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'*•«• * -INSTITUTE of , .. 

•«8, Museum.ncLibrary 

The Adventures 
of Tom Sawyer 






The Adventures 
of Tom Sawyer 



A great nation 
deserves great art. 


. Museuman d Library 



The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an 
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest 
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 
cities, and military bases. 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support 
for the nations 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create 
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute 
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to 
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support 
professional development. 

Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts 
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based 
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state 
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South 
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United 
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years. 

Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg 

Published by 

National Endowment for the Arts 
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, DC 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


Doctorow, E.L. Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006 . New York: Random House, 2006. 

Ellison, Ralph. Going to the Territory. New York: Random House, 1986. 

Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. 

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New 
York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 

Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005. 

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. 

. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890. New York: Library of America, 1992. 

. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910. New York: Library of America, 1992. 

. Mississippi Writings: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 

Pudd'nhead Wilson. New York: Library of America, 1982. 

Ward, Geoffrey C, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred 

A. Knopf, 2001. [Includes "Aren't We Funny Animals? An Interview with Hal Holbrook," pp. 178-183.] 

Ziff, Larzer. Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director ol Arts Education 

Writer: Michael Palma for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Shcrffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Image and book cover courtesy of the Mark Twain 
House. Page 1: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Inside back cover: Courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

July 2< 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols c ) 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 1 1 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects IS 

Handout One: Mark [wains 1 iterary Influence Id 

Handout Iwo: Mark Twain's C omic Voice 17 

Handout Three: The Mighty Mississippi IS 

reaching Resources N 

NCI 1 Standards 

"Now the raft was 
passing before the 
distant town. Two 
or three glimmering 
lights showed where 
it lay, peacefully 
sleeping, beyond the 
vague vast sweep of 

— from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 


National El 


Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading 
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through 
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Mark Twain's classic novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Each lesson has 
four sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and 
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects 
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with 
interviews, commentaries, and excerpts from the book, The Big Read CD 
presents firsthand accounts of why The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains 
so compelling more than a century after its initial publication. Some of 
America's most celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered 
their time to make Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope 
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

^Juau ^\l 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for ik the big read • | 

ested Teaching 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Read 
and discuss Reader's Guide essays. Write 
about a favorite novel of childhood. 

Homework: Read Handout One and 
Chapters l-lll (pp. 11-30).* 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Discuss Sid as a foil to Tom. Write 
about Tom's most prominent characteristics. 

Homework: Read Handout Two and 
Chapters XII-XVI (pp. 88-119). 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Discuss the ways Twain uses 
humor, sarcasm, and satire. Write about the 
whitewashing of the fence in Chapter II. 

Homework: Read Chapters IV-VI 
(pp. 31-57). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Discuss the advantages of an adult 
third-person omniscient narrative. Write a 
description of Tom or Huck from the other's 
point of view. 

Homework: Read Chapters VII— XI 
(pp. 58-87). 

°ige numbers refer to the Penguin Classics 1986 edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. 

Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Discuss hyperbole and metaphor. 
Write a comically exaggerated description of 
an ordinary event. 

Homework: Read Handout Three and 
Chapters XVI l-XXI I (pp. 120-149). 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Discuss the symbolism of the 
Mississippi River, the island, and the storm. 
Write a brief essay examining how the 
message on the bark gives the reader clues 
about Tom's character, or write a short 
analysis on how the fence functions as a 

Homework: Read Chapters XXIII-XXVII 
(pp. 150-175). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Discuss how the order of the 
novel's events contributes to the evolution of 
Tom's character. Write about the believability 
of Tom's decision to testify. 

Homework: Read Chapters XXVIII-XXXI 
(pp. 176-203). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Discuss the pacing of events and 
the degree of realism in the novel. Write an 
essay discussing Twain's statement, "Truth is 
stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction 
is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't." 

Homework: Read Chapters XXXII- 
Conclusion (pp. 204-225). 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Explore Twain's treatment of the 
themes of childhood, maturity, and freedom 
vs. responsibility. 

Homework: Prepare outlines and begin 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great? 

