Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
This is the first “banned” book I ever read. It wasn’t banned at my school, and I didn’t read it for class, but I knew that this was one of those books that certain schools banned. I knew it was banned partly because of the use of the “n-word”, but reading it then (and then I read it again for a class on banned literature in college) I was struck by how we re-write history to make it more tolerable to ourselves. We want to erase the n-word from the book, but then we’ll forget just how pervasive it actually was in that time period, and I fear we’ll forget how ugly the word actually is.
We live in the supposedly more enlightened time of the 21st century and people still believe horrible stereotypes about gays, blacks, Mexicans, and others. And I believe that books, and other media, that force us to see the racist beliefs we had, and still have, in stark relief are important. Putting this book out without the n-word allows people to think that time period was better than it was. When we consistently make movies that show gentle slave owners who secretly supported abolition, it blinds us to the horrors of amputations, whippings, rapes, and lynchings that were a “normal” part of plantation life.
However, I understand why many would like that word erased, and this is not about defending it’s use here. What this post is about is what this book meant to me.
The scene I remember most from this book was this one moment when Huck Finn decides that he’s going to “go to hell” rather than do what society would say is right.
Society, and the law, demands, and he was raised to believe, that Jim, as a slave, was the property of Miss Watson. He writes a letter to her telling her where they are. Then thinks on how nice Jim has been to him, how he’s cared for him and told him he was “the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now” and he picks up the letter.
I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and I tore it up.
– page 207 from the Signet Classic Edition
That section has stuck with me all these years. In preparing for this post I picked up my old copy of Huck Finn and I had a faded bookmark between those pages. I read this book first in Junior High and that was the moment that I realized that sometimes the popular opinion my not be the right opinion. That society as a whole could be wrong. That laws themselves might be unjust. That what you’ve been told all your life, might be wrong.
I was raised Catholic. Sin is a real thing. Eternal damnation is a real thing. Yet, I cannot conceive to even believe that homosexuality is a sin. That two people who seek to do nothing more than love one another, would be eternally damned to a lake of hellfire.
I, of course, also became an atheist so it’s not like religion guides my thoughts much, but it’s just another example of how I decided between what I was told to be true, and what I feel to be right.
I, like most people, would like to believe I’d have been an abolitionist if I lived during the Civil War era. Considering I live in a theist society and claim atheism, I’m probably right. I grew up in the patriarchal machismo south Texas and support Gay Rights and consider myself a feminist, so the odds are probably better than average I’d buck the system.
So that’s how the book influenced me. It presented a time when people, a large swath of society, said one thing was right, true, and just, and the book counters, “Just because everyone is heading one direction, doesn’t mean it’s the right direction.”
As a historical artifact I also feel it’s necessary. There’s a moment when Jim is talking about what he’ll do when free and talks of saving up money to purchase his wife back, and try to buy back his children, or steal them back if the slaver won’t sell them. Huck Finn reacts with shock that Jim would speak so boldly, not with shock that he must try and purchase back his family. That society is what Mr. Twain (or Clemens if you prefer) hoped we’d never go back to again. A society that is shocked by speaking out against evil, rather than the evil itself.
That too is why this book is on this list. The evils we must speak out against today may not rise to the level of slavery, but they are no less important to speak out against. There may never be a time period where someone isn’t being oppressed or having their rights stripped, heck states are suppressing voting rights and it’s 2014! 2014 people! So we must continue to speak out when required, and choose to “go to hell” rather than do what “society” says is right.
Thank you Mr. Twain for teaching a young boy that lesson.