Huckleberry Finn, Hero

Quote of the Day:

What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. –Mark Twain

TB aspires to be well read. I also want to write humor. It is therefore a mystery to me why I have waited until this year to read Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, an essential waypoint on the road to achieving those life-goals.

Huck Finn is often described as an anti-hero. Not to me he isn’t. He’s the bona fide all-American epitome of my idea of a hero. Loyal, courageous and kind, but more importantly free and honest. Nobody owns Huck. Not his Daddy, not the widow Douglas nor “Aunt” Polly nor Sally, not his best friend Tom Sawyer and for damn sure not polite society. Huck is ignorant, superstitious and naïve; he is a child. But he trusts his own judgement and uses his own eyes and ears and reaches his own conclusions. He is intellectually honest, intelligently curious.

Huck is not the only character in this book who is ignorant. The author created a caricature of American 19th century citizenry. Adults in Huckleberry Finn are near universally as ignorant as the wild-eyed imaginative boys at the center of the story. They fall for all Huck and Tom’s shenanigans and they are consistently duped by Huck’s accidental raft companions, the con-artists Duke and the King. They fool themselves too, accepting the explanation (paraphrasing in modern terms) “it is what it is” as the reason two families cling to their deadly feud even though no one can recall why they are fighting. They are willfully ignorant and especially self-delusional on the issue of slavery and race.  It is no accident that Twain used the symbolic titles of old-world royalty to highlight the public’s willingness to be misled on matters ranging from religion to entertainment to current events. The Duke and the King hardly have to work at all to swindle the townspeople living along the river. Twain treats the ignorance of white America harshly, suggesting that they remain so out of laziness. They are willing to be led, as sheep, and care not for the qualifications or even the motives of the leader. Even so, he exposes these deficiencies while allowing that they are often, mostly, good people in spite of their close mindedness. Had he made them simple and evil, this book would pack a much lighter punch. Complexity and inconsistency are the descriptive techniques Mark Twain used and he made me think hard about how people became the way they were and how or if they could ever change.

The runaway slave Jim is also terribly ignorant, but he is portrayed sympathetically. My interpretation is different than that of some overzealous politically correct folks offended by the book’s repeated use of the derogatory slur for black people and its depiction of Jim in general. While I can see that it could be painful to read that word over and over, especially for a black child, and easily misinterpreted by many, I think it is regrettable that Huck’s adventures are not part of every high schooler’s education, that he wasn’t part of my own. Jim’s ignorance and the humiliating circumstances he often finds himself in, you see, are not self inflicted. Prohibited from reading, traveling and almost every other freedom accessible to his white neighbors, Jim never had a chance to break out of ignorance. Like Huck though, Jim is inquisitive and thoughtful, not to mention brave, kind and loyal. As Jim and Huck drift from adventure to adventure heading south down the Mississippi, Huck gradually comes to understand that all society has taught him about the nature of black people and the necessity of slavery is not true; at least as it pertains to Jim. The climactic moment of the novel is when Huck realizes Jim has been betrayed by the Duke and the King and returned to bondage. Huck wants Jim free and thinks about the consequences of helping him escape. He thinks about all he’s learned about Jim over the course of their journey and it takes him only a moment to decide, “alright, I’ll go to Hell!” And he sets off to save his friend.

As the book winds down, Tom Sawyer appears and quickly agrees to join with Huck in his efforts to set Jim free. Typical for Tom, the plot to save Jim is fanciful and drastically elaborate. When the boys and Jim finally run Tom is shot in the leg. Though safely on his raft and out of reach of the pursuit, Jim insists that Huck return to town for a doctor to help Tom while Jim stays with him to tend his wound. Naturally, Jim is recaptured when help arrives. Huck was deeply affected by Jim’s selflessness which proved, as he knew all along, Jim was “white on the inside.” And for the first time in discussing Jim, Huck refers to him as a “man.” Going back to that offensive term, not only is the harsh language used in describing Jim consistent with common speech of the era; more importantly it is essential to illustrating the gradual enlightenment of Huck and emphasizing the moment when he changes his own description of Jim without even realizing it. When Huck called Jim a “good man”, it froze my eye in place for a moment. A reader cannot miss this shift in language.

“White on the inside.” It is easy to understand why some would call Huck’s ultimate conclusion and semi-conscious epiphany racist and object to the book’s usage in public schools on that basis. I still think they miss the point, or at least fail to look beyond the surface. Huck is still a kid, uneducated too. He’s just had a realization that profoundly diverges from a “truth” he has known since birth. He for the first time is aware of his commonality with and the humanity of his black friend Jim. Who knows where Huck’s brain travels from there? It is to me a question worth considering.

It turned out Jim had been freed by the widow Watson some months prior, unbeknownst to he and Huck, and all the tomfoolery involving his escape was nonsense. Jim’s immediate future settled, Huck had to face his own. His vocabulary was too limited for him to verbalize exactly why, but his experience with an unreasoning culture led him to the inevitable conclusion as to what he should do. He could have a conventional life with a new family or keep trying to make it on his own. It is one of my favorite lines in all of literature (so far) and I think sums up his desire to remain free, body and soul, from the conformity, ignorance and preconceived notions inflicted upon him by the predominate culture of his time. “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” I wanna go too, Huck.

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About travellinbaen

I'm a 40 year old lawyer living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I'm several years and a couple hundred miles removed from most of my old running buddies so I started the blog to provide an outlet for many of the observations and ideas that used to be the subjects of our late night/happy hour/halftime conversations and arguments.
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5 Responses to Huckleberry Finn, Hero

  1. calicobebeop says:

    Awesome recap – a great story all around. I’ve been catching up with some “classics” on the commute – I may have to add this one to the list! War and Peace is making me want to poke my eyes out!

  2. irvineredd says:

    So you didn’t have Huck Finn in high school? I did my final major term paper for honors English on Huck Finn, specifically Jim.

    The irony of those that want to ban the book is that they are the subject of Twain’s eye. They are just as ignorant of reality as the characters in the novel, and are simultaneously just as sympathetic and well-meaning. They are protecting there kids, but at the same time are completely oblivious to what they are actually protecting them from.

    As for “The Word” of words that is constantly in the book, my teachers always used it as a learning tool; a showcase of what’s wrong with it and it’s use. I don’t get why parents who want the book banned can’t see that. I can only assume they are ignorant overreactors, but for some reason that makes me feel harsh.

  3. Jessie Lou says:

    I did my senior research paper on Mark Twain – I remember my grade but not much else other than I loved his sense of humor.

    People over react to things they do not understand. They probably never read the book either and are basing their opinions on what someone else told them to think instead of looking for themselves.

  4. Harmony says:

    I agree, this is an awesome recap. I remember reading Huckleberry Finn in HS….but I remember very little from it. I have been thinking of adding books from my HS reading list to my current list, get a feel for them with new eyes.

    I have never understood the banning of books. I can’t decided whether it’s a lack of trust in humanity or just a general act of do-gooder(ness) that leads people to do such a thing. Either way it IS an ignorant act of leading sheep blindly. Without background/ substance, we give our children the opportunity to make uninformed decisions…I’d hate to see that ball rolling down hill.

    I’ll take that trip with you and Huck!

  5. Mydnight says:

    Wowza, I am in love with you travellinbaen…Can you write my college paper on Huck Finn? All joking aside, I read this to see what others have to say on the word Hero in general, and Huck Finn, in particular. You not only didn’t make it sound like a book report (which is what I have right now) but you also made it humorous (which I aspire to do).
    Thanks! See you in the territories!

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