Activities: Evaluate the gi^eatness of the novel 
Write back-cover copy for a new edition 
of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, explaining 
why the novel would appeal to a modern 

Homework: Finish essays. 

National Endowment tor thi the big read ■ 3 

Lesson One 



Examining an author's life can inform and expand the reader's 
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing 
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, 
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully. 

In his Preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain acknowledges, 

"Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred Huck 

Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also " Before adopting the pen 

name of Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens grew up in Hannibal, 
Missouri, a town on the Mississippi River where several steamboats stopped 
every day Although not an orphan like Tom Sawyer, Clemens was only 
eleven years old when his father died. Like Tom, he was a rebellious and 
high-spirited boy who cut school to play in the woods, swim in the river, 
and explore caves with his friends. One of those friends, Tom Blankenship, 
was the son of the town drunk and Twain's model for Huckleberry Finn. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD. Have students take notes as they listen. Ask them to 
present the three most important points learned from the CD. 

Photocopy the following essays from the Reader's Guide: "Introduction to the 
Novel" (p. 3), "Mark Twain (1835-1910)" (pp. 5-7), and "Tom Sawyer and 
Huckleberry Finn" (pp. 8-9). Divide the class into groups. Each group will present 
a summary of the main points in its assigned essay. 

Writing Exercise 

Have the students write a short essay about a favorite novel whose main 
character is a child. How is childhood depicted in the novel — idyllically, comically, 
fearfully? Discuss the opportunities and problems the subject of childhood might 
pose for a writer of literary fiction. 

EJ Homework 

Distribute Handout One: Mark Twain's Literary Influence. Read Chapters l-lll 
(pp. 1 1-30). Prepare your students to read approximately twenty-five pages per 
night in order to complete reading this book in eight lessons. How do the first 
three chapters present this period in American history? How does Twain depict 
education? How does Twain depict religion? 


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Lesson Two 


Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate 
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of 
the characters. 

The novel sets Tom's adventures against the backdrop of village life in the 
Midwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. I wain shows the 
intellectual and emotional narrowness of small-town life. For Tom, the chief 
institutions of society are school and church. Both emphasize rote learning. 
using memorization and repetition, focusing on moral development through 
conformity and propriety. Rules and standards are enforced by coercion, 
whether in the form of hellfire sermons by the minister or whippings bv the 
frustrated school master. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to identify specific passages in the first three chapters where Twain 
uses humor or sarcasm to critique the traditions of small-town life. Present and 
discuss the concept of satire (the practice of scrutinizing human vice or folly 
through irony, derision, or wit) by examining how Twain's storytelling affably 
critiques the assumptions at work in Tom's world. 

Discuss how the techniques of humor and satire allow us to recognize implicit 
cultural assumptions and principles both in Tom's world and in our own culture. 
Does Twain's use of humor reflect skepticism and distrust toward the society 
portrayed in the novel? 

^ Writing Exercise 

The whitewashing of the fence in Chapter II is probably the best-known episode 
in the book. Does the restrictive nature of school and church lead Tom and other- 
children to be more inventive outside of school? 

What point is Twain making regarding human nature? Write two pages on 
whether the limits of school and church make Tom and the other boys more 
inventive or less inventive. 

Ul Homework 

Read Chapters IV-VI (pp. 31-57). Consider the accounts of the address by Mr. 
Walters, the Sunday School Superintendent (pp. 35-38). and the sermon by the 
Rev. Sprague (pp. 43-45). What is added to these descriptions by the style in 
which Twain presents them? 

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and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters, 
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point 
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person 
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced 
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story 
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited, 
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the 
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is told from a third-person omniscient point 
of view. As early as the third page, Twain presents the unspoken thoughts 
of Aunt Polly and Tom in two successive sentences in the same paragraph: 
"And it flattered her to reflect that she had discovered that the shirt was dry 
without anybody knowing that that was what she had in her mind. But 
in spite of her, Tom knew where the wind lay, now" (p. 13). Throughout 
the book, the narrative voice — whose vocabulary, sensibility, and insights 
are clearly those of an adult — inserts itself between the reader and the 
characters and events being described. 

Discussion Activities 

How does the third-person adult perspective provide extra dimension to the 
presentation of the characters, setting, and events of the first six chapters? 

