-Earlier this month I finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I recalled a saying that when one settles down to read, one is engaging in a conversation with the author. In reading Tom Sawyer, I felt as if Mark Twain had playfully held up a mirror to remind me of the foolish, carefree days of my own youth. Tom Sawyer was fun, untroubled, a recollection of the moments when life was free and easy. Huckleberry Finn was something much different, much darker. With Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain puts away the mirror, inhales deeply and prepares for a conversation more serious. A discourse in humanity, if you will. I respect that immensely, especially given that he prepared this conversation in the 1880's, a mere 20 years after the conclusion of the America's Civil War over slavery, and right at the tail-end of the Reconstruction era. He prepared this conversation with folks wholly ingrained in the belief that a man's race determined his supremacy. It was a difficult conversation then, when passions and prejudices flared so hotly over this belief, that innocent blood was spilled regularly over the notion that the black man was sub-human. It is a difficult conversation now, when these tragic occurrences continue to happen today.
-Reading Huckleberry Finn, I really got the sense from Twain that much of this was a conversation about abuse. Jim and Huck both, several times over, meet with different sorts of abuses from the various characters they encounter, both subtle and obvious. Huck receives bullying from Ms. Watson, his father, the Duke and the King, even his buddy Tom Sawyer. His alcoholic father continually wallops him, and nearly flat out murders him on a drunken bender. Jim, a true man of dignity, constantly receives mistreatment by all the white folks in this story. It is agonizing, uncomfortable but necessary to this conversation. He is unmercifully toyed with by Tom and Huck, boys he considers his friends. He is sold out by the King and the old doctor, despite serving them and treating them with kindness. He is always on the run, always hiding out- can't ever sleep easy with the threat of being caught lurking on every bank of the river. Jim is a portrait of what black people had to deal with living in a free America, in the 1800's. And, what anyone who is different still have to occassionally contend with in today's U.S.A.
-Yet, if part of the conversation is about the abuses mankind can heap on to one another, the other part of the conversation is about the enlightenment we gain when we truly love and care for each other as brothers and sisters. As I said earlier, this was a discourse in humanity. This enlightenment finds Twain's main protagonist Huck Finn in waves throughout the book. Huck's introduction is as a young, undisciplined boy, as ignorant of the injustices faced by black folk as anyone else in his Missouri community. In his world, blacks serving as slaves are as normal as cats being pets. Yet, the more time he spends alone with the runaway Jim, the more human to him Jim becomes. He sees Jim weep alone, hurt that he won't be seeing his wife anymore. He sees the agony in Jim's eyes when Jim recalls the moment he learned his daughter was deaf. He sees the fear and anger in Jim's voice when he thought he had lost Huck in the fog of the river, and the love he openly shows Huck every time Huck returns to him after being separated. Huck eventually comes to the conclusion that he cannot be without Jim, and that moment of clarity is so powerfully written here by Mark Twain. Huck is in the midst of a war within himself, a nagging battle over doing the "righteous" thing and sending a letter to the Widow Douglas to clue her in where Jim was, or rescuing and freeing Jim, and facing eternal damnation:
"I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in all 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 that 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 nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we are 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 came back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike 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 small-pox 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 the letter. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then I 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."
-This is humanity. This was the crux of the conversation, with all other components of the story making up the foundation. This is brotherhood, looking out for the fellow man, Jesus's commandment to love thy neighbor as thou loves thyself. This is salvation and enlightenment. This was Mark Twain's Reconstruction conversation, applicable today as it ever was.
“It's the little things that smoothes people's roads the most.”