Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”

BLOG #27, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #42
MARK TWAIN’S TOM SAWYER
July 8, 2015

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It is fitting that we follow up last month’s selection, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the first great and timeless book ever written in America specifically for girls, with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the first great and timeless book ever written in America specifically for boys.

What intrigues me no little is now modern each book was: how both authors suck the reader into the book with that very first sentence. Both authors, scorning preambles, leap immediately into the heart of their book (most unusual for the time to start in the middle of a conversation).

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First: Little Women

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Now re-read those four lines. This time note how completely Alcott captures the essence of each of the sisters in those four lines.

Now, let’s see what Twain does with his beginning lines:

“Tom!”
No answer.
“Tom!”
No answer.
“What’s wrong with that boy, I wonder. “You TOM!”
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—”

* * *

Both are priceless beginnings.

Little Women was published in 1868 – 1869. Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, eight years later. So clearly Twain had eight years to ponder the one-of-a-kind phenomenon that was Little Women before he launched Tom Sawyer. In the Airmont edition of the book are these words:

But it was in 1876, with the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that unforgettable excursion into the private province of the very young that Twain attained the stature of greatness. Lively, touching, penetrating—the whitewashing incident is one of literature’s wittiest dramatizations of applied psychology—Tom Sawyer is one of those rare novels that become more endearing with each reading. Its beloved sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, is immortal.”

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Samuel Langhorne Clemens [Mark Twain was a pseudonym] (1835 – 1910), is one of the very few American writers who reached the very pinnacle of both popular and academic success—and who has stayed there for over a century, not just in novels, but in short stories as well. His books are still read by generation after generation of readers. Books such as—

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865-1867)
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Roughing It (1872)
The Gilded Age, with Charles Dudley Warner (1873)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
A Tramp Abroad (1880)
The Stolen White Elephant (1882)
The Prince and the Pauper (1882)
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)
Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
Following the Equator (1897)
The Mysterious Stranger (1916), etc.

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In his later books, due to many reasons, Twain became embittered and cynical about the human race. He had reasons. Late in life, he suffered through personal tragedy after tragedy. In 2010, sealed for a hundred years, Twain’s autobiography saw light at once, becoming an instant bestseller.

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There are many editions of Tom Sawyer. Just make certain you get an unabridged copy. My personal favorite edition is the Heritage Press boxed edition, wonderfully illustrated in color by Norman Rockwell. Huckleberry Finn was also boxed and illustrated as a companion book. Another splendid edition is the 1931 John C. Winston hardback edition, illustrated by Peter Hurd.

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Even if you’ve read the book before—you owe it to yourself to read it again. It never grows old!

Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”

BLOG #22, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #41
LOUISA MAY ALCOTT’S LITTLE WOMEN
June 3, 2015

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Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888), was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and ended her days in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Abigail [Abba] May, was born into one of America’s most famous families, in direct line from Samuel Sewall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Her father, Col. Joseph May, was one of Boston’s leading merchants. Between the Sewalls and the Mays, Abba was related to almost anybody who was anybody in the state—including the Greeles, the Frothinghams, and the Quincys; in fact, her great aunt, Dorothy Quincy Scott, had been John Hancock’s wife. And then there was that mystical improvident visionary named Bronson Alcott who, in terms of educational philosophy, was way ahead of his time, choosing to rule his students by love rather than by punishments. Not surprisingly life with him was one long financial struggle for Abba (in 28 years, they’d move 27 times). Yet she loved him, and would marry no other.

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Out of that union came eight children, four who survived into adulthood. The oldest was Anna; Louisa May, second; Elizabeth Sewall, third; and Abba May, fourth. Bronson homeschooled them all. Each of his children was expected to spread her wings, dare to fly with the eagles.

Always, Louisa had wanted to be a writer. She wrote Flower Fables (1854-55) when she was only sixteen. She would write prolifically all her life; she felt she had to because making a living was not her father’s strong suit. For some time, almost in desperation, she wrote melodramatic trash in order to bring in money. Her first successful book was Hospital Sketches (1863) about her experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. While serving in Washington, D.C., under horrendous conditions, she contracted typhoid, and suffered after-effects from it for the rest of her life.

