Tom Sawyer and the Politics of Failure
Tom’s antics at the end of Huckleberry Finn are in the service, ostensibly, of freeing Jim from his imprisonment and his slavery. But Jim is already free and Tom knows it. Tom antics than willingly prolong Jim’s imprisonment in order to demonstrate Tom’s intelligence by engaging in pseudo-events, as they would be called today. Tom demonstrates or thinks he demonstrates his power, playing at Jim’s liberation, but Tom’s machinations fail and almost get Tom, Jim, and Huck killed.
Not only are Tom’s antics un-necessary, even farcical, but fail on their own terms. Tom doesn’t demonstrate intelligence, if intelligence is understood as leading to success. Tom’s attempts to free Jim fail, even fail miserably.
Tom’s antics are thoroughly determined by his “book learning,” by his “education,” as it were, in “the classics.” So Tom’s education also doesn’t lead to freedom for Jim. Tom’s education is also a failure as he doesn’t accomplish, perhaps cannot accomplish what he wants to accomplish. His education is essentially sterile, even impotent.
Tom practices what might be called “a politics of failure.” That is, Tom does not achieve success regarding Jim’s liberation, even while achieving success in the sense of gaining an enhanced, even premier reputation, becoming famous, being quoted, and having his life glorified – a process that Twain accomplished with his novel insofar as Tom is seen by many as a model that Americans should follow. Ton is, in the minds of many who have read Twain’s novel, rightly “the model boy of the village.”
As this indicates, Tom’s failures, his deceptions, his frauds, even when revealed don’t undermine his reputation. “We the people” like Tom and his actions even though these actions are deceptive, fraudulent [his winning the prize Bible and like his “death” and “resurrection”], and even dangerously farcical [like his attempts to liberate Jim]. And for some reason, my imagination runs to people like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, as other deceivers and frauds who became “the model boys of the village.”