What Huck Finn means to me

by John MacBeath Watkins

Jamie has written a wonderful post on her struggle with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and because my experience of the book has been very different, I'd like to take some time to talk about the book.

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seven times between the ages of ten and twelve.  The book spoke to me in a way no other book I'd read by then did, and this was a time in my life when I was reading about a book a day (mostly science fiction, but also the plays of Shaw and a wide variety of other stuff.)

I was reading about a boy my own age who went out into the world and made his way, dodging the authorities and dealing with rascals like the con men who insisted that they were a duke and the lost dauphin, befriended a runaway slave, saw a family destroyed by a feud, and in the end went against his moral teachings for the sake of friendship.

The great moral lesson of the book is this last.  After Jim is recaptured, Huck concludes that he will go to hell if he helps Jim escape from slavery.  He's determined to do it anyway.  Huck understands that the problem is not the question of whether to be "good," the problem is that the "good" people are engaged in a monstrous system that treats his friend as an object to be bought and sold regardless of his wishes.

Although I was born in Louisiana, my family moved to France shortly thereafter, then to Maine, where I read the book.  My parents grew up in Oregon, where there were not enough black people to train the young to hate them.  I had not had enough contact with blacks to have learned the moral landscape of racism.  To me, the world Huck roamed through was as alien as the distant planets Robert Heinlein wrote about.

But Twain made it real to me.  This was a book only a Southerner could have written, in which the slave owners weren't the bad people, they were church-going property owners who were the mainstay of their communities.  A recent edition of the book replaces the word "nigger" with the word "slave," thus changing the moral landscape Huck navigates from a racist South to one in which the evil of slavery has nothing to do with race.

Slavery had existed since the dawn of civilization.  Aristotle mentioned that the management of slaves was always difficult because the slaves tended to think themselves as good as their master (he didn't mention the possibility that they were right.)  In most parts of the world, slave and master were the same race and often lived in close contact.  It was never a good deal to be a slave, but it was a social status that could befall people who looked like you.

American civilization was not a comfortable place for slavery.  Our Declaration of Independence drew heavily on the ideas of John Locke, who claimed that we each own our lives, and that is the basis for all property.  Society is, according to Locke, a compact to protect property including our lives.  Locke was aware of slavery, and was complicit in it as a shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, which bought slaves in Africa and shipped them to the New World.  He even wrote a justification for slavery, which did not in fact apply to the sort of slavery the Company took part in, or as it was practiced by the English in America.

There was a tension between slavery and liberal democracy from the start; if "all men are created equal" why should some be slaves?  One way to reconcile this was through racism.  People could tell themselves that their slaves were less than human, that they lacked the capacity to enjoy freedom.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn humanizes Jim while at the same time showing how racism dehumanized him to make his treatment bearable to whites.  It takes place in a world where Jim's feelings don't matter, where the word "nigger" is thrown around casually by the "good" people.  Those good people were willing to send Jim back into slavery because they thought it proper.

George Orwell once wrote that "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."  Most of the characters in this book are happy to believe that all men are equal, born owning their lives, and that Jim, as a slave, belongs to a group of people for whom this is not true. The human mind has, as Orwell noted, the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time.  Huck Finn, however, was so changed by his experiences on the river that he became able to see what was in front of his nose -- that the social order that he belonged to was engaged in an every-day atrocity so widely accepted and ingrained in the good people of the South that no one he knew questioned it.  The book enables us to understand why people acted that way, and why they were wrong.  The slave owner is not, in this book, a cruel person like Simon Legree, but instead the good people, the churchgoers, the property owners, people who play by the rules.  Twain managed to at once humanize slaves and slaveholders, and to show that sometimes playing by the rules is immoral.

Huck, through knowing Jim, came to understand what an atrocity it was that Jim should be a slave.  He was ready to commit a crime that would consign him to the eternal fires of Hell rather than stand by and let this happen to Jim.  This is what makes Huck Finn the most heroic figure in American fiction.