The books she is most remembered for, however, are the following: Moods (1865), Little Women (1868-1869), An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men (1871), Eight Cousins (1875), Rose in Bloom (1876), Under the Lilacs (1878), Jack and Jill (1881), and Jo’s Boys (1886).

But the masterpiece, of course, was Little Women

THE CONTINUING APPEAL OF LITTLE WOMEN.

All my life, I have loved the book Little Women. As a child, I was captivated by the tale itself. Like millions of readers everywhere, I fell in love with the March family—especially Jo—to such an extent that long before I realized it, the Marches had become almost as much a part of me as my own flesh and blood.

Years later, I read the book again, with more than a little apprehension, for so many books we first read as children end up disappointing us when we come back to them as adults. Not to worry! Little Women is a seemingly bottomless well, and the older one gets, and the more times one rereads it, the deeper and more profound the story becomes.

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Why that is so has puzzled me for many years. Each year that I assigned Little Women to undergraduates in my American Literature classes, I’d wonder: Will it hold up this time? Will this new class, a century and a quarter after the story was written, find it irrelevant or passé? Will the men turn up their collective noses at it? In this age of women’s lib, will the women find it too simplistic and stereotypical?

But each year, it was the same: I’d walk into the classroom the next class period after my exhaustive who-said-what-to-whom-about-whom tests (the only Cliffs Notes-proof tests I’ve ever devised), seat myself in the circle (all my classes are circles), and look around at the faces. It never failed—once class began, the room crackled! So intense were the discussions that sometimes it seemed like everyone in the room was talking at once, male as well as female. Needless to say, nothing would ratchet up the intensity level more than the relationship between Jo and Laurie—especially, whether or not Jo should have married Laurie instead of Mr. Bhaer.
–From my Introduction to Little Women (Focus on the Family/Tyndale, 1997).

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You can find it anywhere for it is undoubtedly one of the most-loved and most-read books ever published in America. But naturally, I hope you’ll consider securing one of mine. I wrote a modest biography of Alcott at the front, a bibliography of all her writings at the back, and also Discussion Questions at the back as well. But our edition has something else: I was able to track down Frank T. Merrill’s stunning 203 woodcuts for the 1880 edition. Merrill actually read the book before he created each one! I know, for I’ve seen Louisa May Alcott’s personal inscriptions on the backs! That 1880 edition is one of the rarest of all Alcott books–I’ve seen only two in my lifetime. And all 203 Merriill woodcuts are in my edition. Which, of course, makes our Focus/Tyndale edition a rarity too.

As well as a number of shorter works, including many story anthologies and pessimistic last books.

My edition: Large trade paper – $16.99; the large hardback – $19.99, plus shipping of $6.00. And add 5% tax if you live in Colorado.

Send me an email at: mountainauthor@gmail.com; or write me at P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “The Birds’ Christmas Carol”

BLOG #48, SERIES #5
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #36
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN’S THE BIRDS’ CHRISTMAS CAROL

November 26, 2014

Each of you—even those I’ve never had the privilege of hearing from—who honor me by being a member of Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club, will no doubt remember that every Christmas I’ve turned back the pages of time to a Christmas book that has warmed my heart down through the years. For our first Christmas (Nov. 23, 2011), we shared two books: Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel –Dickens with his inimitable male Scrooge and Brown with her equally memorable female Scrooge.

A year later (Nov. 28, 2012), we shared Lloyd C. Douglas’s moving Home for Christmas. Then last year (Dec. 4, 2013), we journeyed through the ancient East with Henry Van Dyke’s unforgettable Artaban (The Other Wise Man).

(1888 First Edition)

(1888 First Edition)

 

Now, for our fourth Christmas together, I am finally caving in to all the importuning readers over the last 23 years who have repeatedly urged me to include Kate Douglas Wiggin’s beloved little book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1888) in the Christmas in My Heart® series. I never have, because it is too long, but I can make it our 2014 Christmas book of the year.

St. Luke, of course, told us the greatest Christmas story of all. However, it was left to Charles Dickens, in 1843, to gift the world with the first fictional Christmas book: A Christmas Carol.

