Huck and Tom Meet the Paisanos

by John W. Young

Graduate Student, San Diego State University

Contact Information:
Address: 8739 Central Way
Spring Valley, CA 91977

This Essay: © 1998 John William Young. All Rights Reserved.

This electronic text is from TwainWeb, the web service of the Mark Twain Forum

John Steinbeck claimed that he based Tortilla Flat on the "Arthurian cycle," the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (qtd. in Lisca 76). However, numerous parallels suggest that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were additional influences. This is not to say that the stories are the same, or that Steinbeck "copied" Twain. Rather, the stories share particular details that, when considered together with the charm, humorous tone, and anecdotal nature of Tortilla Flat, show Steinbeck emulated Twain in writing.

Two other critics also see connections between Twain and Steinbeck. In his essay "Steinbeck and Mark Twain," Sydney J. Krause discusses similarities between the lives and works of Steinbeck and Twain. He notes "relationships--analogues and similarities of ironic outlook--that exist between the two writers" (106). In examining Cannery Row, Jackson J. Benson views the two authors with a more specific focus than Krause. Benson explains that "Steinbeck came out of the same cultural tradition as Twain and adopted, for whatever reasons, many of the same values and attitudes" (15). Steinbeck has, Benson concludes, "taken Twain's place during the last few decades as the major spokesman" for "the 'folk tradition'" (16). Although both Krause and Benson cite Tortilla Flat, that novel is not their subject. My essay will show the similarities and parallels in characterization and plot that exist between Tortilla Flat and the Tom and Huck novels. Before claiming a Twainian influence on Steinbeck, it is important to establish that Steinbeck had read Twain's work.

In Steinbeck's Reading: A Catalogue of Books Owned and Borrowed, Robert J. DeMott reports that Steinbeck "read more of Twain than has generally been realized," and that a "brief paragraph in the holograph version of [Steinbeck's Travels with Charley] indicates that he had once memorized sections of Huck Finn" (177). Moreover, though Benson warns that "there is no direct biographical evidence that [he knows] of to suggest that Twain was an influence on Steinbeck," he does acknowledge that "according to his family [Steinbeck] probably read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn relatively early in life" ("Reconsideration" 15). Additionally, Benson reports that during the late 1920s Steinbeck "often read aloud to Catherine [Kemp, an employer's granddaughter], from books such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn" (Adventures 111). Given this information and the perpetual popularity of Twain's writings, it is reasonable to conclude that Steinbeck was familiar with the Tom and Huck novels before the mid-1930s, when he was writing Tortilla Flat.

Although Twain's novels deal with adolescents, while Steinbeck's novel deals with adults, the characters are a lot alike. One can see this by first comparing Danny with Huck, and then Pilon with Tom.

Both Danny and Huck live transient lives before they get their fortunes. Early in Tortilla Flat, the reader is told that Danny "preferred to sleep in the forest" and "to wrest his food and wine from an unwilling world" (3). Huck, who was "the juvenile pariah" (Sawyer 47) of St. Petersburg, "came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody" (48).

Fortunes change quickly for Danny and Huck, however. After returning from service in the army, Danny learns that he has inherited two houses from his grandfather. Huck saves the widow Douglas from Injun Joe's revenge, and, with Tom Sawyer, finds treasure in McDougal's cave. In appreciation, the widow Douglas adopts Huck and puts his half of the treasure ($6,000) "out at six per cent [sic]" (254).

The two characters do not entirely welcome their newly-gained wealth. Danny feels "a little weighed down with the responsibility" (Steinbeck 5) that his new role as landowner involves: "Pilon noticed that the worry of property was settling on Danny's face. No more in life would that face be free of care. No more would Danny break windows now that he had windows of his own to break" (13). Huck's "wealth and the fact that he was now under the widow Douglas's protection, introduced him into society--no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it--and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear" (Sawyer 255). Not unlike Danny, when Huck inherited his "wealth," "whithersoever [Huck] turned, the bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot" (255).

When the house that Danny "rented" to Pilon burns down, Danny is annoyed, but almost simultaneously he feels "relief that at least one of his burdens was removed" (Steinbeck 50). Danny had started to miss some qualities that his old lifestyle included because his new status had come at a price: Since he had property, the community, including the other paisanos, had new expectations of him; When he became wealthy and respectable, he was no longer "that Danny whom everyone loved" (51). The effects that wealth and respect could have upon his life worry Danny. He is afraid they will lead to the loss of his friends. Huck's new life causes him more than a little worry also. He is not used to the specifics that refinement involves, like cleanliness, "nice" clothes, good manners, education, church, and proper speech. While living at the widow's house, Huck is a stranger in a strange land. He feels lonely, much like Danny.

