September 28, 2012


The Adventures of the Real Tom Sawyer : Mark Twain prowled the rough-and-tumble streets of 1860s San Francisco with a hard-drinking, larger-than-life fireman (Robert Graysmith, October 2012, Smithsonian magazine)

On September 28, Sawyer and Twain went on a momentous bender. "Mark was as much sprung as I was," Sawyer recalled, "and in a short time we owned the City, cobblestones and all." They made the rounds of the Montgomery Street saloons, growing more expansive as they spent most of the night drinking brandy at the Blue Wing and the Capitol Saloon. "Toward mornin' Mark sobered up a bit and we all got to tellin' yarns," Sawyer said. The sun was up by the time the two called it a night.

"The next day I met Mark down by the old Call office," Sawyer continued. "He walks up to me and puts both hands on my shoulders. 'Tom,' he says, 'I'm going to write a book about a boy and the kind I have in mind was just about the toughest boy in the world. Tom, he was just such a boy as you must have been....How many copies will you take, Tom, half cash?'"

Sawyer did not take him seriously. He got to the firehouse on Fourth Street and tried to sleep off his hangover in a back room. Twain went home, slept and then wrote his sister. "I would commence on my book," he wrote. He had already spoken of his ambitious literary plan to write a novel to his brother Orion, cautioning him to say nothing of it. [...]

Viola Rodgers, a reporter at Twain's old paper, the Call, interviewed Tom Sawyer on October 23, 1898. She was intrigued by what Twain had written in a postscript to the book: "Most of the characters that perform in this book still live and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worthwhile to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present."

She reached the old-fashioned Mission Street saloon just to the east side of the Mint. "Over the door hangs a sign which reads 'The Gotham--Tom Sawyer. Proprietor,'" she later wrote. "To a casual observer that name means no more than if it were 'Jack Brown' or 'Tom Jones,' but to Mark Twain it meant the inspiration for his most famous work. For the jolly old fireman sitting in there in an old fashioned haircloth chair is the original Tom Sawyer....This real, live, up-to-date Tom Sawyer spends his time telling stories of former days while he occasionally mixes a brandy and soda or a cocktail." The walls were completely covered with helmets, belts, election tickets, badges, hooks, bugles, nozzles, mementos and other firefighting paraphernalia. "Next to his badges of his fire company, Tom Sawyer values his friendship with Mark Twain, and he will sit for hours telling of the pranks they used to play and of the narrow escapes they had from the police. He is fond of reminiscing and recalling the jolly nights and days he used to spend with Sam--as he always calls him."

"You want to know how I came to figure in his books, do you?" Sawyer asked. "Well, as I said, we both was fond of telling stories and spinning yarns. Sam, he was mighty fond of children's doings and whenever he'd see any little fellers a-fighting on the street, he'd always stop and watch 'em and then he'd come up to the Blue Wing and describe the whole doings and then I'd try and beat his yarn by telling him of the antics I used to play when I was a kid and say, 'I don't believe there ever was such another little devil ever lived as I was.' Sam, he would listen to these pranks of mine with great interest and he'd occasionally take 'em down in his notebook. One day he says to me: 'I am going to put you between the covers of a book some of these days, Tom.' 'Go ahead, Sam,' I said, 'but don't disgrace my name.'"

"But [Twain's] coming out here some day," Sawyer added, "and I am saving up for him. When he does come there'll be some fun, for if he gives a lecture I intend coming right in on the platform and have a few old time sallies with him."

The nonfictional character died in the autumn of 1906, three and a half years before Twain. "Tom Sawyer, Whose Name Inspired Twain, Dies at Great Age," the newspaper headline announced. The obituary said, "A man whose name is to be found in every worthy library in America died in this city on Friday....So highly did the author appreciate Sawyer that he gave the man's name to his famous boy character. In that way the man who died Friday is godfather, so to speak, of one of the most enjoyable books ever written."

Sawyer's saloon was destroyed that same year--by fire.

Posted by at September 28, 2012 7:28 PM

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