The Pipes of Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer is an icon of American literature, among the most loved characters to emerge from an American pen. We all know the basic story, and many of us read Tom Sawyer when we were young. It helped shape the way we thought about childhood, and I bet many are just like me: Tom Sawyer influenced the way I lived.

I read Mark Twain's book when I was around 10, three years younger than Tom and Huck, and I found myself enjoying summer vacation a lot more. I was outside and barefoot night and day, getting into scrapes and trouble and adventuring as best I could with my own friends, though we never equaled Tom Sawyer's exploits.

I dove from ridiculous heights into a precariously small swimming hole, and climbed the tallest trees and disintegrating shale cliffs; I swam across the lake knowing I'd never swum that distance, and rode my bike on the big conveyor belts straddling earthen pits a hundred feet deep at the local sand and gravel pit. Leap from the barn roof into a snowbank? Sure. Like many others who idolized Tom Sawyer, I suspect, I looked for adventure everywhere, always enhanced with a little imagination.

Tom Sawyer made my early teens a little more dangerous, but a lot more fun. I even tried a pipe around that time, one of my father's. It was awful, and that one time was enough until I grew up, but I experienced something that was important to Tom Sawyer. After college I went further, all the way to New Orleans to work on the Mississippi Queen and experience the river similarly to the way that Mark Twain had. And of course, just a couple of years later when I bought my first pipe, Tom Sawyer and Sam Clemens were perched in my mind.

Tom Sawyer didn't maintain a pipe collection, but he had his favorites. He especially loved corncobs, with a special affection for those that were broken in and well used. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain admirably portrays youthful exuberance as it was in the 19th century, when many rules for kids were different and there was more freedom, it seemed, than in modern times. Tom and Huck and Joe Harper had exciting adventures while rafting and fishing, camping and cave exploring, pretending to be pirates and swashbucklers of all types and levels of disrepute.

Tom's very first pipe was made for him by his friend Huck Finn. Huck and Tom and Joe Harper were on Jackson's Island when Tom and Joe decided they wanted to try smoking, so Huck obliged them in Chapter 16 of Tom Sawyer. He'd brought some cobs along to fashion into pipes and quickly prepared them for his friends:

Tom said he wanted to learn to smoke, now. Joe caught at the idea and said he would like to try, too. So Huck made pipes and filled them. These novices had never smoked anything before but cigars made of grape-vine, and they "bit" the tongue, and were not considered manly anyway. Now they stretched themselves out on their elbows and began to puff, charily, and with slender confidence. The smoke had an unpleasant taste, and they gagged a little, but Tom said:

"Why, it's just as easy! If I'd a knowed this was all, I'd a learnt long ago."

"So would I," said Joe. "It's just nothing."

The three went on smoking, with Tom and Joe exclaiming about how easy and natural it was, and feeling superior about it, and imagining how amazed their other friends would be when they casually smoked their pipes as naturally as breathing. Their bravado waned, however, as their eyes began tearing and their salivary glands became ambitious. Each quietly excused himself and went off into the woods to be sick and fall asleep, leaving Huck contentedly smoking by himself and wondering where everyone had gone.

Later, when the amateurs woke from their first tobacco experience and it was dinner time, Huck thoughtfully prepared the meal for his friends. "They were not talkative at supper that night," writes Twain. "They had a humble look, and when Huck prepared his pipe after the meal and was going to prepare theirs, they said no, they were not feeling very well—something they ate at dinner had disagreed with them."

The first time I read that, I had not yet had my first and only experience with Samuel Gawith's 1792. But when I reread it some years after that unfortunate event, I finally knew what Twain was describing. I finally understood what those boys were going through.

But Tom became much more comfortable with smoking as time passed, and indeed became the quintessential pipe smoker. Later in the novel, after the boys return to Hannibal to attend their own funerals after letting the town think that they had drowned in the Mississippi, Tom and Joe resume life in town but now as seasoned pipe smokers:

At school the children made so much of him [Tom] and of Joe, and delivered such eloquent admiration from their eyes, that the two heroes were not long in becoming insufferably "stuck-up." They began to tell their adventures to hungry listeners—but they only began; it was not a thing likely to have an end, with imaginations like theirs to furnish material. And finally, when they got out their pipes and went serenely puffing around, the very summit of glory was reached.

For Tom, pipe smoking is not only a means of achieving clearer thought and relaxation, but is emblematic of adulthood, adventure, and the reach beyond childhood and into the murky future of maturity. Huck is the more practical of the two. For him, pipe smoking is something he likes and can afford, and in a more literary sense it contributes to a nuance of social impropriety and an indication of his otherness. Above all, however, it is a symbol of his independence.

Tom is a more seasoned and experienced pipe smoker in Twain's novel, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), in which Tom and his friends pilot a hot air balloon around the world. Huck Finn narrates the story, and relates what happens when adventure is interrupted by smoking necessities:

But we had an accident, now, and it fetched all the plans to a standstill. Tom's old ornery corn-cob pipe had got so old and swelled and warped that she couldn't hold together any longer, notwithstanding the strings and bandages, but caved in and went to pieces. Tom he didn't know WHAT to do. The professor's pipe wouldn't answer; it warn't anything but a mershum, and a person that's got used to a cob pipe knows it lays a long ways over all the other pipes in this world, and you can't git him to smoke any other. He wouldn't take mine, I couldn't persuade him. So there he was.