Danny's and Huck's dissatisfaction with the new complexity of their respective lives grows and they both decide to escape it. After the entire group of paisanos move in with Danny, they fall into a pattern of routine. Danny notices this and begins to resent in favor of his "lost" days before property--civilization--had tamed him:

Danny began to dream of the days of his freedom. He had slept in the woods in summer, and in the warm hay of barns when the winter cold was in. The weight of property was upon him. He remembered that the name of Danny was a name of storm. . . . Always the weight of the house was upon him; always the responsibility to his friends. (170)

Danny's longing for bygone days becomes more persistent: He "began to mope on the front porch, so that his friends thought him ill. . . . For a month he brooded, stared at the ground, looked with sullen eyes at his ubiquitous friends, kicked the friendly dogs out of his way" (170-1). Finally, he runs away. Huck also runs away--several times. The first time is a result of his dislike of the widow's effort to him, mentioned above. It occurs only three weeks after he is adopted. However, Tom Sawyer finds and persuades him to return to the widow. The second time (which forms the action of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) occurs for two reasons: because Miss Watson, the widow Douglas' sister, has moved in, and because Huck is kidnaped by his father. Although Huck feels threatened by the widow and the lifestyle she is "inflicting" on him, he feels more threatened by the strict Miss Watson, her ever-vigilant eyes, and her constant behavior-correcting. So, when Huck decides to escape from Pap Finn's cabin, return to the widow--and Miss Watson, in particular--is out of the question. Just like Danny before his inheritance, Huck was happiest on his own. Both characters' running away is an effort to recapture the carefree, happy days that they miss.

The two characters' time away from "civilization" is only temporary. Eventually, they reunite with their respective forms of civilization. Although he stays away for quite a while, and indulges in many rebellious adventures, Danny comes back to the paisanos' house. After he returns, the other paisanos continue to notice a difference in Danny. He is listless, as if he has lost the will to live, just as the behavior of animals sometimes changes in captivity:

Now he sat on his front porch in the sunlight, his blue-jeaned knees drawn up against his chest, his arms hanging over, his hands dangling from limp wrists, his head bent forward as though by a heavy black thought. His eyes had no light of desire nor displeasure nor joy nor pain. (186)

Like too many of those caged animals that die, nothing that Danny's friends do can save him from whatever is going on in his mind.

As mentioned, Huck returns from his first "escape" because Tom Sawyer convinces him to do so. However, the problems he has with living at the widow's home remain and seem worse because of the addition of Miss Watson to the household. In describing his life at the widow's, Huck says that "it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways" (Finn 1). Like Danny, Huck is disheartened with his life: "Miss Watson she kept pecking at me, and it got tiresome and lonesome. . . . I went up to my room with a piece of candle and put it on the table. Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn't no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead" (4). Thus, kidnaping by Pap is just the figurative tonic Huck needs to remedy his own situation. Huck can resist the temptation to go back to the widow's because there is a genuine danger that Pap will try to get him again. In running away the second time, Huck runs away from both his father and the efforts of the widow Douglas and Miss Watson to "sivilize" him. Much later, because Tom's aunt Sally tells him that she intends to adopt him, Huck says, "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory" (362) rather than again begin the cycle that previously led to his running away. In the end, Danny and Huck both give up on civilization: Danny does so internally, which explains his withdrawn behavior; Huck does so less subtly--literally running, swimming and rafting from it.

The Twainian influence is not found in the character of Danny only. Pilon, with his similarity to Tom Sawyer, also echoes Twain. Both characters are tricksters--naturally skilled in the art of persuasion. The secret of their success is the fact that they know how to get their friends to "buy" whatever it is they try to "sell." In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom displays his persuasive techniques in the fence-painting incident. As punishment for coming home late, he has to paint an entire fence on his day off. To a boy who wants to go out and play, any chore is equivalent to torture, especially when it is to be done on his one full day off: Tom "began to think of the fun he had planned for this day, and his sorrows multiplied" (Sawyer 12). But Tom quickly thinks of a way to get his day back, and to make a profit as well. As his first visitor, a boy named Ben, tries to figuratively dig into his nerves, Tom acts like there is no better thing in the world to do than paint. Shortly after that, Ben is begging him for a chance to help. Tom answers:

"Ben, I'd like to, honest injun; but aunt Polly--well Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn't let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn't let Sid. Now don't you see how I'm fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it--"

"Oh, shucks, I'll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say--I'll give you the core of my apple."

"Well, here--. No, Ben, now don't. I'm afeard--"

"I'll give you all of it!"

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face but alacrity in his heart. (15)

As other boys from Tom's neighborhood come by, they also want in on the "fun": "There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. . . . And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth" (15). Basically, Tom and his friends both get what they want: Tom does not want to paint, so he gets his friends to do the job; his friends want to have fun, and they think that painting is fun.

