Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tom Sawyer and Charles Dickens

I have recently started on my way through that worthy, well-worn tome of English literature, David Copperfield by Mr. Charles Dickens. I have seen my way through "I am born," "I am sent away from home," "I try opium and really like it," etc. and I have found everything to be to my liking. Most overwhelming are the characters: they just keep coming at you, and each of them seems ready and willing to take a comfortable seat and tell you a story of his life as long as the present volume. It seems he (the author) could not help endowing endearing interest, mystery and magic into all his characters, no matter how minor.

Take William, for example, a waiter the young David meets on his way to boarding school. While dining at an inn along his way, and blushing all over from the grand attention shown him, the young master is easily taken in by this William. The ale in little Davey's half-pint, it turns out, is poisonous -- why, it already killed a "Mr. Topsawyer" about a week ago. And since the inn management does not like to see anything wasted, the only possibility is for William to drink it instead. He soon grows queasy -- or says he does -- but no matter: David is having chops and potatoes, the only thing in the world that can cure this kind of poisoning... Things continue in this manner until William is quite satiated with his meal and the reader likewise with this little bit of parlor trickery.

What caught my eye was the name: Mr. Topsawyer. Sounds an awful like Tom Sawyer, doesn't it? And William's little bit of trickery fit nicely into the mold now so epitomized by Twain's boyish rogue, especially his little turn with whitewashing the fence... I had to know more so I put on my "Junior History Detective" badge and dove into the Net.

First things first: David Copperfield, originally published in 1850, preceded Tom Sawyer by 26 years. The lives of Mr. Twain and Mr. Dickens over-lapped approximately 35 years, and most of those saw the (presumably eternally mustachioed) younger writer still in literary diapers. The two met exactly once -- and "met" is hardly the word I'd consider best: "Twain, writing as a special correspondent of the San Francisco Alta California in January 1868, filed this report after seeing a public reading by Dickens at the Steinway Hall in New York. Twain was 32 years old at the time, Dickens a very old 55." This bit of writing is certainly not Twain's best, but his obvious reverence for the older man -- seen through the playful mockery and only natural hero defacement -- leaves within the realm of the possible the idea that Twain based his character at least in part on Dickens's work.

The origin of Topsawyer: As is common enough knowledge, sawyer is another, more archaic name for a woodcutter. This old-fashioned profession went hand-in-band with the sawpit, "a pit over which lumber is positioned to be sawed with a long two-handled saw by two men, one standing above the timber and the other below." I am given to believe that the man standing in the pit was known as the bottom-sawyer and the one standing on the log was the top-sawyer. The top-sawyer seems to have had the nicer, much less dangerous position -- the phrase having the upper hand comes to mind -- which, by extension, he may have acquired through conniving means.

If this does not suit you, I have another lead. A note from an Oxford World's Classics edition of Nicholas Nickelby has this to say about the term top-sawyer: "Norfolk slang for a skilled timber man, who may earn double the wages of other workers; by extension a 'top-sawyer' refers to a master genius in any profession." And as Sawyer became a fairly common occupational surname in England and its former colonies, it is not difficult to imagine some of the best of these men earning the surname Topsawyer... Then, it is not hard to imagine Twain separating the name into two and changing one measly letter

The "real" Tom Sawyer: My research was further complicated by the discovery of the existence of the handsome bloke on the left. What you might call the "real" Tom Sawyer, this man is most remembered for having an adventurous life, as well as the good fortune of becoming acquainted with the great Mississippi author.

A typical wandering, Westward soul, Tom tried his hand at gold prospecting, and distinguished himself as a hero -- rescuing some ninety people from a burning ship just off the "Southern coast" -- before turning out a successful career as a fireman.

Certainly, this Tom seems the sort liable to be of interest to Mr. Twain -- and, one fancies, perhaps his name had just the right ring to it. But we can't be sure: "Twain scholars, including Barbara Schmidt of Tarleton University have been unable to verify any claim that Mark Twain named his book for this particular Tom Sawyer."

We can't be sure is the operative phrase for all of this. I am merely a junior detective, remember -- and, you can't forget, even top-sawyers make mistakes. This web could very well be entirely of my own making, constructed more out of willing than waying. So, please admire the art work -- but don't touch. Works of art like this are so very terribly fragile.


  1. I am listening to David Copperfield on tape and thought I heard the name "Tom Sawyer" which led me to google to see if there was a connection. Thank you for having the same thought - on a more chimerical connection (topsawyer/tom sawyer) and doing some detective work: unresolved, but interesting. And I am enjoying D. Copperfield immensely as well.