It’s Mark Twain’s birthday — go the whole hog

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born 176 years ago today.

So of course I’ll take that as an excuse to re-read one of my favorite passages in American literature, from Chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn, wherein Huck aims to misbehave.

I’m sticking with the original language here, which is offensive and vile, and the only language Huck would have known, even if he had gone to the Sunday school or listened to Miss Watson.

I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie — and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d 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 tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

 

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    My favorite Mark Twain saying is

    By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean. [Mark Twain]

  • mud man

    “offensive and vile”

    What, he used a Bad Word twice? The whole passage is upside down morally, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Take out that language and you might as well throw the whole book away. Jeez.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for posting this. It is perhaps the most perfectly executed passage ever written on the hidden costs of social evils and how bigotry can make evil seem good. I try–and often fail–to evaluate my beliefs in this way: in a more perfect world, which I hope we will someday have, will people of good will look back on my beliefs with contempt? Of course, one can’t be sure of such things, but I do try to measure myself by this standard. Do I act morally, or only reflect the prejudices of my society and person?

  • rm

    One of the greatest passages in American literature. A moment when the Holy Spirit speaks to Huck and his whole cultural training has led him to thing it’s the Devil, but he is good enough to give in to the Spirit’s temptation.

    Every American who thinks of him or herself as Christian should have to read this passage, and the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and this from Frederick Douglass:

    “What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the SLAVEHOLDING RELIGION of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy
    of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.”

    We have a myth that these issues are no longer relevant, but as an old racist bastard of a great author wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I seem to have allowed years to go by without rereading that passage.

    Thanks for correcting that oversight.

  • Ouri Maler

    You know, Mr Clarck, I recall you doing an analysis of that passage in one of your Left Behind entries. It’s still one of my favorite entries on your blog – the one that made me a fan, so to speak.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    One of the greatest passages in American literature. A moment when the
    Holy Spirit speaks to Huck and his whole cultural training has led him
    to thing it’s the Devil, but he is good enough to give in to the
    Spirit’s temptation.

    I would hesitate to say that the Holy Spirit had anything to do with Twain’s conceptualization of that passage.  Twain was rather critical of religion and his posthumously-released essays indicated that he didn’t think god really did much of anything, nor did he believe that god sent any messages.

    This entire episode, if anything, is an indication of the triumph of Huck’s simply humanity and understanding that Jim isn’t property, but a fellow human and a friend.  I don’t see any need for the Holy Spirit to speak in that context and I doubt Twain did, either.

  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    Twain may not have known it himself, but the ‘Alright, I’ll go to hell’ passage is actually an excellent description of what would come to be known as false conciousness here.  He was a very perceptive man that way, describing lots of concepts in American Vernacular that would later be defined and worked to death in modernism, post-modernism, science fiction, pissing matches over true definitions in academic journals. 
     
    The realization that the greater society is just as prone to human failing as one’s own fragile self is horrifying.  When Huck chooses hell he is choosing to accept that his own society’s concept of morality, and even of reality itself, is capible of being wrong and often is.  This is a very hard thing to do, especially if you and your kind have personally benefited from social misconceptions, and it’s a big reason for why many reasonably intelligent people would rather believe blatant nonsense; as long as such nonsense allows them to imagine that things are as they should be and people naturally get what they deserve. 
     
    The Grangerfords vs. Shepardsons subplot is good dope as well.  The vanity of believing that death can be transcended by deliberately seeking it out is at the heart of every protracted conflict.  And let’s not even get into “Letters From The Earth” cause man shit gets crazy there. 

  • Anonymous

    I believe our host is poking at the brand new 2011 Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition which cleanses the text of any such Bad Words.  And yes, a racially cleansed version does miss the point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I think it’s a veiled criticism to this publisher who released an edition of the book where all references to the n-word became “slave”.

  • Anonymous

    One of my favorite passages in books, and the book in question will never not be relevant, not when crap like this still goes on, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2011/11/30/378469/kentucky-church-votes-to-ban-interracial-couples-from-becoming-members/

  • http://www.linkmeister.com/wordpress/ Linkmeister

    In the Nero Wolfe novel “Death of a Dude” Wolfe meets an Armenian-American in Montana who has the following sentence fragment printed and framed on the wall of his store:

    “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”

    Wolfe asks why, and Woody says “Because it’s the greatest sentence in American literature.”

    As you might expect, Wolfe disagrees, but they repair (off the page, unfortunately for the reader) to discuss it.