Likewise, in Tortilla Flat, Pilon practices persuasion on the other paisanos, particularly in relation to his renting Danny's extra house. Although the reader is told it "is impossible to say whether Danny expected any rent, or whether Pilon expected to pay any" (18), Pilon feels a tinge of remorse about the situation. His meeting Pablo, another paisano, is an opportunity to lessen the burdon of guilt that he carries. After a few drinks, he brings up the subject of living arrangements to Pablo. Pablo's life would be better if he had a roof over his head and a garden. After carefully setting his victim up, Pilon asks him if he would like to move into Danny's extra house as his roommate. Pablo agrees:

"Sure," said Pablo.

"Look, you will pay only fifteen dollars a month! And you may use all the house except my bed, and all the garden. Think of it, Pablo! And if someone should write you a letter, he will have some place to send it to."

"Sure," said Pablo. "That's swell."

Pilon sighed with relief. He had not realized how the debt to Danny rode on his shoulders. The fact that he was fairly sure Pablo would never pay any rent did not mitigate his triumph. If Danny should ever ask for money, Pilon could say, "I will pay when Pablo pays." (24)

Indeed, Danny never sees any rent money from either Pilon or Pablo. Later, his two friends shift the rent-responsibility to Jesus Maria, making him the scapegoat and getting a few dollars for wine as well. Though Tom's method of persuasion involves a kind of reverse-psychological approach, while Pilon's involves an appeal based on personal testimony, the result is the same: The respective responsibilities are shifted from one person to another down a line, with the person mainly responsible benefiting from the others--like a pyramid scheme, of sorts. If, as I believe, Steinbeck was recreating the painting incident into terms of the paisanos's world, then he did so excellently, retaining the humor and theme of hypocrisy, while adding to the character of Pilon.

Another sign of Twain's influence on Steinbeck is that Tom and Pilon both victimize other characters. A famous (and infamous) example of Tom doing this is in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, beginning in chapter thirty-three: Huck tells Tom about his fooling uncle and aunt Phelps into believing that he is Tom, and about the captured Jim. Tom agrees to help Huck free Jim. In order to do this, Tom tells Huck: "Now you work your mind and study out a plan to steal Jim, and I will study out one too; and we'll take the one we like the best" (Finn 291). Of course, because Huck looks up to Tom, Tom's idea wins out (in spite of its being both complicated and cruel). Any criticism Huck has for Tom's plan is countered in Huck's mind because Tom is educated and therefore must know better. In the end, it turns out that Jim had already been freed before Tom arrived at the Phelps'; Tom had been amusing himself at Jim's expense.

Just as Tom takes advantage of Jim, Pilon takes advantage of Pirate. Pilon deduces that Pirate has a great amount of money hidden away somewhere, and reasons that it is too much responsibility for the simple man to handle alone. Pilon convinces himself, and then the other paisanos, that it would be in Pirate's best interest if they manage his money for him. They could show Pirate how to spend it wisely--which includes spending plenty on wine. After trying several times to follow Pirate to his hiding place, the paisanos resort to an appeal to his sense of paranoia. The appeal works, and Pirate turns his money over to the care of the group. If not for Pirate's virtuous plan for his own money--to purchase a candlestick for the local church--Pilon's plot would have succeeded.

I have shown that Steinbeck had most likely read Twain's Tom and Huck novels prior to writing Tortilla Flat, and that there are similarities between both authors' main characters. At first glance, Tortilla Flat can seem quite different from Twain's novels, but as one compares them, so many similarities emerge that a relationship has to be noted--there are just too many parallels to ignore. Twain remarked: "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water" (Notebook 190). Although Steinbeck's paisanos are very fond of wine, after one compares them with the characters from Twain's novels, it is apparent that Steinbeck did not share their liking. Steinbeck preferred water--Mississippi water. Tortilla Flat is proof.1


1 I am very grateful to several people for their help in developing this essay: Clare Colquitt, because she encouraged me and generously took time to read, make notes on, and discuss previous versions of this essay with me; Jackson J. Benson, whose writings, in-class lectures, conversations with me, and flexibility (He allowed me to write a Steinbeck/Twain paper in a Steinbeck/Hemingway course, for example.) are inspirational to me; Kevin J. Bochynski, for tipping me with the source of Twain's water/wine quote.

Works Cited

Benson, Jackson J. "John Steinbeck's Cannery Row: A Reconsideration." Western American Literature 12 (Spring 1977): 11-40.

---. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. New York: Penguin, 1990. 110-111.

DeMott, Robert J. Steinbeck's Reading: A Catalogue of Books Owned and Borrowed. New York: Garland, 1984.

Krause, Sydney J. "Steinbeck and Mark Twain." Steinbeck Quarterly 6 (Fall 1973): 104-11.

Lisca, Peter. "Tortilla Flat." The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1969, 72-91.

Steinbeck, John. Tortilla Flat. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Walter Blair and Victor Fischer. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

---. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

---. Mark Twain's Notebook. New York: Harper, 1935.