Twenty-five years later, Louisa May Alcott brought the four Alcott sisters to life at Christmas time, in Little Women (1868-9). Beth has to be one of the most sentimental and most beloved heroines in all family literature. Just as was true in real life, Beth dies way too young. In my American Literature class discussions, even the macho males who initially groused about having to read “a girls’ book”, after reading it admitted to their classmates that they too had wept over Beth.

Twenty years later (1888) Kate Douglas Wiggin built upon Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Alcott’s depiction of Beth to gift her audience with a Beth-like character of her own—Carol Bird.

The author, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was born in Philadelphia, then the family moved to Hollis, MN. She was homeschooled, then studied at various seminaries and academies. When 17, she joined her family in California; after teaching in Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco where she established the first free kindergarten on the West Coast. Her first husband, Samuel B. Wiggin, died young; she later married George C. Riggs. She died in England.

(1929 Popular Edition)

(1929 Popular Edition)

Among her books are The Story of Patsy (1883), The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888), Timothy’s Quest (1890), The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith, 1890), Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893), A Cathedral Courtship (1893), Penelope’s Progress (1898), The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913), Ladies in Waiting (1918), her autobiography, My Garden of Memories (1923), and a number of others. But her reputation rests on two books: The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were bestsellers, but Rebecca swept the nation, no small thanks to two movies: the first (1917) was a silent film with an organ score – Francis Marion wrote a splendid screenplay for it, and kept it faithful to the book. The film was directed by Marshal Neilan and starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Josephine Crowell, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, ZaSu Pitts, and Mayme Kelso. According to Derek Elley, “Mary Pickford plays as she never played before, varying lights and shades to elicit the major interest, tearful at one moment and laughing the next. Her support is flawless, embodying many artists of repute.” The second film (1938) all but abandons the original novel in favor of a bouncy musical. It was directed by Allen Dwan, produced by Raymond Griffith, photoplay by Arthur Miller. It had a star-studded cast: Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Helen Westly, Bill Robinson, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, and William Demarest. As would be expected, Shirley Temple steals the show. The plot: a talented stage child who wins a broadcasting moppet contest.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol was never filmed; nevertheless it benefitted mightily from the two Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms films’ publicity and hype.

You may well ask. Why all the sentimentality in The Birds’ Christmas Carol? Why all the fuss about a girl dying young?

Frontispiece - 1888 Edition

Frontispiece – 1888 Edition

Here’s why: Up until the early 20th century, half of all children died during their childhood or teen years. Since medicine was still in its infancy, sanitation wasn’t even thought of, antibiotics didn’t exist, nostrums were taken seriously, doctors were poorly trained, and hospitals were little used—people tended to be born at home, and die at home. As a result, parents were terrified by any childhood ailment, no matter how minor it might seem. Reason being: there were back then no reliable cures for anything. Most any infliction could end your life. And most women died from childbirth complications because neither doctors nor midwives washed their hands between patients.

Case in point: How well I remember my paternal grandfather, Rollo Wheeler, who though he and Grandma Ruby had eleven children, two of them—little Eva and little Arthur—died young and in his arms at home. So just mention either to him, and he’d weep.

Plus, the 1880s was a most sentimental decade. The traditional family was strong, God and country were celebrated, Father earned the living, and Mother was the almost deified madonna of the home. Children were protected from adult realities and taboos (unlike today). So since death was such an unfathomable mystery, the gradual departure of a young life was both celebrated and sentimentalized.

Offsetting the trauma of Carol’s long decline, Wiggin wisely offset it by the rollicking comic relief represented by the large Ruggles family next door.

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

 

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So, with all this as a preamble, search out an early text. But try to get the Houghton Mifflin original text with original illustrations by H.R.H. But the so-called “Popular Edition” (1929), with color and b/w illustrations by Helen Mason Grose is equally attractive. If at all possible, don’t settle for anything but top condition in this heirloom book. When you read it, block out 21st century realities from your mind and pretend you are a turn-of-the-century reader.

Will be most interested in your reactions.