Tom Sawyer: Hero of Middle America

Interpretation, Spring 1972. Reprinted in The Conditions of Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).


Tom Sawyer, master of the noble lie, is the master figure of American literature, the character in whom, more than in any other, Americans fancy themselves to be reflected and idealized. Not Captain Ahab, pursuing the great white whale, or Walter Mitty at the bridge of the destroyer, but Tom Sawyer playing hooky comes closest to our aspirations for glory. To be described as having a “Tom Sawyer grin” is an accolade of immeasurable value to any rising politician. In recent years the man to whom this epithet was most frequently applied was the late President, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is a curious revelation of the American soul that the reflection of his Kansas childhood in his boyish smile and wave of the arms conveyed more of the reassurance the repubhc sought from his leadership than any specific achievement of his later life. We are a democratic people, and democracies love equality above all else, as Alexis de Tocqueville so forcefully pointed out so long ago. We tend to equalize the distinctions based upon wealth and birth, but we tend also to equalize those based upon age.

Interpretation [pdf]