  • Apocalypse Review

    This extract is as timely as ever. :)

  • Anonymous

    I read the book as a child and that sentence, with the situation that led up to it, has stayed with me ever since. Thank you Fred for repeating the passage here and showing the grown-up me the beauty of Clemens’s writing.

    Wasn’t that old question about whether it was an immoral act to lie to the Gestapo about the Jewish family in your attic discussed here previously? I was about to speculate as to how the “heroes” of Left Behind might have acted but then realised that it has been pretty firmly established that they would never have aided such unbelievers in the first place. Huck Finn (hopefully unbowlderised) will surely be inhabiting humanity’s bookshelves for another century at least while the LB books have vanished into landfill.

  • ako

    I’m pretty sure the “heroes” of Left Behind, if told slavery was God’s will, would have happily have turned Jim in, giving him a stern lecture on the importance of obeying God’s will, and congratulating themselves on how much better they are at following God while he was dragged off in chains.

    Of course, of they believed God wanted the slaves free, they’d be right up there, heroically…making the occasional snarky comment about slavery being bad while working for the slaveholders to uphold slavery, and waiting around for God to do the actual saving people.   (Sadly, this being Left Behind God, “saving people” means “imprisoning nearly everyone and torturing them in unimaginably agonizing ways for all eternity”, so no help there.)

  • Anonymous

    Others have already addressed this specific case, but in general, if you think being “PC” is just about avoiding bad words, then you have an extremely shallow view of the whole thing.

  • Anonymous

    Kentucky Church Votes To Ban Interracial Couples From Becoming Members

    Us Kentucky folk aren’t all racist fucknoddles, I swear!

  • Michael Pullmann

    I remember reading this book, and this passage, at a tender young age (not sure what, exactly but I know it was before the Elijah Wood movie version came out). Blew my little mind; I don’t think I ever took authority entirely seriously again after that. (Not that I did that much before, of course.) Still one of my favorite books, and authors.

  • Lori

    Pf possible interest to Twain fans—in honor of his birthday The Atlantic has posted links to some of the stories Twain wrote for the magazine. 

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/on-his-birthday-remembering-mark-twains-gifts-to-i-the-atlantic-i/249272/?&utm_content=Google+Reader

  • Tonio

    Excellent entry by Fred. I have the first installment of Twain’s autobiography, and I gave in to the temptation to skip the scholarly commentary and go right to the man’s own words. So far it’s not really his life story, just a collection of the anecdotes from his speaking engagements, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Albanaeon

    Still a powerful passage.  Still, I wonder what it was like when it was published.  Today we do have the benefit that *most* people consider slavery a BAD THING (looking at you Newt…), and I wonder how it would have been received when the issues wasn’t settled and a fair percentage of the population would have been horrified by Huck’s actions.

  • Rikalous

    Still a powerful passage.  Still, I wonder what it was like when it was
    published.  Today we do have the benefit that *most* people consider
    slavery a BAD THING (looking at you Newt…), and I wonder how it would
    have been received when the issues wasn’t settled and a fair percentage
    of the population would have been horrified by Huck’s actions.

    I like the idea that the book’s gone from people denouncing Huck for not turning Jim in to denouncing him for using the n-word. Progress!

  • Porlock Junnior

    Mr. Twain was following an excellent example:

    Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d’autrui.
    We all have enough strength to bear other people’s misfortunes.
    –the Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680)

  • Rikalous

    This entire episode, if anything, is an indication of the triumph of
    Huck’s simply humanity and understanding that Jim isn’t property, but a
    fellow human and a friend.  I don’t see any need for the Holy Spirit to
    speak in that context and I doubt Twain did, either.

    Holy Spirit, Huck’s empathy and humanity, to-may-to, to-mah-to.

  • WingedBeast

    No, not tomayto tomahto.  Supernatural entity getting the credit for acting on Huck, Huck getting the credit for being Huck.  This is not just a semantic nitpick.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Holy Spirit, Huck’s empathy and humanity, to-may-to, to-mah-to.

    Um, unless you’re going to use Holy Spirit as more of the Divine Spark than the wholly sectarian teminology it implies, not so much.  Realization that the Other is actually not the Other, but the friend, requires no external agent.  That’s kind of the point of the whole revelation in the book.  Huck didn’t suddenly realize that the Bible says this, nor did he suddenly get a revelation from on high.  He remembered all the time he spent hanging out with Jim and that no matter what he’d been told by others, they were the same.