Discuss the address of Mr. Walters, and the sermon by the Rev. Sprague. What 
is the tone of the narrator during these segments? How does the way these 
passages are written add to the tone and effect of the book thus far? 

Writing Exercise 

Have each student, as Tom or Huck, write a one-paragraph description of the 
personality of the other character and the nature of their relationship. Ask several 
students to share their work with the class. How does the story change when it is 
narrated from Tom's or Huck's point of view? 

E3 Homework 

Read Chapters VII— XI (pp. 58-87). Consider Aunt Polly as she has been 
presented thus far. Do you find her character sympathetic or not? Explain. 


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The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist. 
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often 
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new 
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great 
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist lacking 
these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or purposeful, 
the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The protagonists 
journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold differing 
beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast with the 
protagonists and highlight important features of the main characters 
personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes 
the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. 

While Tom serves as the protagonist, a number of vibrant characters 
provide foils. Aunt Polly provides an adult foil, Huck provides a foil 
that makes Tom appreciate his own world, and Becky challenges Iom 
to be a man. 

Discussion Activities 

Novelist E.L. Doctorow observes that Tom Sawyer's is a "world of two distinct 
and, for the most part, irreconcilable life forms, the Child and the Adult. . . . And 
because power and authority reside in the Adult, Tom is necessarily a rebel acting 
in the name of freedom. Thus he is understood not as a bad boy but as a good 
boy who is amiably, creatively, and as a matter of political principle bad — unlike 
his half brother Sid, who is that all too recognizable archetype of everyone's 
childhood, the actually bad boy who appears in the perverse eyesight of adults 
to be good" ("Sam Clemens's Two Boys." in Creationists, p. 57). Is this is a valid 
statement? How might Sid be a foil and/or antagonist to Tom? If Doctorow is 
right, how do you think this will affect the rest of the story? Will Tom ever be 
recognized as good? Does Twain make a statement about human nature that 
transcends Tom's small-town world? 

%A Writing Exercise 

List Tom's three most prominent personality traits, backing up each choice by 
describing any incidents in the text thus far that serve as the basis for that choice. 
How do the incidents help us understand his character and the tensions in his life 7 

23 Homework 

Read Handout Two: Mark Twain's Comic Voice. Read Chapters XII XVI 
(pp. 88 1 19). Pay particular attention to the passage about Peter the cat in 
Chapter XII. What might be Twain's main intention, and how does his use of 
language contribute to the fulfillment of that intention? 

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Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors 
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story. 
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound, 
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and 
adds immediacy to literary language. 

Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding 
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two 
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant 
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than," 
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is 
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is 
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an 
important similarity between these two things. 

In The Adventures of Tom Saivyer, the stylistic power of a tall tale serves to 
extend and deepen the story, characters, and themes. The most frequent 
stylistic effect is hyperbole — exaggeration, usually for comic purposes and 
often enhanced by biblical or Shakespearean echoes. With hyperbole, 
Twain makes a point by overstating it. This reflects the influence of the 
frontier tradition of the tall tale, as well as the rhetorical extravagance 
of Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, and other popular humorists of 
Twain's time. 

Discussion Activities 

Split the class into groups. Review the first sixteen chapters. How many tall tales 
can you find? Which ones are the best, and why? Do these tall tales serve as 
metaphors? Do they provide us with additional insight into Tom's world? What 
does it take for Tom to weave a successful tall tale? 

Writing Exercise 

Read the class the hilarious account of Peter the cat's reaction to the spoonful of 
Pain-killer (p. 90). Have them practice using hyperbole by writing a brief account 
of an ordinary incident enlivened by comically exaggerated descriptions. Ask 
several students to read their accounts aloud in class. 

EJ Homework 

Distribute Handout Three: The Mighty Mississippi. Read Chapters XVII-XXII 
(pp. 120-149). What is the larger significance of Tom's brass andiron-knob, and of 
the schoolmaster's anatomy book? 


National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Six 



Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance 
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on 
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, 
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract 
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or 
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in 
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound 
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the 
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can 
reveal new interpretations of the novel. 

