Huck Finn warns us about our unexamined moral assumptions
"What's kep' you? (steam) boat get aground?" ...
"... We blowed out a cylinder head."
"Good gracious! Anybody hurt?"
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."
Passages like this make "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" what it is, a work of genius and terrible beauty about moral overconfidence.
It is not every work of art that can stir up nonstop controversy for more than 125 years. "Huck Finn" is at it again this winter, setting off a coast-to-coast blizzard of blather about a scholar's plan to publish a "sanitized" version of the novel, cleansed of the N-word. He's replacing it with "slave."
By and large, what Mark Twain himself called the "thunders of prophecy" from the nation's opinion pages are rumbling and grumbling with indignation at the thought of anyone's messing with "Huck Finn." The reason, generally, is that we must not protect students or ourselves from "the full ugliness of racism" (Los Angeles Times), or "whitewash a period that deserves no whitewashing" (Alexandra Petri, Washington Post) or "sugarcoat the past" (Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald), or dream of "adulterating social, economic and linguistic history" (New York Times).
Well, OK. Huck never did want nobody to "sivilize" him, and I'd rather not see his tale scrubbed.
Focus on the real story
But there isn't much point in keeping the N-word if meanwhile we're going to miss the real point of Huck's story.
Huck could, if need be, live on without the N-word. Try it yourself. Imagine, in the passage above, that it was a "slave" killed in the explosion that hurt no one. Is something lost? Sure, but not the satire's bite.
What really deadens the power of "Huck Finn" is the assumption that it's only a story about history; that it's only about the moral failings of the past; that it's only another opportunity for modern people to congratulate themselves on their vast superiority and enjoy the ever popular pastime of repenting other people's sins.
If that's all you think "Huck Finn" is about, read something else. Twain's stuff is beyond you.
Saying "Huck Finn" is about slavery and racism in the Old South is like saying "Hamlet" is about the indecisiveness of medieval Danish princes. Or that Genesis exposes the hazards of apples and snakes.
"Huck Finn" is about the folly of ever trusting the fashionable morality of one's own time and place. Any time, any place. It's a warning that some of the worst mistakes come when we're absolutely sure about something - and everyone we know agrees with us.
Huck dramatizes this by violating the slave South's moral order without for one moment realizing that it is his society's values that are corrupt. Huck simply loves Jim, the runaway slave, as an individual, and can't help himself.
Betraying a false duty
One literary critic explained that "Huck" is a lot like "Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers never question that by rights they owe total allegiance to their insanely feuding families. They betray that false duty only out of passion for each other.
The climax of Huck's story comes when he abandons all hope of ever being a good boy or doing the right thing and instead decides to help Jim escape. He tortures himself with the thought that Jim's cruel owner "ain't never done me no harm."
It is Huck's complete moral confusion - visible because we don't share it where slavery is concerned (and neither did readers in the 1880s) - that makes his story universal and timeless, and a lot more than a history lesson.
The real lesson is not that we should condemn Huck's society (that verdict was reached long ago) but that we should watch out ourselves - lest our unexamined moral assumptions turn out to be as faulty as theirs.
As sophisticated opinion rallies in defense of the N-word, the better to keep feeding modernity's moral vanity, we might want to remember another passage from "Huck Finn."
The King and the Duke, the original flimflam men who travel downriver with Huck and Jim, are debating whether the local yokels may be catching on to their latest scam. The King isn't worried.
"Ain't we got all the fools in town on our side?" he asks. "And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?"
Doug (D.J.) Tice is commentary editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
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