With the publishing of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain introduced the two immortal characters of Tom and Huckleberry to the "Hall of Fame" of American literature, as well as re-invented the traditional frontier tale. Written around 1870, the novel initially began as a series of letters from Twain to an old friend (Letters to Will Bowen) about their boyhood pranks, schooldays, and childhood mischief. In his preface, the author notes that Tom Sawyer is drawn from real life, but is a combination "of the characteristics of three boys whom he) knew?" With recollections fresh in his memory, it is supposed that Twain completed the work of Americana rather quickly, at the rate of 50 pages per day.
Published in England several months before distribution in the United States, Tom Sawyer still remains Twain's top-selling book, considered a popular classic for all ages. Ironically, Twain wrote to his publisher: "It is not a boy's book, at all. It will only be read by adults. It is only written for adults."
The novel describes the youthful adventures of the young protagonist, who embodies the ideal of American youth during the frontier era that preceded Industrialization. Critics agree that the story is often overshadowed by the novel's sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; but there is no doubt that Tom Sawyer is considered among one of the greatest pieces of American fiction, particularly with Twain's exceptional ability to capture the "idylls of boyhood" with such vivid and dramatic detail.
This sense of innocence and youthfulness that pervades the work is in extreme contrast with the pessimistic attitude for which Twain was known. Made popular by his sayings and anecdotes as much as his works of literature, the author often doted upon the weak nature of man, citing his inherent selfishness and his obsession with monetary value. As an idealist who saw his ideals betrayed by a morally corrupt society, Twain seems to use Tom as a symbol of the transition between the world of adults and children, the society where justice is served versus a social network lacking all scruples.
Although based on Twin's own personal experiences as a child, critics have suggested several other sources for the novel, including Southwestern humorist, George W. Harris. However, the novel is clearly indicative of the folklore surrounding life on the Mississippi River. Tom's adventures are closely tied with ghost lore, haunted houses, witchcraft, and animal lore; this theme of the superstition and folklore is a common thread in many of Twain's works and exhibits his firsthand knowledge of the popular beliefs of inhabitants of the Mississippi Valley.
Similarly, the essence of small-town life is captured perfect in Twain's writing with his use of colloquial syntax and diction. Critics often comment on the accuracy at which Twain was able to record various modes of speech, revealing a patient his keen ear for dialects. Many attribute Twain's use of the vernacular to his background as a frontier writer and humorist, where realism was a defining characteristic of the style. In using their "natural speech," Twain is able to present his characters in a truthful light to the reader in a language that is both vivid and clear at the same time.
There are critics, however, who have chided Twain for his lack of reality in the novel. The lingo, they argue, of the boys are incorrect and with each twist of the plot, the story become more outrageous, losing the reader in a pile of dramatic wish-wash. Many claim The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was an example of Twain's "escapism" from a society from which he felt alienated. But even these voices agree that there is a kind of magic about the novel and that at least in its atmosphere and setting, Twain has remained truthful.