Most of the settings illuminate Twain's conception of childhood .is reflected 
in Tom's adventures. As a result, Tom himself becomes a symbol of the 
complexities of the child's world, the adult world, and the intersections 
between these two worlds. 

Discussion Activities 

A particularly powerful symbol, the Mississippi River represents adventure, 
freedom, and the world beyond St. Petersburg. The boys' journey to Jackson 
Island begins their separation from the safety and security of small-town life. 
How are the river and the island symbols? What cues in the text suggest they 
might have a symbolic function? How does the storm affect Tom. and what 
might it represent? Why does he believe God sent the storm as punishment 
for his misbehavior? 

Writing Exercise 

Have your students write a brief essay examining one of the following topics. 
Discuss the symbolism of the piece of bark on which Tom writes his note to 
Aunt Polly, with emphasis on how it functions to show several different sides 
of Tom's nature. Or analyze how the fence Tom whitewashes in the novel's 
first chapters serves as a symbol. How was Aunt Polly's punishment both fitting 
and ironic? 

23 Homework 

Read Chapters XXIII-XXVII (pp. 150-175). Has Tom changed at all since the 
beginning of the book, or does he |ust keep displaying the same traits over 
and over again? 

National 1 ndowmenf tor tlu- \ih 




Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo 
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each 
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension 
between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next and the protagonists eventual success 
or failure. 

Chapter XXIII gives the best depiction of Tom's maturation, reflecting his 
character development. In Chapter X, after witnessing the murder of Dr. 
Robinson, he and Huck had taken a blood oath, on pain of dropping down 
dead, that they would never tell anyone what they saw. Motivated entirely 
by fear of Injun Joe, their silence may very well cost an innocent man his 
life. But as Muff Potter's trial proceeds toward the certainty of a guilty 
verdict, Tom suffers increasing torments of conscience, leading up to his 
revelation and testimony. 

Discussion Activities 

In his 2004 book on Mark Twain, Larzer Ziff maintains that "Tom's adventures do 
not follow one another in any necessary order because Twain is not concerned 
with the evolution of Tom's character" and that "none of Tom's adventures 
alters his character or matures him — he is always the boy he was" (p. 65). Is this 
view valid? Why or why not? Can you find evidence to support Ziff? Can you 
find evidence to refute him? Cite passages from the text to support your view. 
Extend this discussion by conducting a debate on Ziffs interpretation. 

Writing Exercise 

Does Tom's choice to testify seem credible in terms of his character as it has 
been presented to us? Cite any earlier instances of similar behavior that might 
foreshadow this action. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters XXVIII-XXXI (pp. 176-203). Based on how Tom's previous 
adventures have turned out, what do you think will happen in the end? 

10 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Eight 


The Plot 

The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, 
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either 
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to 
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple 
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the 
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or 
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented. 

Discussion Activity 

Have students review the main events in the novel thus far. What are the most 
significant events? How has Twain chosen to pace the story? Is it too fast-paced 
and too fantastical? Is it realistic and believable? By drawing together a series of 
events and tall tales, is the novel the ultimate tall tale? 

Ed Writing Exercise 

Mark Twain wrote, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction 
is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't." Using information from your 
discussion, have students write one page about how fiction might be "less 
strange" than truth. Conclude with a statement on how this quotation illuminates 
the novel or sheds light on the plot of the novel or the novel as a whole. 

H Homework 

Read Chapters XXXII-Conclusion (pp. 204-225). Students should come to class 
prepared to discuss whether the novel has any larger thematic intent beyond the 
depiction of boyhood in a river town in the 1840s. 

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Themes of 
the Novel 

Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple 
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound 
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures, 
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus 
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger 
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel 
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts 
or from new points of view. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises 
in order to interpret the novel in specific ways. Using historical references to 
support ideas, explore the statements The Adventures of Tom Sawyer makes about 
the following themes: 


The novel is generally regarded as a sunny, if not idyllic, portrayal of childhood. 
But there is a minority opinion, as exemplified in the title of a 1980 essay by 
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Nightmare Vision of 
American Boyhood." Which of these two views seems to you the more accurate 
assessment, and why? 


