The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
Public Domain Books
V. Tom Sawyer and His Band
In beginning “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” the author says, “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred,” and he tells us that Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, though not from a single individual, being a composite of three boys whom Mark Twain had known.
The three boys were himself, almost entirely, with traces of two schoolmates, John Briggs and Will Bowen. John Briggs was also the original of Joe Harper, the “Terror of the Seas.” As for Huck Finn, the “Red-Handed,” his original was a village waif named Tom Blankenship, who needed no change for his part in the story.
The Blankenship family picked up an uncertain livelihood, fishing and hunting, and lived at first under a tree in a bark shanty, but later moved into a large, barn-like building, back of the Clemens home on Hill Street. There were three male members of the household: Old Ben, the father, shiftless and dissolute; young Ben, the eldest son–a doubtful character, with certain good traits; and Tom–that is to say, Huck, who was just as he is described in the book–a ruin of rags, a river-rat, kind of heart, and accountable for his conduct to nobody in the world. He could come and go as he chose; he never had to work or go to school; he could do all the things, good and bad, that other boys longed to do and were forbidden. To them he was the symbol of liberty; his knowledge of fishing, trapping, signs, and of the woods and river gave value to his society, while the fact that it was forbidden made it necessary to Sam Clemens’s happiness.
The Blankenships being handy to the back gate of the Hill Street house, he adopted them at sight. Their free mode of life suited him. He was likely to be there at any hour of the day, and Tom made cat-call signals at night that would bring Sam out on the shed roof at the back and down a little trellis and flight of steps to the group of boon companions, which, besides Tom, usually included John Briggs, Will Pitts, and the two younger Bowen boys. They were not malicious boys, but just mischievous, fun-loving boys–little boys of ten or twelve–rather thoughtless, being mainly bent on having a good time.
They had a wide field of action: they ranged from Holliday’s Hill on the north to the cave on the south, and over the fields and through all the woods between. They explored both banks of the river, the islands, and the deep wilderness of the Illinois shore. They could run like turkeys and swim like ducks; they could handle a boat as if born in one. No orchard or melon-patch was entirely safe from them. No dog or slave patrol was so watchful that they did not sooner or later elude it. They borrowed boats with or without the owner’s consent–it did not matter.
Most of their expeditions were harmless enough. They often cruised up to Turtle Island, about two miles above Hannibal, and spent the day feasting. There were quantities of turtles and their eggs there, and mussels, and plenty of fish. Fishing and swimming were their chief pastimes, with incidental raiding, for adventure. Bear Creek was their swimming-place by day, and the river-front at night-fall–a favorite spot being where the railroad bridge now ends. It was a good distance across to the island where, in the book, Tom Sawyer musters his pirate band, and where later Huck found Nigger Jim, but quite often in the evening they swam across to it, and when they had frolicked for an hour or more on the sandbar at the head of the island, they would swim back in the dusk, breasting the strong, steady Mississippi current without exhaustion or dread. They could swim all day, those little scamps, and seemed to have no fear. Once, during his boyhood, Sam Clemens swam across to the Illinois side, then turned and swam back again without landing, a distance of at least two miles as he had to go. He was seized with a cramp on the return trip. His legs became useless and he was obliged to make the remaining distance with his arms.
The adventures of Sam Clemens and his comrades would fill several books of the size of Tom Sawyer. Many of them are, of course, forgotten now, but those still remembered show that Mark Twain had plenty of real material.
It was not easy to get money in those days, and the boys were often without it. Once “Huck” Blankenship had the skin of a ’coon he had captured, and offered to sell it to raise capital. At Selms’s store, on Wild Cat Corner, the ’coon-skin would bring ten cents. But this was not enough. The boys thought of a plan to make it bring more. Selms’s back window was open, and the place where he kept his pelts was pretty handy. Huck went around to the front door and sold the skin for ten cents to Selms, who tossed it back on the pile. Then Huck came back and, after waiting a reasonable time, crawled in the open window, got the ’coon- skin, and sold it to Selms again. He did this several times that afternoon, and the capital of the band grew. But at last John Pierce, Selms’s clerk, said:
“Look here, Mr. Selms, there’s something wrong about this. That boy has been selling us ’coonskins all the afternoon.”
Selms went back to his pile of pelts. There were several sheep-skins and some cow-hides, but only one ’coon-skin–the one he had that moment bought.
Selms himself, in after years, used to tell this story as a great joke.
