What Insight Did Tom Sawyer Possess?

Can a picket fence teach human behavior, or does that require an author?

The book Tom Sawyer is a classic and is relevant today as the day it was written. Like many other successful creative properties, it works because it holds a mirror up to us as individuals and to human society in general. It’s appeal lies in the fact that it is grounded in aspects of human behavior that are nearly universal. Whether Inuit, peasants working rice paddys, computer programmers, truck drivers or virtually anyone else that has interacted with other humans, Clemens’ readers will be bound to find something that fits their experiences within the pages of Tom Sawyer.

Of course Tom Sawyer was a fictional character so we must actually ascribe his insights to the author, Mark Twain. But Mark Twain was also a fictional character, an alter ego of Samuel Clemens, so with regard to insights, we are in fact talking about Clemens; which is good, because Clemens had been a place or two and seen a thing or two.

Rivers were the superhighways of the day

Clemens grew up in Hannibal, MO, which was a port on the Mississippi. In the nineteenth century, the river was a major source of commerce for the interior of the country and virtually everything exciting that happened was bound to have arrived via the river. Riverboat pilots had the social cache later enjoyed by astronauts during the early years of the Manned Space Program, and Clemens eventually became a pilot himself. His pen name of Mark Twain was derived from a vocal abbreviation used to denote that water was two fathoms (6 feet) deep. Two fathoms was the minimum depth considered to be safe for a riverboat. So “Mark Twain” could be thought of as “safe waters”, in other words, it had a very positive connotation.

Growing up on the river, in a port town and then becoming a pilot would have been enough in itself, but Clemens lived in the presence of a lot of history, he saw slavery first hand and saw the Civil War. He moved west to Nevada when it was little more than a collection of mining camps. He went on to San Francisco and eventually Hawaii. He had a front row seat for many events that shaped the U.S. and saw firsthand what did and what did not work. Most importantly, he saw all sorts of people, from slaves to shoeless Confederate soldiers in a brutal war, to pioneers/miners/explorers and even Hawaiian natives before their island life was forever changed by outsiders.

Weaving from the common threads of humanity

By the time Tom Sawyer was written, Clemens had obviously seen enough to realize that humans operate as free-willed characters. Humans don’t respond to being herded, but like notoriously herding resistant cats, they do respond to incentive. Sardines work well for cats, all sorts of incentives work with humans, and some are considerably cheaper than sardines.

Its probably important to mention that, while being a riverboat pilot was quite high paying in the day, the prestige was off-scale and I’m certain that Clemens understood this. I also suspect that he realized the ephemeral nature of income and the much more lasting nature of prestige. To wit: a doorman is unlikely to brag about a tip, unless it is fabulously large, but you’ll almost certainly hear about having opened the door for a celebrity.

 Chapter One; Psych’ warfare at the dinner table

In the very first scene of the book, Tom is caught while attempting to evade capture by his aunt. Tom employs distraction saying; “My! Look behind you, aunt!” and escapes. Aunt Polly then gives a brief explanation of the fine points with which Tom applies his technique; “Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? . . . But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming. He ’pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick.” The trickery is layers deep and we’re only at page two. Tom tricked his aunt and she ends up feeling guilty about it. She also resolves to make her discipline stick, for the sake of the boy.

Suppertime is a battleground of psychological warfare until Tom’s elaborate deceit is pointed out by his do-gooder half-brother. Tom flees, contemplates his woes, then Clemens tosses in another piece of priceless information regarding the psyche; “Within two minutes, or even less, he had forgotten all his troubles. Not because his troubles were one whit less heavy and bitter to him than a man’s are to a man, but because a new and powerful interest bore them down and drove them out of his mind for the time.” Yes, even a master of psychology such as Tom suffers a short attention span and can be easily distracted.

Finally, the fence

People do everything they do for a number of reasons, but that number happens to be precisely one. You, I, world leaders, those on the bottom rung of society, literally everyone does everything that they do because they want to. In many, if not most cases, we are choosing the lesser of two evils, but the choice is still ours. If someone puts a gun to your head and demands your cash you are still giving your money voluntarily. It’s just that you want not to be shot a whole lot more than you want the money in your wallet. It remains free-will choice. We will eat a meal of unliked foods if it’s prepared by a loved one because we choose to spare their feelings over our desire to eat according to our tastes.

Persuasion, at least by one definition of the art, comes down to influencing someone to want the same thing that you do. They don’t have to want it for the same reasons, but they have to want something before they act to bring about the desired result. One example that comes to mind is a loud, fast talking man that advertised the car dealership he owned. The ads must have worked; he stayed in business, but I suspect that one reason they worked was that viewers wanted relief from his loud, obnoxious advertising. This is not to suggest that viewers thought that their purchase would stop him from advertising; they knew it would only encourage him. But if they bought a car from this loud person they could at least feel that he was talking loudly to other viewers and that they had complied. I will betray a personal view here and suggest that turning off the TV is much less costly, but that’s an entirely different matter.

On Saturday morning, Tom begins to whitewash the fence as punishment for having ditched school and gone swimming. He is immediately struck by the enormity of the task. He tries to buy help from Jim, a slave, but aunt Polly interrupts the transaction. He sees his friends, all free to enjoy the most beautiful Saturday morning in the history of springtime and he realizes that the only answer is to alter reality. His peer, Ben, comes along and gently taunts him for not being free to go swimming. Tom activates his reality distortion field by explaining that whitewashing the fence is far preferable to mundane swimming.

Ben: “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you LIKE it?”

The brush continued to move.

Tom: “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

Tom, “the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents.” By the time the whitewash was depleted, Tom had acquired all sorts of juvenile treasures and watched as several others did his work. “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.”