In the Conclusion, Twain writes: "So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a 
history of boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without 
becoming the history of a man" (p. 225). Has Tom in fact significantly matured 
over the course of the book? If so, in what ways, and as the result of what 

Freedom vs. Responsibility 

In the last chapter, Huck Finn seems absolutely unwilling — indeed, unable — to 
submit himself to the constraints of society and its expectations, while Tom 
speaks for a more accommodating approach. Which of the two views, if either, 
do you think Twain is affirming? Explain the reasons for your choice. 

E3 Homework 

Begin working on essays, choosing one of the Essay Topics in this guide. Outlines 
are due at the next class. 

I 2 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Ten 

Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the 
larger context of the human struggle. The writer's voice, style, and use of 
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects 
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and 
breaks new ground. 


What Makes 
a Book Great? 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on 
the board. What elevates a book to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within 
groups, other books that include some of these characteristics. Do any of these 
books remind them of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 7 . Is this a great novel? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does Twain 
create in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 7 . Does this novel speak for more than one 
boy and his personal concerns? What does this voice tell us about the choices 
and responsibilities for a boy coming of age in mid-nineteenth-century America? 

Wj Writing Exercise 

Ask students to write the back-cover copy for a new edition of The Adventures 
of Tom Sawyer, explaining why a contemporary audience would find the novel an 
entertaining and rewarding reading experience. 

23 Homework 

Students will finish their essays and present their topics and arguments to 
the class. 

National 1 Lndowmeru tm tin 


The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with 
their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are 
provided here. 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or 
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting 
reasons should be backed by references to the text. 

1. Discuss Twain's depiction of church and school. 
Are they agencies of spiritual and intellectual 
growth, or engines of conformity and 
inhibition, or both? Do some characters find 
more value in these institutions than others? 

If so, why? 

2. Several of the characters in the novel express 
racist attitudes about blacks and Indians, but 
no character ever expresses an opposing 
point of view. Is it enough for Twain to 

have accurately shown the prejudices of the 
society he is writing about without having a 
character express the opposing viewpoint? 
Is the narrator impartial? Would a more 
forceful condemnation of racist attitudes have 
strengthened or weakened the novel ? 

3. Consider the characters of Aunt Polly, Becky 
Thatcher, and the Widow Douglas. Based on 
their actions and statements, what might Twain 
be saying about the role or function of women 
in the society he is describing? 

4. Later in his life, Twain expressed some very 
bitter judgments about human nature, views 
that might be said to have a pale foreshadowing 
in the first paragraph of Chapter XXXV 

(p. 220), which describes the townspeople's 
view of Tom and Huck after their discovery of 
the treasure. Would you describe Twain's view 

of human nature in Tom Sawyer as generally 
dark or pessimistic? If not, how would you 
characterize it? 

Discuss the following statement by Shelley 
Fisher Fishkin: "Twain's Tom is full of youthful 
energy, to be sure, but his character is more 
complicated than that" (Lighting Out for the 
Territory, p. 137). Identify some of Tom's most 
dominant character traits. How do they 
contribute to the reader's acceptance of Tom 
as "real" and fully developed, rather than a 
two-dimensional character? 

Have your students write on the theme "How 
Old Is Tom Sawyer?" citing textual examples 
to back up their conclusions. They may wish 
to cite the following passage from the E.L. 
Doctorow essay: 

Tom Sawyer is ageless. I don't mean that he 
is a boy for the ages, although he may be — 
I mean that he is a boy of no determinable 
age. When he falls in love he exhibits the 
behavior of a six-year-old. When he is 
cunning or manipulative he might be nine or 
ten. His athleticism places him nearer the 
age of twelve. And in self-dramatization and 
insensitivity to all feelings but his own he is 
unquestionably a teenager. The variety of 
his moods, including his deep funks when 
he feels unloved, his manic exhibitionism, 
his retributive fantasies, sweeps him up and 
down the scale of juvenile thought 
(pp. 58-59). 


National Endowment for the Arts 

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, 
or a bookstore. 

