Thomas Powers in the LRB:
The sun never shone more brightly and a boy’s dreams never seemed in closer reach, nor the girl next door prettier, nor his friends readier for bold adventure on a Saturday free of school than all did in the ‘white town drowsing’ on the Missouri shore of the mighty Mississippi River where Mark Twain in the 1840s drank deeply of the sweetness of life, and never forgot it. ‘Free’ was a word of powerful attraction for Twain. His friend Tom Blankenship enjoyed a glorious perfection of freedom, as Twain saw things: no mother or aunts to wash, comb, dress and civilise him; no expectations to fail to meet, no sermons in church to scare him and no school to crimp his style. He slept in a hogshead, smoked a corncob pipe, went barefoot in three seasons, knew how to make himself scarce when his father showed up drunk and mean. ‘He was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community,’ Twain recalled in his seventies, ‘and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy, and was envied by all the rest of us.’
It was Tom Blankenship, rechristened as Huckleberry Finn, who whistled up ‘Tom Sawyer’ for night-time roving when the streets and back alleys were quiet in Hannibal, the village that became St Petersburg in the two novels that made Twain immortal. Not forgetting Hannibal was the work of Twain’s life. The adventures of Tom and Huck constitute the greatest of all American feats of memory. The original for ‘Tom’ was of course the original of Mark Twain, born Samuel L. Clemens, a deeply impressionable boy who resisted all entreaty to improve until the grave took him at 74 and closed the case. There is no point in trying to sort out fiction and reality in Hannibal-St Petersburg, or to distinguish ‘Huck’ from the real Tom, or ‘Tom’ from the real Sam. The life went into the books with such fidelity that the stories can be lifted out again as evidence of what ‘really’ happened or what the characters ‘really’ thought or felt.
The Tom Blankenship of history left few traces. He was a few years older than Twain, he remained in Hannibal, he was twice arrested for stealing food, he died of cholera about 1889. So far as we know, Blankenship never escaped down the Mississippi with a runaway slave but we know he was the kind of boy who would have sprung to do it. Did he not acknowledge, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that Jim ‘had an uncommon level head, for a nigger’? And did he not say of the slave Uncle Jake, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: ‘Sometimes I’ve set right down and eat with him’?