A relevant matter from upstream in terms of the Mississippi and downstream in terms of time

Dateline Minneapolis, MN, circa 1979: I noticed that Honda and Volkswagen dealers seemed to always claim a shortage of product, but in fact, there always seemed to be just one exception to this shortage and it just so happened to be available today; if you were willing to pay the price. In fact, it was common for dealers to add a window sticker of their own which has a creatively named line that reduced to a surcharge of pure profit based upon the “scarcity” of the item, or more correctly, the perceived scarcity of the item. There could be hundreds of cars waiting in plain sight, but these could be explained away as already sold, or some other untruth. What mattered, all that mattered, was the perceived shortage. The “shortage” reprioritized the customer’s concerns. They no longer cared about color or options, and they barely cared about price, because there was a “shortage” and they had to take advantage of this rare opportunity while it existed.

Tom Sawyer created a shortage of whitewashing opportunities and turned the tables on his friends. Ben asked to be allowed to whitewash and Tom raised the stakes by explaining that only a highly skilled boy could whitewash well enough to meet his aunt Polly’s standards. This was a second manipulation of reality and it used the unknown in the form of an unseen authority figure. Aunt Polly was the Sales Manager at the auto dealer, the emissary from the central office sent to inspect local operations or any other fictitious symbol of fear used to frighten others into submission. She did exist in reality, but the perception created in Ben’s mind was completely fictitious. In reality, had Aunt Polly appeared at that moment, Tom would be the one in trouble and Ben’s whitewashing skills will never become an issue.

Remember this the next time you buy a new car. The sales manager is, in actuality, much more frightening to the salesman than to the buyer. The sales manager wants to sell cars, the salesman wants to pad the price (and thereby their commission) making the sales manager is the perfect foil in creating this false perception.

Back to the book

Clemens notes: “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” He then goes on to relate that: “There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

It is also noteworthy that after Tom Sawyer collected considerable profits from this little enterprise he traded all of his treasures for “Sunday school tickets” which were then redeemed for a bible. This would lead to the impression that he had mastered and memorized many bible verses. He outsmarted his peers, became wealthy and exchanged his wealth for prestige. Tom was clever; but I think that Clemens had probably figured all of this out for himself, long before writing the book.

One modern-day picket fence

Flying an airplane is a demanding task. It looks like it would be fun, and indeed it can be, but it takes a lot of skill and training in order to do it safely. While there is an academic side to it, there is also the matter of skill that comes only with practice. Would-be airline pilots exert themselves in order to qualify for a job flying the big birds. They pay for initial flight training, then pay even more for a Commercial Certificate. They build experience (in the form of logbook hours) any way they can, including serving as a co-pilot free of charge, flying through ‘snow, rain and the gloom of night’ in order to have the opportunity to whitewash the fence serve on the flight crew of a transport category airliner.

But that’s not so bad. It serves a very positive purpose, because pilots that come up this way are truly dedicated and experienced before they are ever allowed on the flight deck of an airliner. Some airlines use ab initio training, which endeavors to train pilots, literally, from the ground up; teaching them to fly from their first lesson through to the point where they are qualified to fly an airliner. While this approach has the advantage of insuring that there are no gaps in the early training and experience, I don’t believe for a moment that it will produce pilots that are better at operating an airliner safely.

I’ve only had a couple of truly hairy experiences in light aircraft, but I can state with confidence that having a prop governor put itself into full increase while one is on long final for runway 35R on a night approach into Colorado Springs will definitely put some hair on your chest. I’m alive to write this, so I must’ve figured something out very quickly. That’s the kind of experience I want in the left sear of any airliner.

Right back where we started

This post started with Tom Sawyer, a character from the mind of Sam Clemens, who as a young man,  indentured himself to his instructor in order to become a riverboat pilot before he went on to a career as a writer. He created Tom Sawyer and used that character to tell the tale of whitewashing the fence. Clemens’ own comments indicate to my satisfaction that he had a very good understanding of human behavior. I doubt that he’d be taken in by a new car dealer claiming to face a shortage of vehicles. Essentially, he lived my description of how airline pilots learn and I’d be willing to bet that he’d agree with my conclusion that struggling one’s way into such a critical occupation brings many positives to the table. Riverboats were the airliners of Clemens’ world.

Clemens knew behavior because he had lived a very full life. He had wisdom gained through experience and probably more than a few hard knocks along the way. While his writing might seem a bit archaic from a 21st century viewpoint, his take on the issues remains useful in our day. He had lived in a world where slavery and oppression were common and learned of his own accord that these were wrong. Throughout his life, his opinions seemed to always end up opposing any sort of oppression, even though he may have initially been on the other side of some issues. What this suggests to me is that he was willing to side against oppression as soon as he saw it for what it truly was.

From our current point of view, all of this seems obvious, but considering the immersion of influences into which he was born this was extraordinary. There is a passage in Huckleberry Finn wherein Huck’ narrates his thoughts as he comes to the realization that Jim (a slave) has all of the same human feelings as he himself. I can’t help but think that Clemens was relating the process of his own awakening through the device of the character Huckleberry Finn. Just writing this brings a tear to my eye; for the human suffering caused by slavery but no less for the triumph of decency and humanity Clemens portrayed in this story.

Clemens knew people, understood human behavior and had the skill to make his understanding accessible to others in an entertaining and informative manner. The lesson of whitewashing the fence is quite valuable, but the lesson of Samuel Clemens himself is of greater value, in my opinion. He was a man that learned from life experience and applied those lessons to himself first, before trying to help others to learn the same lessons for themselves.

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