1. Have the students locate as many different 
illustrated editions of the novel as possible. 
How do these illustrations represent their 
time period? Have students select different 
parts of the novel to illustrate. Work with 
your visual arts specialist to create a series 
of images that reflect events in the novel, 
characters in the novel, and/or symbols in the 
novel. Exhibit student work in the gallery of a 
Big Read community partner. 

2. Divide the class into groups and have each 
group prepare a eulogy for Tom's "funeral" in 
Chapter XVII to be delivered by one of the 
following characters: Aunt Polly, Sid, or Becky 
Thatcher. Working with a theater teaching- 
artist, learn dramatic techniques to assist 
students in delivering the eulogy. Present the 
eulogies at a Big Read event. 

3. Working with your local TV or radio station, 
create a storyboard for a short film or radio- 
theater. Have teams of students create a radio- 
drama or short film with the assistance of local 
media educators. After students have created 
their own rendering, examine some of the 
film versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. 
Share student work with the community 
through a Big Read partner. Hold a student 
and media educator panel on what students 
learned working with film and radio. On the 
panel, they can discuss how their conceptions 
compared to professional film versions. 

4. Tom and his peers have to learn how to 
recite from memory. Work with your state 
NEA Poetry Out Loud coordinator and 
hold a recitation contest in your town. 
Students can memorize and recite one 
poem from the Poetry Out Loud anthology 
( After the contest, hold 
a student panel to discuss what the young 
people have learned from their experience 
with recitation and memorizing a poem. 
Successful reciters can go on to compete in 
the state finals. 

5. Research your own community's history. Using 
images available online or through your local 
historical society, create an exhibit illustrating 
what life was like in your area a hundred 
years ago. Write captions explaining the 
photographs. Display the exhibit in the school's 
library, at a local museum, or at another Big 
Read venue. 

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Mark Twain's Literary Influence 

Mark Twain has entered permanently into 
American popular culture. Almost everyone is 
familiar with the image of the man — the unruly 
mane of white hair with matching moustache and 
eyebrows, the white suit, the ever-present cigar. 
And most people quote his sayings, including 
many who don't know it's Mark Twain they're 
quoting: "Man is the only animal that blushes. 
Or needs to"; "To cease smoking is the easiest 
thing I ever did; I ought to know because I've done 
it a thousand times"; and, of course, "The reports 
of my death are greatly exaggerated." 

However, it may surprise some people to learn 
how highly Twain is regarded by serious literary 
critics. He is the subject of many biographies and 
countless works of literary analysis. Even more 
tellingly, he is held in extremely high esteem by 
other writers. One of the earliest tributes — and 
still perhaps the best-known — appears in Ernest 
Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa (1935): 
"All modern American literature comes from one 

book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn 

[I]t's the best book we've had. All American 
writing comes from that. There was nothing 
before. There has been nothing as good since." 

Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) is 
considered one of the greatest American novels 
since World War II, explained in an essay what 
Twain had meant to him and to American 
literature: "Mark Twain. . .transformed elements 
of regional vernacular speech into a medium 
of uniquely American literary expression and 
thus taught us how to capture that which is 
essentially American in our folkways and manners. 
For indeed the vernacular process is a way of 
establishing and discovering our national identity." 

Twain's influence as a master of the vernacular 
was also demonstrated by Ellison's friend and 
fellow novelist Saul Bellow. Bellow's first two 
novels were small-scale "literary" works. But his 
third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), 
whose very title is a kind of tribute to Twain, was 
a major breakthrough in his career. It is a large, 
sprawling book, narrated in the lively, slangy, very 
American voice of Augie himself, and filled with 
vivid characters and both grotesque and hilarious 

Another demonstration of Twain's influence 
came in 1996 with the publication of the 
Oxford Mark Twain, a twenty-nine volume set 
of all the books Twain published in his lifetime. 
Each volume contains an introduction by a 
leading contemporary author, some of whom 
describe Twain's importance in their discovery 
of literature and their own development as writers. 
These authors include Arthur Miller ("Death 
of a Salesman"), Cynthia Ozick {The Shawl), 
Kurt Vonnegut {Slaughterhouse-Five), and Toni 
Morrison {Beloved). 

