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.