I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Gene Edward Veith Jr. (PhD, University of Kansas) is the provost and professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk. He is the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity and culture, including Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature and Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind (releasing in November). He blogs at Cranach (hosted by Patheos) and can be followed on Twitter at @geneveith.
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Ernest Hemingway. “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
The book, published in 1884, was the first novel written in a distinctly American dialect, featuring an epic journey through the American physical and social landscape, written from a particularly American sensibility, and exploring uniquely American problems.
Unlike some classics, which a contemporary reader approaches out of a sense of duty and reads with great difficulty, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn brings back all the pleasures of reading. Mark Twain combines a tale of suspense, adventure, and melodrama with unforgettable characters, profound themes, and devastating social satire. Twain is not only a great novelist, he is a great humorist. He is one of the few authors who can be serious and funny at the same time. Readers of Huckleberry Finn will find themselves laughing out loud, even as they are moved to tears.
The story is told from the point of view and in the voice of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer’s street urchin friend. It begins as the sequel to Tom Sawyer with more amusing pranks in small town Missouri until the plot gets serious with the arrival of Huck’s murderous father. In escaping from him, Huck finds himself also helping Jim, a slave, escape to freedom. They float down the Mississippi on a raft, encountering adventures and colorful characters along the way, from families engaged in a Hatfield-and-McCoys-type feud to a pair of conmen who claim to be an English Duke and the rightful King of France. The goal is to reach Cairo, Illinois, where they can head north on the Ohio River to freedom for Jim. But they miss their turn and drift deeper and deeper into slave country.
On the Mississippi, Huck learns to see Jim not as a piece of property—which is how he is seen when they go ashore—but as a human being, a friend who is willing to sacrifice himself for Huck. The novel is a profound treatise on the evils of treating other human beings as mere objects to exploit, and it is one of the most moving indictments of slavery and of racism in all of literature.
And yet, nevertheless, in an irony of Mark Twain proportions, Huckleberry Finn is not allowed to be read today in many circles—and particularly in public schools—because it is charged with racism. The book, like the 19th-century Southern vernacular it is written in, uses the “N-word.” Jim, though the moral center of the novel, sometimes comes across as a racial stereotype, with some of Twain’s humor seeming reminiscent of the old racially offensive “minstrel shows.”
Thus, as it so often does, style trumps substance, with seemingly superficial details preventing people from even being able to see the underlying meaning.
But if readers cannot get beyond the “N-word,” I’d recommend holding off on Huckleberry Finn. Irony is reportedly the most difficult figure of speech to master, so if readers see only racism in the novel and not the way Twain is attacking that racism, they aren’t ready for this novel.
We often assume that books about children are for children. That isn’t always the case. There is actually much more than racism in the novel that would make modern parents squirm. Children smoking. Children drinking. Children running away. Children roaming all over town at will, doing dangerous things like swimming in the river and going into caves, and carrying on without constant adult supervision. (My own childhood was much more Huck-Finn like than that of my much-more protected children, who are now even more protective with my grandchildren.) The culture being what it is, let Huckleberry Finn be a book for adults.
But isn’t Mark Twain hostile to Christianity? Well, in his last years, Twain was a bitter man who inveighed against religion, even as he cultivated an almost Catholic veneration of St. Joan of Arc. But in Huckleberry Finn, he satirizes the conflict between what Christianity teaches and the cultural Christianity of the time. Thus, the Grangerford family is warm and kind, full of sincere Christian piety and good works—except that they are engaged in a blood feud with the equally devout Shepherdsons, and they have been killing each other’s children for generations, even though no one can remember how it all started or why they hate each other so much.
The turning point of the novel is when Huck decides to violate his conscience and everything he had been taught in Sunday School by helping Jim attain his freedom. Huck describes how he decided to turn his life around and follow the path of righteousness by turning in Jim to his rightful owners. But then, getting a glimpse of Jim’s humanity, Huck decides to help Jim escape, even though this would be stealing, and even though this crime would surely condemn him eternally. “All right, then,” Huck decides. “I’ll go to Hell.” That line has to make any Christian cringe. But one reason why we cannot be saved by our good works is that when we do them thinking that they will cause us to merit Heaven, that takes away their moral significance. Our sinful nature is such that we can even do good works for a selfish motive. With Huck, the moral universe is so topsy-turvy that a bad work (betraying a friend) is thought to be a good work, and a good work (helping a friend) is construed as a bad work. Instead of doing what is right in return for an eternal reward, Huck does what is right—loving and serving his neighbor—even though he expects it will earn him an eternal punishment. Again, more irony that can put many readers off. But in general, it is good for Christians to endure satires against hypocrisy and their own un-Christian attitudes and behavior. They help keep us in a state of repentance. In the last section of the novel, the poor but virtuous and realistic Huck meets up again with his friend Tom Sawyer with his middle-class status and wildly romantic ideals. Hemingway says that we should skip this last part, which just gets silly and turns the noble Jim into more of a clown. At the very end, Huck decides to do what Americans always used to do (when they could) after running into intractable problems: “light out for the Territory.” Go West, head for the frontier, start a new life. That’s basically what Mark Twain did in leaving the war-torn South for the silver mines of Nevada. The novel reminds the Christian reader that sin goes deep into the human heart and into human society and that it makes us all slaves; and it awakens a desire for freedom that can only come from Christ, who died to set us free. Others may not get that from the story. But Christians will.