One of the boys’ occasional pastimes was to climb Holliday’s Hill and roll down big stones, to frighten the people who were driving by. Holliday’s Hill above the road was steep; a stone once started would go plunging downward and bound across the road with the deadly momentum of a shell. The boys would get a stone poised, then wait until they saw a team approaching, and, calculating the distance, would give the boulder a start. Dropping behind the bushes, they would watch the sudden effect upon the party below as the great missile shot across the road a few yards before them. This was huge sport, but they carried it too far. For at last they planned a grand climax that would surpass anything before attempted in the stone-rolling line.
A monstrous boulder was lying up there in the right position to go down- hill, once started. It would be a glorious thing to see that great stone go smashing down a hundred yards or so in front of some peaceful-minded countryman jogging along the road. Quarrymen had been getting out rock not far away and had left their picks and shovels handy. The boys borrowed the tools and went to work to undermine the big stone. They worked at it several hours. If their parents had asked them to work like that, they would have thought they were being killed.
Finally, while they were still digging, the big stone suddenly got loose and started down. They were not ready for it at all. Nobody was coming but an old colored man in a cart; their splendid stone was going to be wasted.
One could hardly call it wasted, however; they had planned for a thrilling result, and there was certainly thrill enough while it lasted. In the first place the stone nearly caught Will Bowen when it started. John Briggs had that moment quit digging and handed Will the pick. Will was about to take his turn when Sam Clemens leaped aside with a yell:
“Lookout, boys; she’s coming!”
She came. The huge boulder kept to the ground at first, then, gathering momentum, it went bounding into the air. About half-way down the hill it struck a sapling and cut it clean off. This turned its course a little, and the negro in the cart, hearing the noise and seeing the great mass come crashing in his direction, made a wild effort to whip up his mule.
The boys watched their bomb with growing interest. It was headed straight for the negro, also for a cooper-shop across the road. It made longer leaps with every bound, and, wherever it struck, fragments and dust would fly. The shop happened to be empty, but the rest of the catastrophe would call for close investigation. They wanted to fly, but they could not move until they saw the rock land. It was making mighty leaps now, and the terrified negro had managed to get exactly in its path. The boys stood holding their breath, their mouths open.
Then, suddenly, they could hardly believe their eyes; a little way above the road the boulder struck a projection, made one mighty leap into the air, sailed clear over the negro and his mule, and landed in the soft dirt beyond the road, only a fragment striking the shop, damaging, but not wrecking it. Half buried in the ground, the great stone lay there for nearly forty years; then it was broken up. It was the last rock the boys ever rolled down. Nearly sixty years later John Briggs and Mark Twain walked across Holliday’s Hill and looked down toward the river road.
Mark Twain said: “It was a mighty good thing, John, that stone acted the way it did. We might have had to pay a fancy price for that old darky I can see him yet.”
It can be no harm now, to confess that the boy Sam Clemens–a pretty small boy, a good deal less than twelve at the time, and by no means large for his years–was the leader of this unhallowed band. In any case, truth requires this admission. If the band had a leader, it was Sam, just as it was Tom Sawyer in the book. They were always ready to listen to him–they would even stop fishing to do that–and to follow his plans. They looked to him for ideas and directions, and he gloried in being a leader and showing off, just as Tom did in the book. It seems almost a pity that in those far-off barefoot days he could not have looked down the years and caught a glimpse of his splendid destiny.
But of literary fame he could never have dreamed. The chief ambition– the “permanent ambition”–of every Hannibal boy was to be a pilot. The pilot in his splendid glass perch with his supreme power and princely salary was to them the noblest of all human creatures. An elder Bowen boy was already a pilot, and when he came home, as he did now and then, his person seemed almost too sacred to touch.
Next to being a pilot, Sam thought he would like to be a pirate or a bandit or a trapper-scout–something gorgeous and awe-inspiring, where his word, his nod, would still be law. The river kept his river ambition always fresh, and with the cave and the forest round about helped him to imagine those other things.
The cave was the joy of his heart. It was a real cave, not merely a hole, but a marvel of deep passages and vaulted chambers that led back into the bluffs and far down into the earth, even below the river, some said. Sam Clemens never tired of the cave. He was willing any time to quit fishing or swimming or melon-hunting for the three-mile walk, or pull, that brought them to its mystic door. With its long corridors, its royal chambers hung with stalactites, its remote hiding-places, it was exactly suitable, Sam thought, to be the lair of an outlaw, and in it he imagined and carried out adventures which his faithful followers may not always have understood, though enjoying them none the less for that reason.
In Tom Sawyer, Indian Joe dies in the cave. He did not die there in real life, but was lost there once and was very weak when they found him. He was not as bad as painted in the book, though he was dissolute and accounted dangerous; and when one night he died in reality, there came a thunder-storm so terrific that Sam Clemens at home, in bed, was certain that Satan had come in person for the half-breed’s soul. He covered his head and said his prayers with fearful anxiety lest the evil one might decide to save another trip by taking him along then.