William Faulkner is sometimes regarded as the 
greatest American novelist since Mark Twain. 
Like Hemingway, Bellow, and Morrison, he was 
awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the world's 
most prestigious literary honor. Faulkner's debt 
to Mark Twain is clear in some of his best work, 
such as the stories "Barn Burning" and "The 
Bear," which show boys coming of age as they 
are exposed to the cruelty and violence around 
them. It was a debt that Faulkner was happy to 
acknowledge. At a literary conference in Japan 
in 1955, he called Twain "the father of American 
literature. . .the first truly American writer, and all 
of us since are his heirs." 

I 6 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Mark Twain's Comic Voice 

Mark Twain began his literary career as a writer of 
comic essays and sketches. He continued to write 
short humorous pieces throughout his life, although 
in his last years the humor frequently took on a 
dark and bitter tone. It is his novels — especially 
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures 
of Huckleberry Finn — that are his greatest claim to 
fame and his greatest contribution to our literature. 
But even these works, as grim and shocking as 
they can sometimes be, are enlivened throughout 
by his sense of the ridiculous, and by a comic voice 
unmistakably his own. 

When Twain began writing in the 1860s, Americas 
most popular humorists were Charles Farrar 
Browne, who wrote under the name of Artemus 
Ward, and David Ross Locke, whose pseudonym 
was Petroleum V. (for Vesuvius) Nasby. Both used 
dialect, with comic misspellings, poor grammar, 
and exaggerated wordplay and turns of phrase, 
often for satirical purposes. When Ward gave a 
public performance in Virginia City, Nevada, in 
December 1863, Twain, who had already taken 
him as a literary model, met and befriended him. 
[wains earliest literary success was a comic piece 
called "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of ( lalaveras 
( t unity.' Published in November 1865 and widely 
reprinted in newspapers across the country, it earned 
him a national reputation. 

Ihinv years later, in the essav "1 low to Tell a 
Story' he discussed the essence ot his comk 
technique. One component ol that technique is 

'[t]o string incongruities a\\(\ absurdities together in 
.i wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and 
seem innoeentlv unaware that they are absurdities. 

Here is a delightful example: "The first time I ever 
saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for six million 
dollars and it was the mistake of my life that I did 
not do it." Another occurs in Chapter IV of Tom 
Sawyer, in the reference to the "boy of German 
parentage" who "once recited three thousand [Bible] 
verses without stopping; but the strain upon his 
mental faculties was too great, and he was little 
better than an idiot from that day forth (p. 34). In 
this instance, readers will have no trouble finding 
the satirical point beneath the surface absurdity: 

The actor Hal Holbrook, who has brilliantly 
portrayed Mark Twain in his one-man show Mark 
Twain Tonight'., once told an interviewer thai 
the targets of I wains humor were "'h'vpocrisv. 
pomposity, the narrow mind, the prejudiced mind, 
stupidity, brutality — all those things. You know that 
quote of his, Against the power ot laughter nothing 
can stand? How you can push at an injustice, move 
it a little, century by century. But only laughter ^au 
blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. 

With his realistic descriptions and settings, his vivid 
and often coarse characters, and his rich, colorful 
language. Mark I wain did more than anyone civ 
to move American literature past the suffocating 
refinement and sentimentalit) ot the mid-ninciccnth 
century Net he was also .i deeply insecure man 
who longed to be taken senouslv by the literary 
establishment ot his time. Misunderstanding his 
own genius, he at times considered his long and 
lifeless biograph) of loan of \k do be his k-st work. 
But his readers have always known that his Ivst .\nd 
most serious writing is often his funnit 

National Endowment for th< the big REa: • |7 


The Mighty Mississippi 

From its source in Lake Itasca in northwestern 
Minnesota, the Mississippi River flows south 
for 2,340 miles until it empties into the Gulf of 
Mexico. Though not very deep, it is as much as 
two miles wide at various points. It divides the 
United States into eastern and western halves. In 
the early part of the nineteenth century, when 
Mark Twain was young, railroad travel was in its 
infancy. It would be decades before elaborate rail 
networks crisscrossed the nation. In that period, 
Americas principal highways for both passengers 
and freight were its rivers, and none more so than 
the Mississippi. 

Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, 
which was the model for St. Petersburg in The 
Adventures of Tom Sawyer. At the same time he 
was writing the novel, Twain produced "Old 
Times on the Mississippi," a series of reminiscences 
of his boyhood and youth and of his training 
as a riverboat pilot. These sketches, which 
many consider his best work after Tom Sawyer 
and Huckleberry Finn, were later revised and 
incorporated into a larger work about the river 
called Life on the Mississippi (1883). 

The book's fourth chapter begins: "When I was 
a boy, there was but one permanent ambition 
among my comrades in our village on the west 
bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a 
steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of 

other sorts, but they were only transient These 

ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the 
ambition to be a steamboatman always remained." 
The circuses and 

minstrel shows of Twain's youth would arrive, 
excite all the boys of the town, and then depart. 
But the river was always there. Twain describes 
how the sleepy little town would stir to life with 
the arrival of a boat and then resume its slumber 
once the boat had left. 

For young Sam Clemens and his comrades, the 
river represented freedom, adventure, and escape 
from family, school, church, and all the rest of the 
narrow routine of everyday existence in Hannibal. 
It was the road to distant and fabulous places, such 
as St. Louis, and even more remote and exotic 
locales farther south. He left Hannibal at eighteen 
and visited New York and Philadelphia before 
settling in St. Louis. He became an apprentice 
riverboat pilot at twenty-one and earned his pilot's 
license two years later, in April 1859. He worked 
the river for two more years, until the outbreak of 
the Civil War ended all commercial travel on the 

Mark Twain never lived in Hannibal or worked on 
the river again, but he often returned in memory, 
and they inspired his finest and most enduring 
works. He frequently maintained that these were 
the happiest times of his life. Writing to his friend 
and fellow novelist William Dean Howells while 
composing "Old Times on the Mississippi" for 
Howells's Atlantic Monthly, he claimed, "I am a 
person who would quit authorizing in a minute to 
go piloting, if the madame would stand it." 


National Endowment for the Arts 




Doctorow, E.L. Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006. 
New York: Random House, 2006. 

Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: 
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. 

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: 
Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: 
Oxford University Press, 1997. 

Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: 
Penguin Books, 1986. 

. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays 

1891-1910. New York: Library of America, 1992. 

. Mississippi Writings: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life 

on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead 
Wilson. New York: Library of America, 1982. 

Ward, Geoffrey C, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns. Mark 
Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 

Web sites 

Google has the entire text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 
available for download in PDF format. The text is also 
searchable by word or phrase. 
The Web site that accompanies the PBS film Mark Twain, 
a documentary directed by Ken Burns, includes classroom 
activities, selected writings, a chronology of Twain's life, 
and links to related Web sites. 

The mission of The Mark Twain House & Museum is to 
foster an appreciation of the legacy of Mark Twain as one 
of our nation's defining cultural figures and to demonstrate 
the continuing relevance of his work. life, and times. 

A collaboration between the Mark Twain Papers and 
Project of The Bancroft Library, the California Digital 
Library, and the University of California Press, this Web 
site contains reliable texts, accurate and exhaustive notes, 
and the most recently discovered letters and documents. 
Its ultimate purpose is to produce fully annotated, digital 
editions of everything Mark Twain wrote. 

National Endowment tor tin 



CTE Standard 

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and 
non-print texts to build an understanding of 
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of 
the United States and the world; to acquire 
new information; to respond to the needs 
and demands of society and the workplace; 
and for personal fulfillment. Among these 
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and 
contemporary works. 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies 
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and 
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior 
experience, their interactions with other 
readers and writers, their knowledge of 
word meaning and of other texts, their 
word identification strategies, and their 
understanding of textual features (e.g., 
sound-letter correspondence, sentence 
structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 




Students apply knowledge of language 
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling 
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 


Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

10. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literary communities. 

12. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and 
develop your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


'He had discovered a great 
law of human action, without 
knowing it — namely, that in 
order to make a man or a 
boy covet a thing, it is only 
necessary to make the thing 
difficult to attain." 

from The Adventures of Mark Twain 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

A great nation deserves great art. 

'•>:• . .INSTITUTE of 

•.:•.. MuseurrUndLbrary