Figure 1.--This True Williams illustration from the original edition of Tom Sawyer shows the relationship between Tom and long-suffering Aunt Polly.
True Williams is not an illustrator who instantly comes to mind when we think of illustrators who have drawn children. The fact that he drew the original illustrations for Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer merits him an important place pn our list. There are countles images of Tom Sawyer by a miriad of illustrators. In addition it is a
popular play for school groups to stage with often imaginative attempts at costuming. Schools all over the worls stage productions of Tom Sawyer, one example of how American or British boyhood heros dominate in the popular mind. True Williams was the original illustrator of Tom Sawyer. Williams worked on each of Twain's books previously published by the American Publishing Company. He did 160 of Tom Sawyer's 162 illustrations. The book was not a long one and these illustrations and chapter headings did a lot to increase the size of the book to what the public expected. Twain was very pleased with the illustrations which he called "rattling pictures." Twain made no suggestions about the illustrations. They were all conceived by Williams on his own as he read the book.
True's parents were Asa and Louisa Keelar Williams. His father was an overseer for county roads. He went west seeking his fortune in the California gold rush and died there in a drowning accident.
True had at least one sibling, a sister Rhoda Delana. Rhoda married well, to a banker's son. She wenton to become a director of the local orphanage and a leader in the New York state women's suffrage movement.
True was born in 1839 in Allegany County, New York. We have virtually no information on his childhood. His father's position as a road supervisor must have meant that he was raised in reasonable circumstances. The family moved to various locations in New York state, ending up in Watertown. The death of his father in 1849 when True was about 10 years old must have affected the family's circumstances.
Williams moved to Illinois and eventually at the end of 1863 enlisted. He was 24 years years old. He joined Company E of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He indicated his profession was engraver and served as a topographical engineer during General Sherman's march through Georgia. He was also at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He was not wounded, but for the rest of his life claimed his health was impaired by his Civil War service.
After the Civil,war, Williams returned to New York was hired by a graphics firm owned by Augustus Fay and Stephen J. Cox in New York City. It was in fact the first syndicated illustration business in America. The firm prduced illustrations and engravings for the subscription publishing companies located in Hartford, Connecticut. Williams' career as an illustrator was made when the American Publishing Company decided to publish a book by a relatively unknown author--Samuel Clemens better known as Mark Twain. Fay and Cox assifned the job to Willimas and the rest is history. The book was The Innocents Abroad. The results were so successful taht other contemporatu authors asked for Williams to illustrate their books, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Charles Henry Webb,
Mark Twain is a giant in American literature. The two men were close in age. Williams was one of the illustrators most extensively used by Mark Twain. Williams's career is in fact intertwined with Twain's career. Twain specifically asked for Williams to illustrate The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
True Williams is not an illustrator who instantly comes to mind when we think of illustrators who have drawn children. The fact that he drew the original illustrations for Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer merits him an important place on our list. There are countles images of Tom Sawyer by a miriad of illustrators. True Williams was the original illustrator of Tom Sawyer and thus the first to depict Tom visually. Williams worked on each of Twain's books previously published by the American Publishing Company. He did 160 of Tom Sawyer's 162 illustrations. The book was not a long one and these illustrations and chapter headings did a lot to increase the size of the book to what the public expected. Twain was very pleased with the illustrations which he called "rattling pictures." Twain made no suggestions about the illustrations. They were all conceived by Williams on his own as he read the book. Interestingly, there are realtvively few important modern illustrations of Tom Sawyer that are not recreations of Wiliiams' drawings. Like the Reginald Birch drawings in Little Lord Fauntleroy, the Williams' drawings are an important part of the impact of the book and there is no other book that has been more important in creating the popular image pf American boyhood than Tom Sawyer.
Williams was also the original illustrator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He first drew Huck, however, as part of his earlier set of Tom Sawyer illustrations.
Tom is often pictured in dressier clothes than his erstwhile companion Huck. Thus images of Tom give an indication of how boys may have dressed up in the days before the Civil War(1861-65). Tom was also pictured in school and play clothes. Some care has to be given in using modern drawings as an indicator of how American boys dressed in the pre-Civil War period described in both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Almost all of the drawings pick up on the fact that the boys did not like shoes and often went barefoot. The original Williams drawings a probably a more accurate depiction of pre-Civil War boys' clothes than subsequent illustrations. One reason for that was that Williams and Twain were about the same age and both were boys before the Civil War. Mist subsequnt artists grew up after the Civil War. One notable difference is that Williams drew Tom wearing long, often checked pants. Kneepants were worn before the Civil War, mostly by younger city children, but they only became prevalent in America after the Civil War. Thus subsequent illustrators drawing from their post-War childhood commonly drew Tom in kneepants rather than long pants. They must have been familiar with Williams' original drawings. Presumably they thought that the public would think boys would look rather strange in long pants. The same phenomenon occurred with some British classics when modern illustrators drew the boys in long rather than short pants. Huck is treated differently. Modern illustrators depict him in both kneepants and long pants--almost always ragedy. The reason that Huck is iften depicted in long pants is that pooer boys, often boys on their own or still with their family but working rather than going to school did often wear long pants--usually much sooner than boys still in school. This Huck is commonly depicted differently than Tom who other than by Williams is usually drawn wearing kneepants.
Williams was also a writer. His books, nuch to his disappointment, were not a popular success. He was especially hopeful that his book Frank Fairweather published in 1890 might prove successful. It did not.
Williams had a complicated family life. He married Carrie M. Heath in 1884 and the couple moved to Chicago. She was 20 years younger than him. She died tragically in 1885. He then married Rose Heath, who had followed the couole to Chicago, in 1886. Williams had a drinking problem which he managed to overcome in later life. Heath divorced him in 1892 citing his excessive drinking.
Schmidt, Barbara . "A closer look at the lives of True Williams and Alexander Belford",
paper was presented at the Fourth International Conference On the State of Mark Twain Studies, Elmira, New York, August 18, 2001.
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