Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, and grew up in nearby Hannibal, a small Mississippi River town. Hannibal would become the model for St. Petersburg, the fictionalized setting of Twain’s two most popular novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The young Clemens grew up in a prosperous family—his father owned a grocery store as well as a number of slaves—but he was sent out to work at the age of twelve after his father’s death. As a young man, he traveled frequently, working as a printer’s typesetter and as a steamboat pilot. In this latter profession he gained familiarity with the river life that would furnish much material for his writing. He also gained his pen name, Mark Twain, which is a measure of depth in steamboat navigation.
Twain enlisted in the Confederate militia in 1861, early in the Civil War, but he soon left to pursue a career in writing and journalism in Nevada and San Francisco. His articles and stories became immensely popular in the decades that followed. On the strength of this growing literary celebrity and financial success, he moved east in the late 1860s and married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a prominent Elmira, New York, family. Twain and Langdon settled in Hartford, Connecticut; there Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which he published in 1876. Twain proceeded to write, among other things, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and two sequels to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896). He died in 1910, one of America’s most beloved humorists and storytellers.
While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer retains some of the fragmented, episodic qualities of Twain’s earlier, shorter pieces, the novel represents, in general, a significant literary departure for Twain. He toned down the large-scale social satire that characterized many of his earlier works, choosing instead to depict the sustained development of a single, central character. Twain had originally intended for the novel to follow Tom into adulthood and conclude with his return to St. Petersburg after many years away. But he was never able to get his hero out of boyhood, however, and the novel ends with its protagonist still preparing to make the transition into adult life.
Twain based The Adventures of Tom Sawyer largely on his personal memories of growing up in Hannibal in the 1840s. In his preface to the novel, he states that “[m]ost of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred” and that the character of Tom Sawyer has a basis in “a combination . . . of three boys whom I knew.” Indeed, nearly every figure in the novel comes from the young Twain’s village experience: Aunt Polly shares many characteristics with Twain’s mother; Mary is based on Twain’s sister Pamela; and Sid resembles Twain’s younger brother, Henry. Huck Finn, the Widow Douglas, and even Injun Joe also have real-life counterparts, although the actual Injun Joe was more of a harmless drunk than a murderer.
Unlike Twain’s later masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer concerns itself primarily with painting an idyllic picture of boyhood life along the Mississippi River. Though Twain satirizes adult conventions throughout The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he leaves untouched certain larger issues that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores critically. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer never deals directly with slavery, for example, and, while the town’s dislike of Injun Joe suggests a kind of small-town xenophobia (fear of foreigners or outsiders), Injun Joe’s murders more than justify the town’s suspicion of him. Because it avoids explicit criticism of racism, slavery, and xenophobia, the novel has largely escaped the controversy over race and language that has surrounded The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To this day, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains perhaps the most popular and widely read of all Twain’s works.