins! It don't tell lies.""It don't, don't it?""No, it don't.""All right, then; if it don't, there ain't no two States the same color. You git around THAT if you can, Tom Sawyer."He see I had him, and Jim see it too; and I tell you, I felt pretty good, for Tom Sawyer was always a hard person to git ahead of. Jim slapped his leg and says:"I tell YOU! dat's smart, dat's right down smart. Ain't no use, Mars Tom; he got you DIS time, sho'!" He slapped his leg again, and says, "My LAN', but it was smart one!"
Eventually they do get out of the United States and all the way over to Africa, traversing the Great Sahara. One of Tom's pastimes is to hunt out the locations where the stories of the Arabian Nights took place, with an accuracy that astonishes Huck and Jim: "And to me and Jim, as wonderful a thing as any was the way Tom could come into a strange big country like this and go straight and find a little hump like that and tell it in a minute from a million other humps that was almost just like it, and nothing to help him but only his own learning and his own natural smartness."
At last they end up in Egypt, which gives Twain the chance to write a luminous chapter on one of the favourite topics of his later life: perspective, and humanity's place in the great scope of time and space.
We landed Jim on top of the head [of the Sphinx], with an American flag to protect him, it being a foreign land; then we sailed off to this and that and t'other distance, to git what Tom called effects and perspectives and proportions, and Jim he done the best he could, striking all the different kinds of attitudes and positions he could study up, but standing on his head and working his legs the way a frog does was the best. The further we got away, the littler Jim got, and the grander the Sphinx got, till at last it was only a clothespin on a dome, as you might say. That's the way perspective brings out the correct proportions, Tom said... Then we sailed off further and further, till we couldn't see Jim at all any more, and then that great figger was at its noblest, a-gazing out over the Nile Valley so still and solemn and lonesome, and all the little shabby huts and things that was scattered about it clean disappeared and gone, and nothing around it now but a soft wide spread of yaller velvet, which was the sand.
All great adventures must come to an end though, and this one does rather abruptly in a manner that is funny but highly suggestive that the author just ran out of interest and decided to stop.