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:
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:
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:
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.