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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XI. Days of Education
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The Clemens family had made one or two moves since its arrival in
Hannibal, but the identity of these temporary residences and the period
of occupation of each can no longer be established. Mark Twain once
"In 1843 my father caught me in a lie. It is not this fact that gives me
the date, but the house we lived in. We were there only a year."
We may believe it was the active result of that lie that fixed his memory
of the place, for his father seldom punished him. When he did, it was a
thorough and satisfactory performance.
It was about the period of moving into the new house (1844) that the Tom
Sawyer days--that is to say, the boyhood of Samuel Clemens--may be said
to have begun. Up to that time he was just Little Sam, a child--wild,
and mischievous, often exasperating, but still a child--a delicate little
lad to be worried over, mothered, or spanked and put to bed. Now, at
nine, he had acquired health, with a sturdy ability to look out for
himself, as boys will, in a community like that, especially where the
family is rather larger than the income and there is still a younger
child to claim a mother's protecting care. So "Sam," as they now called
him, "grew up" at nine, and was full of knowledge for his years. Not
that he was old in spirit or manner--he was never that, even to his
death--but he had learned a great number of things, mostly of a kind not
acquired at school.
They were not always of a pleasant kind; they were likely to be of a kind
startling to a boy, even terrifying. Once Little Sam--he was still
Little Sam, then--saw an old man shot down on the main street, at
noonday. He saw them carry him home, lay him on the bed, and spread on
his breast an open family Bible which looked as heavy as an anvil. He
thoughT, if he could only drag that great burden away, the poor, old dying
man would not breathe so heavily. He saw a young emigrant stabbed with a
bowie-knife by a drunken comrade, and noted the spurt of life-blood that
followed; he saw two young men try to kill their uncle, one holding him
while the other snapped repeatedly an Allen revolver which failed to go
off. Then there was the drunken rowdy who proposed to raid the
"Welshman's" house one dark threatening night--he saw that, too. A widow
and her one daughter lived there, and the ruffian woke the whole village
with his coarse challenges and obscenities. Sam Clemens and a boon
companion, John Briggs, went up there to look and listen. The man was at
the gate, and the warren were invisible in the shadow of the dark porch.
The boys heard the elder woman's voice warning the man that she had a
loaded gun, and that she would kill him if he stayed where he was. He
replied with a ribald tirade, and she warned that she would count ten-
that if he remained a second longer she would fire. She began slowly and
counted up to five, with him laughing and jeering. At six he grew
silent, but he did not go. She counted on: seven--eight--nine--The boys
watching from the dark roadside felt their hearts stop. There was a long
pause, then the final count, followed a second later by a gush of flame.
The man dropped, his breast riddled. At the same instant the
thunderstorm that had been gathering broke loose. The boys fled wildly,
believing that Satan himself had arrived to claim the lost soul.
Many such instances happened in a town like that in those days. And
there were events incident to slavery. He saw a slave struck down and
killed with a piece of slag for a trifling offense. He saw an
abolitionist attacked by a mob, and they would have lynched him had not a
Methodist minister defended him on a plea that he must be crazy. He did
not remember, in later years, that he had ever seen a slave auction, but
"I am suspicious that it is because the thing was a commonplace
spectacle, and not an uncommon or impressive one. I do vividly remember
seeing a dozen black men and women chained together lying in a group on
the pavement, waiting shipment to a Southern slave-market. They had the
saddest faces I ever saw."
It is not surprising that a boy would gather a store of human knowledge
amid such happenings as these. They were wild, disturbing things. They
got into his dreams and made him fearful when he woke in the middle of
the night. He did not then regard them as an education. In some vague
way he set them down as warnings, or punishments, designed to give him a
taste for a better life. He felt that it was his own conscience that
made these things torture him. That was his mother's idea, and he had a
high respect for her moral opinions, also for her courage. Among other
things, he had seen her one day defy a vicious devil of a Corsican--a
common terror in the town-who was chasing his grown daughter with a heavy
rope in his hand, declaring he would wear it out on her. Cautious
citizens got out of her way, but Jane Clemens opened her door wide to the
refugee, and then, instead of rushing in and closing it, spread her arms
across it, barring the way. The man swore and threatened her with the
rope, but she did not flinch or show any sign of fear. She stood there
and shamed him and derided him and defied him until he gave up the rope
and slunk off, crestfallen and conquered. Any one who could do that must
have a perfect conscience, Sam thought. In the fearsome darkness he
would say his prayers, especially when a thunderstorm was coming, and vow
to begin a better life in the morning. He detested Sunday-school as much
as day-school, and once Orion, who was moral and religious, had
threatened to drag him there by the collar; but as the thunder got louder
Sam decided that he loved Sunday-school and would go the next Sunday
without being invited.
Fortunately there were pleasanter things than these. There were picnics
sometimes, and ferry-boat excursions. Once there was a great Fourth-of-
July celebration at which it was said a real Revolutionary soldier was to
be present. Some one had discovered him living alone seven or eight
miles in the country. But this feature proved a disappointment; for when
the day came and he was triumphantly brought in he turned out to be a
Hessian, and was allowed to walk home.