He thought it over, and said we must scour around and see if we could roust out one in Egypt or Arabia or around in some of these countries, but the guide said no, it warn't no use, they didn't have them. So Tom was pretty glum for a little while, then he chirked up and said he'd got the idea and knowed what to do. He says:

"I've got another corn-cob pipe, and it's a prime one, too, and nearly new. It's laying on the rafter that's right over the kitchen stove at home in the village. Jim, you and the guide will go and get it, and me and Huck will camp here on Mount Sinai till you come back."

Tom does some ciphering and determines that the round trip will be 48 hours. "Come, now, hustle out some blankets and food and books and things for me and Huck, and you can start right along. There ain't no occasion to fool around—I want a smoke, and the quicker you fetch that pipe the better."

That's how important it is to Tom that he have a pipe, and not any old pipe, but a particular kind of pipe, a corncob, and one that he has partly broken in and knows. He's particular, and willing to wait two days and send his friends halfway around the world. Tom would certainly be welcome in any of our pipe clubs, were he an adult. He is an emblematic pipe smoker, and most of us have known him since we were his age. More than that, Tom Sawyer is a smoker who knows what he likes and will accept no less.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Corn Cob History Literature Pipe Culture


    • LV on October 16, 2020
    • A big smile on my face after reading the article. And I am dreaming of getting home to end the week with my pipe. Cheers CStanion and SPipes team, LV

    • Maxwell Eaton on October 18, 2020
    • I just found myself rushing to complete this article, si I could run to fetch my pipe! Thank you for the fun article about a true American Idle!

    • Phil Wiggins on October 18, 2020
    • Awesome A!!!

    • Bill Cook on October 18, 2020
    • Wonderful essayNever read Tom Sawyer Abroadbut definitely do so nowKeep writing, Chuck!

    • James Sanford on October 18, 2020
    • Nice work. I have been researching stage, screen and TV adaptations of TOM SAWYER for a book, and it's remarkable how many of the hundreds of projects I have read and watched deviate from Twain by not allowing Tom to smoke. Many of them include the scene with Tom and Joe getting sick from their first pipes, but almost none of them detail what happens later, when Tom and Joe smoke a peace pipe with Huck after their Indian battles and find they actually like smoking after all, or the "summit of glory" scene you mentioned (the only time I have seen that dramatized was in the excellent 1960 BBC mini-series, which is almost impossible to find). At first I thought this was a modern development, but it's not: In the 1930 film of TOM SAWYER and its 1931 sequel HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Jackie Coogan's goody-goody Tom never so much as touches a pipe, even though Junior Durkin's Huck (one of the all-time best Hucks) smokes frequently. Similarly, Tommy Kelly is not permitted a single whiff in the 1938 THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, which is odd because all of the movie's tie-in books include the scene in which Tom and Joe learn to smoke. It's a peculiar omission because, as anyone who has read Twain's novel knows, Tom and Huck smoke together numerous times in the second half of the book and continue to do so in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, TOM SAWYER ABROAD and TOM SAWYER, DETECTIVE. My suspicion is that producers feared calls for censorship or accusations of encouraging kids to smoke if they opted to be faithful to Twain's version of the character.

    • DAVID SOMMER on October 19, 2020
    • I can totally agree with all that is said in this essay. I was the same way as a kid, because I had an Uncle who was indeed a pipe smoker. I tasted one of his pipes and "yuck" but later in life I would savor a pipe with him after a well made dinner. Thank you Uncle George!!!!!!!!!

    • Mark on October 20, 2020
    • Thank you for this. I grew up near the Mississippi (although farther north than Mark Twain), and to say that Tom and Huck, and their author, fueled my imagination and meant a lot to me would be an understatement.

    • Jon DeCles on October 21, 2020
    • Well, now I know why I enjoy reading your writing so much, Chuck! You are coming from the source.Twain has been periodically taking over my body for performances since 1972: mainly the young Twain of his California days, but on occasion the more mature man. Let me say you are doing him proud. Your tongue remains planted firmly where it ought to be. I envy you to have worked on the Queen!

    • Jon DeCles on October 21, 2020
    • Well, now I know why I enjoy reading your writing so much, Chuck! You are coming from the source.Twain has been periodically taking over my body for performances since 1972: mainly the young Twain of his California days, but on occasion the more mature man. Let me say you are doing him proud. Your tongue remains planted firmly where it ought to be. I envy you to have worked on the Queen!

    • Phil Morgan on October 22, 2020
    • Excellent article as usual, Chuck! I share Tom's reverence for the corn cob pipe. Every once in a while I smoke a briar pipe just to remind myself how much I prefer a corn cob. Being the General Manager of Missouri Meerschaum Company has nothing to do with this.

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