Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

Huckleberry Finn & Conscience

Ernest Hemingway called Mark Twain’s book: The beginning of modern American literature.

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn . . . But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

Norman Mailer: The mark of how good Huckleberry Finn has to be is that one can compare it to a number of our best modern American novels and it stands up page for page.

For TS Eliot is was: A great work of art.

WH Auden said it was: A key book for understanding the United States.

It is not a boys book, Mark Twain wrote to a friend. It will only be read by adults.

The book, first published in 1885, has been regarded as a subversive masterpiece for many reasons, but a clue to the greatest of these was given by Twain himself during a lecture tour of 1895. He said:

Next, I should exploit the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience. I should support this doctrine with a chapter from a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat. Two persons figure in this chapter: Jim, a middle-aged slave, and Huck Finn, a boy of 14. . . . . bosom friends, drawn together by a community of misfortune . . . . .
In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing – the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave. . . . or hesitate to promptly betray him to a slave catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, and carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. That this sentiment should exist among slave-holders is comprehensible – there were good commercial reasons for it – but that it should exist and did exist among the paupers. . . . and in a passionate and uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable. . . . It shows that that strange thing, the conscience – that unerring monitor – can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.

2 Responses to “Huckleberry Finn & Conscience”

  1. Liz says:

    I’ve read HF numerous times. The most recent my daughter and I “read” via an recording on a long car trip.

    What struck me this time was the relationship between Huck and Jim. Huck is essentially unparented until his travels with Jim.

  2. This is an excellent post. It is so fitting now, speaks to America’s odd and inane ability at hatred. I’m speaking of the new immigration issue. The GOP could accurately point to their successes at the last elections to the Latino and Mexican vote. But today, this same voting bloc has been turned into the new “black” by them. It’s an absolute disgrace that 1) the pundits have created the hatred; and 2) a majority of Americans have bought into it. The result has been an increase in hate crimes against Mexicans and Latinos, whether they are legal or not.

    p.s. This is a wonderfully intriguing book and very worthy of its accolades.