The hills and woods around Hannibal where, with his playmates, he roamed
almost at will were never disappointing. There was the cave with its
marvels; there was Bear Creek, where, after repeated accidents, he had
learned to swim. It had cost him heavily to learn to swim. He had seen
two playmates drown; also, time and again he had, himself, been dragged
ashore more dead than alive, once by a slave-girl, another time by a
slaveman--Neal Champ, of the Pavey Hotel. In the end he had conquered;
he could swim better than any boy in town of his age.
It was the river that meant more to him than all the rest. Its charm was
permanent. It was the path of adventure, the gateway to the world. The
river with its islands, its great slow-moving rafts, its marvelous
steamboats that were like fairyland, its stately current swinging to the
sea! He would sit by it for hours and dream. He would venture out on it
in a surreptitiously borrowed boat when he was barely strong enough to
lift an oar out of the water. He learned to know all its moods and
phases. He felt its kinship. In some occult way he may have known it as
his prototype--that resistless tide of life with its ever-changing sweep,
its shifting shores, its depths, its shadows, its gorgeous sunset hues,
its solemn and tranquil entrance to the sea.
His hunger for the life aboard the steamers became a passion. To be even
the humblest employee of one of those floating enchantments would be
enough; to be an officer would be to enter heaven; to be a pilot was to
be a god.
"You can hardly imagine what it meant," he reflected once, "to a boy in
those days, shut in as we were, to see those steamboats pass up and down,
and never to take a trip on them."
He had reached the mature age of nine when he could endure this no
longer. One day, when the big packet came down and stopped at Hannibal,
he slipped aboard and crept under one of the boats on the upper deck.
Presently the signal-bells rang, the steamboat backed away and swung into
midstream; he was really going at last. He crept from beneath the boat
and sat looking out over the water and enjoying the scenery. Then it
began to rain--a terrific downpour. He crept back under the boat, but
his legs were outside, and one of the crew saw him. So he was taken down
into the cabin and at the next stop set ashore. It was the town of
Louisiana, and there were Lampton relatives there who took him home.
Jane Clemens declared that his father had got to take him in hand; which
he did, doubtless impressing the adventure on him in the usual way.
These were all educational things; then there was always the farm, where
entertainment was no longer a matter of girl-plays and swings, with a
colored nurse following about, but of manlier sports with his older boy
cousins, who had a gun and went hunting with the men for squirrels and
partridges by day, for coons and possums by night. Sometimes the little
boy had followed the hunters all night long and returned with them
through the sparkling and fragrant morning fresh, hungry, and triumphant
just in time for breakfast.
So it is no wonder that at nine he was no longer "Little Sam," but Sam
Clemens, quite mature and self-dependent, with a wide knowledge of men
and things and a variety of accomplishments. He had even learned to
smoke--a little--out there on the farm, and had tried tobacco-chewing,
though that was a failure. He had been stung to this effort by a big
girl at a school which, with his cousin Puss, he sometimes briefly
"Do you use terbacker?" the big girl had asked, meaning did he chew it.
"No," he said, abashed at the confession.
"Haw!" she cried to the other scholars; "here's a boy that can't chaw
Degraded and ashamed, he tried to correct his fault, but it only made him
very ill; and he did not try again.
He had also acquired the use of certain strong, expressive words, and
used them, sometimes, when his mother was safely distant. He had an
impression that she would "skin him alive" if she heard him swear. His
education had doubtful spots in it, but it had provided wisdom.
He was not a particularly attractive lad. He was not tall for his years,
and his head was somewhat too large for his body. He had a "great ruck"
of light, sandy hair which he plastered down to keep it from curling;
keen blue-gray eyes, and rather large features. Still, he had a fair,
delicate complexion, when it was not blackened by grime or tan; a gentle,
winning manner; a smile that, with his slow, measured way of speaking,
made him a favorite with his companions. He did not speak much, and his
mental attainments were not highly regarded; but, for some reason,
whenever he did speak every playmate in hearing stopped whatever he was
doing and listened. Perhaps it would be a plan for a new game or lark;
perhaps it was something droll; perhaps it was just a commonplace remark
that his peculiar drawl made amusing. Whatever it was, they considered
it worth while. His mother always referred to his slow fashion of
speaking as "Sammy's long talk." Her own speech was still more
deliberate, but she seemed not to notice it. Henry--a much handsomer lad
and regarded as far more promising--did not have it. He was a lovable,
obedient little fellow whom the mischievous Sam took delight in teasing.
For this and other reasons the latter's punishments were frequent enough,
perhaps not always deserved. Sometimes he charged his mother with
partiality. He would say:
"Yes, no matter what it is, I am always the one to get punished"; and his
mother would answer:
"Well, Sam, if you didn't deserve it for that, you did for something
Henry Clemens became the Sid of Tom Sawyer, though Henry was in every way
a finer character than Sid. His brother Sam always loved him, and fought
for him oftener than with him.
