“All modern American fiction comes from one book by Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.” Ernest Hemingway
I read that teachers in a school in Missouri, the very birthplace of Mark Twain, pulled the greatest novel ever written by an American author from their shelves to head off anticipated demands by conservatives to ban it.
Twain’s masterpiece has been the object of controversy for years, due initially to well intentioned people taking offense at the use of the N-word. This misguided censorship, like much of that happening these days, ignores the word’s historic and contextual significance. When taken in context it’s not a racial slur but merely gives an accurate depiction of the societal norms of the time, something young people need to learn about and to discuss, not be protected from. The fact that the book is the most scathing indictment against racism ever written by an American author is lost in the semantic uproar.
But this travesty pales in comparison to the condemnation Huck has met at the hands of conservative would-be book burners who fear he would provide students with the truth about racism in our country and expose the hypocrisy of their forebears’ fundamentalist Christian faith, hypocrisy that persists to the present day.
If you have not read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for shame. Not only have you missed out on a singular pleasure, but your education has a gaping hole in it, as will the educations of unfortunate students who are restrained from reading it.
My experience with this book and Twain’s other works was life changing. Twain inspired me to think independently. I admired his courage to risk expressing unpopular opinions. His superb word craft and the stinging pithiness of his satire inspired me to try my own hand at writing.
When I was around ten or so, a collection of Twain’s novels sitting on the living room book shelf caught my eye. As soon as I opened the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I was captivated. Even though much went over my head, I could tell this was what great literature was all about. In short order I’d worked my way through A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Prince and the Pauper and the autobiographical novels, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, and Innocents Abroad. Tom Sawyer came later in school.
The first time I read Huck’s story I experienced it mostly as an adventure tale. If the satirical, philosophical and political elements of it registered at all it was mostly subliminally. A few years later, I made another attempt, this time getting more of the drift of the author’s intent. When my daughter was in high school, she was assigned the book which we purchased on audio and listened to during a long road trip. It was only then that I fully appreciated what it was about and why it was so revered.
Twain’s novels opened my eyes to much of what is good about America as well as what is not. For example, in Innocents Abroad Twain juxtaposed the national ideal of egalitarianism and rejection of aristocracy alongside the image of the “ugly American.” In his inimitable fashion Twain quipped that he had spoken his best French in Paris only to find the French couldn’t speak their own language.
But the most profound effect any of Twain’s works ever had on me occurred when, fifty years after his death, the short story “Letters from the Earth,” was released by his estate. It reveals the true depth of Twain’s iconoclastic, non-conformist thinking. It remains as relevant today as it was well over a century ago.
It’s written in the words of Satan who had been banished from Heaven and was writing back to the archangels about the strange creatures God had created on our planet. Humans, observed the Fallen Angel, believe when they die they will go to join the angels. There they will sing praises to God day and night for eternity while he sits waving approvingly upon his throne. This, despite the fact that before the closing benediction of their weekly one hour church service, most of the faithful have had more than enough of praising the Lord as their thoughts stray to Sunday dinner.
In Heaven, everyone would learn to play the harp, an instrument the vast majority had no interest in while alive. They would love everyone of every race, color and creed despite the fact they hated them in life. And, in that supposed paradise, they would not engage in the only thing that approaches a paradisiacal experience in life, sex. It set my mind to thinking, way back in high school, not only about how absurd the popular notion of Heaven is and what hypocrites those who actually envision it this way are, but how exceedingly boring such an afterlife would be.
“Letters from the Earth” fermented in my mind for decades. If you read my A Lester Lord trilogy, you can see how it influenced my own writing.
The seminal moment of Huckleberry Finn comes as the eponymous hero experiences an epiphany. His slave companion, Jim, has been taken by a pair of flim-flam artists to be sold down the river. Now Huck is faced with a choice between writing to Jim’s owner, who might take him back to the relatively more benign circumstances of his former enslavement, or trying to rescue him so he might resume his flight to freedom. Assisting a runaway slave was not only a crime but was considered a sin punishable by eternal damnation.
Torn, Huck tries to pray, but it’s fruitless. Deep down he knows the sin is not his. The real sinners are those who, just like current day ultra-conservatives, invoke God to justify their own dubious value system. In the powerful conclusion of this episode, Huck tears up the letter and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
Make no mistake. As a typical person of his times, Huck was certain such a place existed. Thus, no portrayal of character in any work of literature can surpass that which was encapsulated in those fateful words.
Contrast this with the lack of character displayed both by those who would deprive their children of this literary masterpiece and those who, out of fear and self-interest, allow themselves to be intimidated into participating in their deceitful agenda.