Norman Rockwell Illustrates Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn (1936–1940)

Sawyer 1

There’s no get­ting around it: Nor­man Rock­well was a square. There’s also no get­ting around the fact that his career helped define the way main­stream Amer­i­cans saw them­selves for decades. And while an artist like Rockwell—so steeped in nos­tal­gia, so lack­ing in irony and a taste for transgression—might have fad­ed into com­plete irrel­e­vance amidst the tumult of the six­ties, the oppo­site in fact occurred. Instead of pale, freck­le-faced scamps and neigh­bor­ly civ­il ser­vants, Rock­well paint­ed like­ness­es of world lead­ers like Nehru and Nass­er, as well as a now icon­ic sym­bol of the Civ­il Rights strug­gle on a 1964 Look mag­a­zine cov­er.

Sawyer 2

The six­ties Rock­well, though still very much a pur­vey­or of small town Amer­i­cana, became a some­what weight­i­er fig­ure, even if he nev­er gained (or sought) accep­tance in the art world. But we might think of Rock­well as work­ing on two reg­is­ters through­out his career—as the PG-rat­ed painter of mis­chie­vous, child­ish nice­ness, and the earnest com­men­ta­tor on mores and val­ues in adult soci­ety. In a way, these two sides of America’s most pop­u­lar illus­tra­tor mir­ror those of the nation’s most pop­u­lar writer, Mark Twain. Though sep­a­rat­ed by a gen­er­a­tion, the two, writes the Mark Twain House & Museum’s web­site, are “twinned in many ways in the pub­lic con­scious­ness.”

Sawyer 3

In part, this is because Rock­well illus­trat­ed for Her­itage Press two of Twain’s most famous books, The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer in 1936 and The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn in 1940. Above, see three of Rockwell’s illus­tra­tions from Tom Sawyer and, below, one from his Huck Finn. The dif­fer­ences between the two books (so hilar­i­ous­ly con­trast­ed by Louis CK), could stand for the two sides of both Twain and Rock­well. As the Mark Twain House puts it, “some crit­ics have dis­missed [Twain and Rockwell’s] work as light­weight, blithe­ly ignor­ing the impor­tant state­ments they made on race.” Tom Sawyer is a light­weight book, the work of Twain the pop­u­lar humorist. (Twain him­self would say, “my books are water: those of the great genius­es are wine. Every­body drinks water.”) Huck Finn on the oth­er hand is a seri­ous adult nov­el with seri­ous adult themes. For all of its flaws, it makes an admirable attempt to iden­ti­fy with and faith­ful­ly ren­der the plight of enslaved peo­ple.

Huck Finn Rockwell

Twain’s great strength as a seri­ous writer was his wealth of empa­thy, a qual­i­ty Rock­well man­i­fest­ed as well. In fact, in order to best rep­re­sent Twain’s books, the illus­tra­tor trav­eled to their set­ting, Han­ni­bal, Mis­souri, where he “acquired a new respect for the char­ac­ters,” writes the Nor­man Rock­well Muse­um. “The longer I worked at the task,” Rock­well wrote, “the more in love with the dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties I became.” Illus­tra­tion and design blog Today’s Inspi­ra­tion points out that Rock­well pur­chased old clothes from the Han­ni­bal locals to “soak up the atmos­phere”: “Of all the illus­tra­tors (and there were quite a few) that illus­trat­ed these nov­els in the past, Rock­well was the first to vis­it Mark Twain’s home town. In typ­i­cal Rock­well fash­ion, no amount of detail or research was ignored, faked or quick­ly glossed over.”

Sawyer 4

Today’s Inspi­ra­tion zooms in on details from sev­er­al of the Tom Sawyer paint­ings to show the fine, almost Ver­meer-like atten­tion Rock­well lav­ished on each illus­tra­tion. The exten­sive exam­i­na­tion of these ear­ly Rock­well clas­sics makes a good case for the folksy illus­tra­tor as a “sto­ry­telling genius with pal­let and brush.” Rock­well may be dis­missed as a cre­ator of kitsch, and in some cas­es the charge is jus­ti­fied, but—like Twain—even his lighter work depend­ed on a fine atten­tion to details of set­ting and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that make his work mem­o­rable and mov­ing, in its corni­est and its weight­i­est moments.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

50,000 Nor­man Rock­well Pho­tographs Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

Bill Mur­ray Gives a Delight­ful Dra­mat­ic Read­ing of Twain’sHuckleberry Finn (1996)

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Simon Lépine says:

    … very nice text Mis­ter Jones !
    Thank you ! I love Rock­well.

  • Chris Lawrence says:

    “For all of its flaws, it makes an admirable attempt to iden­ti­fy with and faith­ful­ly ren­der the plight of enslaved peo­ple.” Could be seen as damn­ing with faint praise, con­sid­er­ing the book is one of the great­est works of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture?

  • Wm. Goodenough says:

    I am look­ing for the pic­ture of Tom and his pack. Can you help me? Thanks

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