The Strange Case of Tom Sawyer and the Disappearing Chapter Headings


Mark I. West

UNC, Charlotte


I have included Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on my list of required readings for my children's literature course ever since I started teaching this subject in 1984.  Because children's literature courses are in such a high demand at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I frequently use a lecture format to accommodate as many students as possible.  Unfortunately, with 150 students in the class, I cannot tell if they are keeping up with the readings without giving regular quizzes.  For these reasons, I was recently thumbing through my old Bantam edition of Tom Sawyer, trying to come up with a few new reading questions.  I came to chapter 24, which deals with the consequences of Tom's decision to identify Injun Joe as the actual murderer of the doctor, and I happened to notice the heading.  It reads "Splendid Days and Fearsome Nights."  This heading appealed to me, so I typed it out and then asked my students to explain its significance.


The next day, right after I finished distributing the quiz, a student raised her hand.  "Dr. West," she said, "our copy of Tom Sawyer doesn't have chapter headings."  I must have looked incredulous, for she dug out her copy from the depths of her backpack and handed it to me.  It was, in fact, the 1994 Puffin Classics edition that I had asked the bookstore to order.  I looked through it, and, sure enough, there were no chapter headings.  The chapters were just numbered.  I therefore had no choice but to give all the students credit for the question.


That afternoon I wandered around the English Department, complaining to anybody who'd listen about Puffin's omission of Twain's chapter headings.  One of my colleagues listened patiently to my rantings and then took down her Signet edition to see if it included chapter headings.  After turning to chapter 24, she said, "Well, at least Signet kept the chapter headings."  She then read it aloud: "Tom as the Village Hero--Days of Splendor and Nights of Horror--Pursuit of Injun Joe."  Now I was really perplexed.  Which edition, I asked myself, used the same chapter headings found in the original 1876 edition of Tom Sawyer?  I set out to find answers.


Luckily for me, the library at UNC Charlotte has a good collection of rare books, including copies of the first American edition of Tom Sawyer, brought out by the American Publishing Company, and the first British edition, brought out by Chatto and Windus.  I examined these rare books and discovered that the chapter headings in the first American edition corresponded exactly to the headings found in my colleague's Signet edition.  When I looked through the British edition, however, I was surprised to learn that it had no chapter headings at all.


I then attempted to figure out why the chapter headings in the Bantam edition differed from the original headings.  I ran through my mental Rolodex, trying to think of somebody who might be able to help me.  The first person who came to mind was Henry Sweets,  the long-time Director of Mark Twain's Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.  I called Sweets, and he said that no one else had ever asked him about the chapter headings in Tom Sawyer.  Although he could not answer all my questions without doing a lot of research, he provided me with some useful background information.  According to Sweets, most of the editions of Tom Sawyer that came out during Twain's lifetime remained true to the original American edition.  After Twain's death in 1910, however, his various publishers began to make alterations to the book.  Additional changes surfaced in editions that came out after the book entered the public domain in 1931.


Armed with the information that Sweets supplied, I tracked down about twenty different editions of Tom Sawyer and scrutinized the chapter headings.  I gradually realized that this whole issue was much more complicated than I had ever imagined.  The twenty editions I found amounted to only a small fraction of the total number that have been published.  To further complicate matters, the editions that I found were often based on previous editions which I could not locate.  I did learn, however, that the chapter headings used in my Bantam edition matched the headings used in an edition published by Harper and Brothers in 1920.  Just as Sweets had predicted, I found several editions published in the early 1930s that used entirely new chapter headings.  The John C. Winston Company, for example, brought out an edition in 1931 that used short headings of no more than four words.  In the Winston edition, the heading for chapter 24 reads "Trials of a Hero."


By the time I had finished my research, I had examined a whole stack of editions of Tom Sawyer  that did not use Twain's original chapter headings, and not one of them made reference to this fact on its cover or title page.  Indeed, many of them had the words "Complete and Unabridged" emblazoned on their covers.  These very words appear prominently on the cover of the Puffin Classics edition in which the headings are completely omitted.


Perhaps I am too much of a purist, but I believe that publishers should not tinker with an author's work, even if a book is in the public domain.  Back in 1993, I spoke at a special symposium on censorship organized by the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford, Connecticut.  One of the most hotly debated issues at this event dealt with an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word "nigger" had been systematically deleted.  At the time, I argued that even though this word repulsed me, it troubled me even more to see publishers bowdlerize a classic work of literature in the name of political correctness.  I believe that rewriting or omitting original chapter headings is comparable to censoring out an offensive word.  In both cases, the publisher is taking liberties with the text and violating the special trust that readers place with publishers.  I feel that it is especially incumbent upon a publisher to adhere to the original text if the publisher prints the words "Complete and Unabridged" on the cover of the book.


Once I realized that the chapter headings in my Bantam edition did not match the original headings, I bought a copy of the more accurate Signet edition.  I studied Twain's original chapter headings, and I think that they reflect his wit and his special ability to arouse the curiosity of his readers.  Some of his chapter headings function as a set-up for a joke or a play on words.  Chapter 9, for instance, takes place in a graveyard, and the heading reads, "A Solemn Situation--Grave Subjects Introduced--Injun Joe Explains."  Many of the headings are cryptic and only make sense after one has read the chapter.  An example is the heading for chapter 2, which contains the famous scene in which Tom cons his friends into whitewashing the fence.  This chapter begins with a heading that's apt and mysterious at the same time: "Strong Temptations--Strategic Movements--The Innocents Beguiled."  In some cases, as in chapter 24, Twain's chapter headings highlight a character's emotional reactions.  It seems to me that the part of the original heading that reads "Days of Splendor and Nights of Horror" captures Tom's vacillating feelings more accurately than the rewritten version that reads "Splendid Days and Fearsome Nights."  Thus, in my opinion, Twain's original chapter headings add to the pleasure of reading Tom Sawyer and should be retained for their own sake as well as for the sake of textual accuracy.


Now that I am better informed about the strange history of Tom Sawyer's chapter headings, I am determined to have my students read an edition that is truly "complete and unabridged."  My research revealed two such editions.  The University of California Press has kept the original headings in its high quality, paperback edition of Tom Sawyer.  As previously noted, the Signet edition also uses these headings, and it's a bit cheaper than the California Press edition.  I am not sure which of these editions of Tom Sawyer I'll order for my students next semester, but I know I'll never again order the Puffin Classics edition.  As a professor of English, I feel I have a professional obligation to use only editions that are true to the original published works.