The treasure-digging adventure in the book had this foundation in fact: It was said that two French trappers had once buried a chest of gold about two miles above Hannibal, and that it was still there. Tom Blankenship (Huck) one morning said he had dreamed just where the treasure was, and that if the boys–Sam Clemens and John Briggs–would go with him and help dig, he would divide. The boys had great faith in dreams, especially in Huck’s dreams. They followed him to a place with some shovels and picks, and he showed them just where to dig. Then he sat down under the shade of a pawpaw-bush and gave orders.
They dug nearly all day. Huck didn’t dig any himself, because he had done the dreaming, which was his share. They didn’t find the treasure that day, and next morning they took two long iron rods to push and drive into the ground until they should strike something. They struck a number of things, but when they dug down it was never the money they found. That night the boys said they wouldn’t dig any more.
But Huck had another dream. He dreamed the gold was exactly under the little pawpaw-tree. This sounded so circumstantial that they went back and dug another day. It was hot weather, too–August–and that night they were nearly dead. Even Huck gave it up then. He said there was something wrong about the way they dug.
This differs a good deal from the treasure incident in the book, but it shows us what respect the boys had for the gifts of the ragamuffin original of Huck Finn. Tom Blankenship’s brother Ben was also used, and very importantly, in the creation of our beloved Huck. Ben was considerably older, but certainly no more reputable, than Tom. He tormented the smaller boys, and they had little love for him. Yet somewhere in Ben Blankenship’s nature there was a fine, generous strain of humanity that provided Mark Twain with that immortal episode–the sheltering of Nigger Jim. This is the real story:
A slave ran off from Monroe County, Missouri, and got across the river into Illinois. Ben used to fish and hunt over there in the swamps, and one day found him. It was considered a most worthy act in those days to return a runaway slave; in fact, it was a crime not to do it. Besides, there was for this one a reward of fifty dollars–a fortune to ragged, out-cast Ben Blankenship. That money, and the honor he could acquire, must have been tempting to the waif, but it did not outweigh his human sympathy. Instead of giving him up and claiming the reward, Ben kept the runaway over there in the marshes all summer. The negro fished, and Ben carried him scraps of other food. Then, by and by, the facts leaked out. Some wood- choppers went on a hunt for the fugitive and chased him to what was called Bird Slough. There, trying to cross a drift, he was drowned.
Huck’s struggle in the book is between conscience and the law, on one side, and deep human sympathy on the other. Ben Blankenship’s struggle, supposing there was one, would be between sympathy and the offered reward. Neither conscience nor law would trouble him. It was his native humanity that made him shelter the runaway, and it must have been strong and genuine to make him resist the lure of the fifty-dollar prize.
There was another chapter to this incident. A few days after the drowning of the runaway, Sam Clemens and his band made their way to the place and were pushing the drift about, when, all at once, the negro shot up out of the water, straight and terrible, a full half-length in the air. He had gone down foremost and had been caught in the drift. The boys did not stop to investigate, but flew in terror to report their tale.
Those early days seem to have been full of gruesome things. In “The Innocents Abroad,” the author tells how he once spent a night in his father’s office and discovered there a murdered man. This was a true incident. The man had been stabbed that afternoon and carried into the house to die. Sam and John Briggs had been playing truant all day and knew nothing of the matter. Sam thought the office safer than his home, where his mother was probably sitting up for him. He climbed in by a window and lay down on the lounge, but did not sleep. Presently he noticed what appeared to be an unusual shape on the floor. He tried to turn his face to the wall and forget it, but that would not do. In agony he watched the thing until at last a square of moonlight gradually revealed a sight that he never forgot. In the book he says:
“I went away from there. I do not say that I went in any sort of hurry, but I simply went–that is sufficient. I went out of the window, and I carried the sash along with me. I did not need the sash, but it was handier to take it than to leave it, and so I took it. I was not scared, but I was considerable agitated.”
Sam was not yet twelve, for his father was no longer living when the boy had reached that age. And how many things had crowded themselves into his few brief years! We must be content here with only a few of them. Our chapter is already too long.
Ministers and deacons did not prophesy well for Sam Clemens and his mad companions. They spoke feelingly of state prison and the gallows. But the boys were a disappointing lot. Will Bowen became a fine river-pilot. Will Pitts was in due time a leading merchant and bank president. John Briggs grew into a well-to-do and highly respected farmer. Huck Finn– which is to say, Tom Blankenship–died an honored citizen and justice of the peace in a Western town. As for Sam Clemens, we shall see what he became as the chapters pass.