    That’s shared experience and simple human decency talking.  And I highly doubt Twain was trying to write in the guise of a lot of contemporary Christian authors, where the point was, “Religion is wrong, it’s all about personally relating to Jesus.”  Twain had no truck with that sort of attitude, either, and the absence of a notion of proper relation to the almighty shines clearly through this section.  It’s all about realizing the proper relationship we need to have with each other.

  • Anonymous

    Ako, are you sure you’re not secretly a LB co-author? Because of course that is exactly what they will do. I fear for us when Fred gets to the LB book about the sinners all being hauled off to hell while Our Heroes stand smugly by ~ either our brains will collectively implode or there will be a violent and simultaneous destruction of monitor screens by Slacktivist followers everywhere.

  • Fake

    Well, I can get myself to the point where I see — in this case at least — someone using ‘holy spirit’ to mean pretty much the same thing as ‘inner humanity’.  Sure, I could find a point where I disagree with someone using ‘holy spirit’ (since I don’t think any supernatural thing exists), but why should I go looking for a fight?  I mean, I think _my_ inner humanity is telling me to find common ground with other people of good will, not look for reasons to pick fights with them.

    [Of course, Fred just said this better than me, in his posts about how to evaluate/understand other people's religions.]

  • WingedBeast

    Yeah, it’s tempting to avoid conflict by simply saying that people who use the term “holy spirit” are using a homonym that can mean God or can mean empathy to mutual exclusion.  But, they’re not to mutual exclusion.  “Holy spirit” where it means anything other than “God” always means other+God, other+this revered supernatural agent.  Whether intended to do so or not, the usage marries “thing nigh universally accepted as good” with “revered supernatural agent”.

    In this part of the story, Huck Finn believes God to be pro-slavery.  Child that he is, that’s all he’s ever been told of God’s position.  No doubt ever allowed to creep in.  “Good people who don’t go to Hell do what God wants and God wants you to respect the slave-owner’s right to own slaves.”  I’m not saying that this is a true view of God, only that it was Huck Finn’s.

    This revelation is explicitly about Huck Finn choosing to oppose God in the name of saving a human being from bondage.

    To say that this part of the story is the holy spirit acting upon Huck Finn is to take this to mean almost entirely the opposite of what Mark Twain was going for.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    I’m first met Jonathan Bennett’s excellent essay “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn in the book The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature. It has stayed with me.

    The copy I’ve linked to above is on Bennett’s own site, so we can assume it’s not violating anyone’s copyright. His central point is that we should be open to revising our morality in the light of our sympathies. But he says it considerably better than that.

    TRiG.

  • WingedBeast

    That link isn’t working for me.  Is there a mirror site I can go to?

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    Works for me. It’s in PDF format. Do you have a PDF reader? (It’s an open format these days, so there are loads of readers. I believe there’s one build into the Chrome browser, or you can  
    download one from Adobe for Windows, Mac, or GNU/Linux.

    It would be unusual, though, for you not to already have a PDF reader (Adobe or otherwise; my Ubuntu computer came with Evince PDF reader installed, and I think other OSes also give you one), so perhaps something else is wrong. In which case, I can’t help you.

    TRiG.

  • WingedBeast

    Adobe’s usually not a problem.  I’ve got Adobe.

  • Mau de Katt
    “Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling
    the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of
    all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all
    libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the
    court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable
    loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with
    the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.”

    Funny, that applies equally well in today’s socio-political landscape….  Those who wave the most vigorously and trumpet the most loudly the Banner and Name of Jesus Christ seem to be those who least follow His teachings.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    A propos of PDF readers:

    There are alternatives to the Adobe Acrobat Reader, listed for Windows versions (the link also contains other OSes if you scroll up).

    I personally vote either Foxit or PDF XChange.

  • Joshua

    Adobe’s usually not a problem.  I’ve got Adobe.

    First time I’ve ever heard someone who used an Adobe product say that about it. Most people word it differently: leave out the not, but liberally add swear words.

  • P J Evans

     I’d say that Adobe Reader isn’t a problem, but just about everything else they have is. (They don’t seem to understand plug-ins at all, at least from the end-user’s viewpoint. And customer service is apparently limited to corporations.)

  • Joshua

    Adobe Reader is way past comically bloated – a plugin bigger than the browser itself. Soon it will be bigger than its host operating system, and load time will be measured in weeks.

    I did some flash programming a while back, and I’m less fond of that.

    I will admit that they do good conferences, or at least Macromedia did before they were bought out. If corporate customer service is measured in bottles of wine, then they’re great, if it is measured in bugs fixed for you, then not so much. A bug resolution of “Well, don’t do that then” doesn’t really help much.


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