Revealed: Mark Twain's Boozy Muse

By May Wilkerson 10/02/12

The novelist may have based Tom Sawyer on an old drinking buddy by the same name, claims a new analysis.

Mark Twain's inspiration for Tom Sawyer has
been hotly contested.
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Mark Twain may have based Tom Sawyer, the daredevilish protagonist of his most famous novel, on an old drinking buddy, according to a new analysis from Smithsonian. The inspiration behind the character has long been disputed, but writer Robert Graysmith claims the original Sawyer was a "stocky, round-faced…customs inspector, volunteer fireman, special policeman and bona fide local hero" of the same name, who allegedly met Twain (real name Sam Clemens) in a San Francisco steam room in 1863. The two became close chums and would hang out at the Blue Wing [saloon], drinking, swapping stories from the past, and "spinning yarns." Twain, who was a journalist at the time, "could drink more and talk more than any feller I ever seen," Graysmith quotes the real Tom Sawyer as saying of his literary bar mate. "He'd set down and take a drink…and then when somebody'd buy him another drink, he'd keep up all day." According to Graysmith, in the midst of a "momentous bender," Twain once told his new friend: "Tom, 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…he was just such a boy as you must have been." 

The great American novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was published in 1876, years after the author would have parted ways with his old boozing buddy. When asked later on about the inspiration behind his impish hero, Twain said "[Tom Sawyer] was not the real name…of any person I ever knew, so far as I can remember." Whether that account was truth, denial, or the result of drinking-induced memory loss would take a time machine to prove. But if Sawyer's recollection was true—and not a "yarn"—then he really was the novelist's muse. "[Twain] would listen to these pranks of mine with great interest and he'd occasionally take 'em down in his notebook," said Sawyer according to an 1898 newspaper. "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,' I said, 'but don't disgrace my name'."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.