With the death of Benjamin Clemens, Henry and Sam were naturally drawn
much closer together, though Sam could seldom resist the temptation of
tormenting Henry. A schoolmate, George Butler (he was a nephew of
General Butler and afterward fought bravely in the Civil War), had a
little blue suit with a leather belt to match, and was the envy of all.
Mrs. Clemens finally made Sam and Henry suits of blue cotton velvet, and
the next Sunday, after various services were over, the two sauntered
about, shedding glory for a time, finally going for a stroll in the
woods. They walked along properly enough, at first, then just ahead Sam
spied the stump of a newly cut tree, and with a wild whooping impulse
took a running leap over it. There were splinters on the stump where the
tree had broken away, but he cleared them neatly. Henry wanted to match
the performance, but was afraid to try, so Sam dared him. He kept daring
him until Henry was goaded to the attempt. He cleared the stump, but the
highest splinters caught the slack of his little blue trousers, and the
cloth gave way. He escaped injury, but the precious trousers were
damaged almost beyond repair. Sam, with a boy's heartlessness, was
fairly rolling on the ground with laughter at Henry's appearance.
"Cotton-tail rabbit!" he shouted. "Cotton-tail rabbit!" while Henry,
weeping, set out for home by a circuitous and unfrequented road. Let us
hope, if there was punishment for this mishap, that it fell in the proper
These two brothers were of widely different temperament. Henry, even as
a little boy, was sturdy, industrious, and dependable. Sam was volatile
and elusive; his industry of an erratic kind. Once his father set him to
work with a hatchet to remove some plaster. He hacked at it for a time
well enough, then lay down on the floor of the room and threw his hatchet
at such areas of the plaster as were not in easy reach. Henry would have
worked steadily at a task like that until the last bit was removed and
the room swept clean.
The home incidents in 'Tom Sawyer', most of them, really happened. Sam
Clemens did clod Henry for getting him into trouble about the colored
thread with which he sewed his shirt when he came home from swimming; he
did inveigle a lot of boys into whitewashing, a fence for him; he did
give Pain-killer to Peter, the cat. There was a cholera scare that year,
and Pain-killer was regarded as a preventive. Sam had been ordered to
take it liberally, and perhaps thought Peter too should be safeguarded.
As for escaping punishment for his misdeeds in the manner described in
that book, this was a daily matter, and the methods adapted themselves to
the conditions. In the introduction to Tom Sawyer Mark Twain confesses
to the general truth of the history, and to the reality of its
characters. "Huck Finn was drawn from life," he tells us. "Tom Sawyer
also, but not from an individual--he is a combination of the
characteristics of three boys whom I knew."
The three boys were--himself, chiefly, and in a lesser degree John Briggs
and Will Bowen. John Briggs was also the original of Joe Harper in that
book. As for Huck Finn, his original was Tom Blankenship, neither
elaborated nor qualified.
There were several of the Blankenships: there was old Ben, the father,
who had succeeded "General" Gains as the town drunkard; young Ben, the
eldest son--a hard case with certain good traits; and Tom--that is to
say, Huck--who was just as he is described in Tom Sawyer: a ruin of rags,
a river-rat, an irresponsible bit of human drift, kind of heart and
possessing that priceless boon, absolute unaccountability of conduct to
any living soul. He could came and go as he chose; he never had to work
or go to school; he could do all things, good or bad, that the other boys
longed to do and were forbidden. He represented to them the very
embodiment of liberty, and his general knowledge of important matters,
such as fishing, hunting, trapping, and all manner of signs and spells
and hoodoos and incantations, made him immensely valuable as a companion.
The fact that his society was prohibited gave it a vastly added charm.
The Blankenships picked up a precarious living fishing and hunting, and
lived at first in a miserable house of bark, under a tree, but later
moved into quite a pretentious building back of the new Clemens home on
Hill Street. It was really an old barn of a place--poor and ramshackle
even then; but now, more than sixty years later, a part of it is still
standing. The siding of the part that stands is of black walnut, which
must have been very plentiful in that long-ago time. Old drunken Ben
Blankenship never dreamed that pieces of his house would be carried off
as relics because of the literary fame of his son Tom--a fame founded on
irresponsibility and inconsequence. Orion Clemens, who was concerned
with missionary work about this time, undertook to improve the
Blankenships spiritually. Sam adopted them, outright, and took them to
his heart. He was likely to be there at any hour of the day, and he and
Tom had cat-call signals at night which would bring him out on the back
single-story roof, and down a little arbor and flight of steps, to the
group of boon companions which, besides Tom, included John Briggs, the
Bowen boys, Will Pitts, and one or two other congenial spirits. They
were not vicious boys; they were not really bad boys; they were only
mischievous, fun-loving boys-thoughtless, and rather disregardful of the
comforts and the rights of others.