Today is the feast day of St. Mark Twain

Today is the feast day of St. Mark Twain November 30, 2013

To celebrate Mark Twain’s birthday, here again is my favorite bit from Huckleberry Finn. This is, in my opinion, the greatest conversion narrative in American literature:

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.

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  • damanoid

    Happy birthday Mark Twain. I hope a resolution to eschew despair today is appropriate.

  • Otrame

    Rex Stout ( who wrote the Nero Wolfe books) said “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” was they greatest sentence in American literature. I think he may be right. I know that it breaks my heart a little every time I see another person subjugate their own sense of morality to what they have been taught God wants.

  • Hth

    Today this makes me think of Garrison Keillor, who I generally like, but who wrote once that the Adventures of Huck Finn is the great American novel *and also* refutes the left’s “preoccupation” with “identity politics,” because the point of Huck Finn was that the friendship between Huck and Jim transcended race, and through it the white protagonist learns to stop being racist and start being race-blind.

    Which is just. It’s so. It’s such a *fucking terrible* reading of the novel, and such a misunderstanding of everything Twain cared about. To this day, years after reading it, it makes me speechless with rage. The Adventures of Huck Finn…is somehow the greatest work of American literature…because it proves…that race doesn’t matter in America.

    PRO TIP. The Adventures of Huck Finn is *about racism,* which you kinda can’t talk about without admitting that one’s race has a measurable effect on one’s way of being in the world. If you read it and walk away thinking that liberals talk too damn much about race because it doesn’t matter that much anyway, you have done everything wrong that one can do with a novel, short of bludgeoning your cat to death with it.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Anything can be made to fit any point if taken to the right Twister game. And it’s a skill that a lot of people are very practiced in.

  • Ross Thompson

    Huck Finn is clearly a Mississippi River travelogue.

  • Loki1001

    Huck Finn is brilliant. Sadly, it is just short of ruined by the last few chapters.

  • Another_Matt

    “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” — this sums up much of current “New Atheist” morality. There’s a reason that so many of us ex-fundies eventually become atheist — notwithstanding learning the truth about evolution, most of us had our own “All right then, I’ll go to hell” crisis, and found out that our hell is a much kinder and more generous place than the heaven-on-earth the fundie God wants to impose.

  • Loki1001

    Bo Burham has a hilarious joke, “The truth is, I’ve been to Christian Hell, and I actually wrote a song about it:

    Hitler was there
    And so were all the Jews, yeah
    So it got a little awkward”

    If Hell seems like it has better people than Heaven, Heaven is doing something wrong.

  • Baby_Raptor

    It’s more the person in charge of heaven, at least in my opinion.

  • Kirala

    I’d agree with that last part, but it’s giving me mental whiplash: the first time I read it, my brain was trying to fit “Hell seems like it has better people than heaven” in with “Hitler was there”.

    …transitions, please?

  • P J Evans

    ‘Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company’ is another way it’s been described.

  • Hawker40

    By Mark Twain, IIRC.

  • reynard61

    Yes! This! Why Twain would demean *both* of his best characters like that is beyond me. Was he drunk when he wrote that bit or something? Was it possibly added at the behest of his publisher in order to either lighten the tone of the story or maybe add a layer of embellishment so that it could be passed off as a bit of satire so as not to offend Southern readers? Those are pretty much the only excuses for it that I can think of. Anyone else care to guess?

  • Hth

    Aaaaand, boom. FULL CIRCLE. Great work, Slacktivist commenting team!

  • Thomas Stone

    I have literally never heard a version of identity politics professed by someone who understood a single thing about identity politics in which it precludes friendship or basic human understanding between people of different races, creeds, genders, or whatever other category.

    Why, in fact, you might even say that a fuller understanding between such groups, an understanding in which shared humanity overcomes ingrained societal prejudice and overturns the inequalities produced by such prejudice, is EXACTLY WHAT THE POINT OF THE WHOLE FUCKING THING IS.

  • Thomas Stone

    I think the tale grew in the telling and he had written the ending before he wrote the parts where Huck and Jim really deepen as characters, and didn’t want to throw it out.

  • reynard61

    Then he needed a more ruthless editor rather than a Yes-man to show him the error of his Literary ways. (Though I suppose that even The Greats can have their L&J moments…)

  • Carstonio

    “Identity politics” is just an elaborate tone argument. It’s meant to appeal to the resentments of people who want to believe that anti-racism is really about races switching places in the social hierarchy. Keillor often writes as a liberal, and his comment may be a calculated attempt at sounding like a moderate.

  • Hth

    No, as a Midwestern girl myself, I recognized the argument he was making as a pitch for the kind of liberalism my people like best: old-fashioned, New Deal-through-postwar, pro-labor liberalism. Which is all well and good — my family has been that brand of liberal for generations — except that some people, primarily older white guys, think that liberal vision lost out to conservatism in the Midwest because of “identity politics.”

    What this actually means in practice, even if the people advancing the argument don’t intend for it to, is “Everything was going swimmingly until the blacks and the women and the gays drove so many white men out of the Democrats with all their uncomfortable civil-rights this and feminism that.” It’s the Democratic version of the nostalgic fantasy for the 1950s that exists among so many white men, only instead of a romanticization of the family and the time when we could force kids to pray in schools, it romanticizes the time when the unions had real power and we had genuine class mobility. I’m certainly more in sympathy with the latter, but “identity politics” only “ruined” liberalism because far too many liberals turned out to be more invested in their racism and sexism than they were in social programs and a living wage. Blaming “identity politics” is just a shitty, double-speak way for guys like Keillor to opine that things were better before the civil rights movement in a way that doesn’t openly endorse racism.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks for the background. It is indeed a nostalgia fantasy because the old Southern Democrats were motivated largely by old grudges, not by any pro-union ideology. Sad that the older liberals didn’t see that civil rights and women’s rights were, like their own causes, about tearing down privilege.

  • Panda Rosa

    If you want a more worthy version of the story, look for “The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” As Told By John Seelye, which features a more tragic ending. Why this book isn’t better I can’t say.

  • Hell has always had better people than Heaven. This is because Hell is such a monstrous concept that Aquinas had to resort to emotional and moral lobotomies to keep the saints in heaven