The ADHD-ventures of Tom Sawyer

The strange comforts of reading Mark Twain in the age of oppositional defiant disorder.

By Anne Applebaum

Everyone remembers the whitewashing scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but how many recall the scene that precedes it? Having escaped from Aunt Polly, Tom Sawyer is "playing hooky" and teaching himself to whistle, when he suddenly spies a "newcomer" in his village—a newcomer with "a citified air." Their conversation unfolds like this:

"I can lick you!"

"I’d like to see you try it."

"Well, I can do it."

"No you can’t, either."

After that, the encounter deteriorates further ("Can!" "Can’t!") until finally the two boys are wrestling in the dirt. Tom wins the battle—the citified newcomer is made to shout "Nuff!"—but returns home late and is thus commanded to whitewash the famous fence.

Following this incident, the reader’s sympathies are meant to lie with Tom. But try, if you can, to strip away the haze of nostalgia and sentiment through which we generally regard Mark Twain’s world, and imagine how a boy like Tom Sawyer would be regarded today. As far as I can tell, that fight is not just "inappropriate behavior," to use current playground terminology, it is also one of many symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder—ODD—a condition that Tom manifests throughout the book.

And Tom is not merely ODD. He clearly has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—ADHD—as well, judging by his inability to concentrate in school. "The harder Tom tried to fasten his mind on his book, the more his mind wandered," Twain writes at one point. Unable to focus ("Tom’s heart ached to be free"), he starts playing with a tick. This behavior is part of a regular pattern: A few days earlier in church (where he had to sit "as far away from the open window and the seductive outside summer scenes as possible"), Tom had been unable to pay attention to the sermon and played with a pinch bug instead… Read More>>

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