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Huck's Heresy

by David Cozy


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2.


Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 at the height of the abolitionists' struggle to end slavery, Stowe strove to make readers aware of the evils of that institution and in so doing to win sympathy and support for the antislavery forces. As Uncle Tom's Cabin was effective in doing that, it was an important weapon in the abolitionists' arsenal. Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, did not appear in the United States until 1885, more than twenty years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As slavery had long ceased to exist in the United States and, with each passing year, had fewer supporters, Huckleberry Finn was not-indeed could not have been-part of any anti-slavery movement. There was no slavery left to oppose.

It is no accident, though, that slavery does play an important role in Huckleberry Finn. Twain could have sent his narrator down the river in the company of a White friend such as Tom Sawyer, but he did not. He chose, instead, to make Huck's traveling companion an escaped slave, Jim. In introducing a slave, and thus slavery, into his book, Twain was not endeavoring to awaken readers to the wickedness of an institution that had ceased to exist. Most of his readers, he knew, had long been awake to that wickedness. Rather, Twain uses his attack on slavery, an attack with which the majority of his public would already agree, to gain from his mostly Christian audience a sympathetic reading of his radical assault on their religion.

Though Twain's narrator links slavery with Christianity as early as the first mention of Black people in Huckleberry Finn—"By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers"—it is necessary to remember that, as Tom Quirk has noted, Huck is "quick to perceive, slow to comprehend." Thus Twain's narrator is unaware that he is setting up this association between Christianity and slavery and therefore does not make it explicit, much less grasp what such a connection might imply. Alert readers, though, in large part because of the nonstandard English Huck speaks, will have begun to understand, even this early in the novel, that the uneducated adolescent narrator is naďve. They will have accepted Twain's tacit invitation to come to their own, more sophisticated, conclusions about the phenomena Huck describes. That Twain does not do the work for his readers of explaining the connection between religion and slavery and of elucidating what that connection implies but instead forces his audience to figure it out for themselves, makes his radical view of their religion much less alienating for his Christian readers than a more direct statement of that view would have been.

Twain's narrator is never explicit, but still, the connection between Christianity and slavery, and what Twain believes that connection implies, is hard to miss. In fact, it is difficult to find a character in the novel who is identified as a Christian and who does not have his or her morality called into question over, in addition to other
transgressions, involvement with slavery. The Grangerfords, for example, attend church and not only enjoy the sermons "all about brotherly love and such-like tiresomeness" but also relish them at length afterwards. Their enthusiastic Christianity does not, however, prevent them from engaging in a decades-long orgy of mutual murder with the Shepherdsons or from enslaving more than a hundred black people.
Twain takes pains in this section to dissociate his narrator from the slavery he has been using to attack Christianity. He has Huck report that the slave provided for him at the Grangerfords "had a monstrous easy time, because I warn't used to having anybody do anything for me. . . ." That Twain takes such pains is further evidence that he is working from the premise that slavery is evil and that anything in sympathetic association with it is, by implication, evil, too. If Huck were depicted as in any way a fellow traveler of the slave holders, readers who deplored slavery would be skeptical about his perceptions and what his perceptions imply. This skepticism would extend, of course, to his observations concerning religion.

Huck's arrival at the Phelps's farm provides Twain with further opportunity to strengthen the connection he has been sketching between the wickedness of slavery and the Christian religion. As the novel neared its end, Twain needed to take advantage of these final chapters to be sure that the link he had been working to forge was made vivid. Thus, where the Grangerfords were merely Christian, Silas Phelps is not just Christian but a Christian preacher. While the Grangerfords own slaves but are never depicted as being cruel to them (with the significant exception, of course, of enslaving them in the first place), the Phelpses are shown imprisoning a slave, putting him in chains and restricting him to a diet of bread and water (but not neglecting to pray with him). Further, when the slave escapes, the Phelpses organize a gang of armed vigilantes to pursue him. As Huck reports that ". . . some of [this gang] wanted to hang Jim for an example to all the other niggers . . . ," it is clear that the Phelpses' vigilantes could easily have become a lynch mob. In fact, it is only the timely reminder that the mob may have to reimburse his owner—not Christian ideals of charity or forgiveness—that saves Jim from a cruel death.

Thus, in his treatment of the Grangerfords and of the Phelpses, Twain uses slavery and his mostly Christian readers' opposition to it to gain a more sympathetic reading for his attacks on their religion. In his treatment of Jim, he does likewise. Once again he plays on his public's repugnance for slavery to advance his attack on Christianity, but he does so this time by reversing the association. Rather than associate the bad (slavery) with Christianity, here Twain associates the good (the escaped slave, Jim) with a lack of Christianity (Jim's beliefs can best be characterized as a combination of paganism and nature lore). Twain takes advantage of his readers' antipathy for slavery and the sympathy they would feel for one who had escaped from bondage to make his subversive association of the good with the non-Christian more enticing.

Jim, of course, as an escaped slave, has little choice but to oppose slavery, and thus, according to Twain's scheme, to be a non-Christian. Huck, on the other hand, has a choice, and it is a difficult one for him. He spends a great deal of time wrestling with his conscience over whether he should turn Jim in. In the scene where he finally decides, once and for all, not to do so, it is crucial to note that he expresses his decision in religious terms. Tearing up the letter he has written to alert Miss Watson to Jim's whereabouts, he exclaims, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." In having his narrator invoke the religious notion of hell, Twain is driving home the point that Huck's decision to oppose slavery, to do the right thing, is fundamentally opposed to Christianity. To be a good Christian, on the other hand, Huck would have to commit himself to doing the morally repugnant thing. Once again Twain has used slavery-in this case Huck's rejection of it-as a tool to savage his real target, Christianity.

Lest anyone doubt that this is Twain's aim, he has Huck, shortly before he arrives at his decision, give his most explicit statement of the connection between the evil of slavery and the Christian religion. In deliberating over whether to betray Jim, he reminds himself: "There was a Sunday-school, you could 'a' gone to it; and if you'd 'a' done it they'd 'a' learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire." To help a slave escape, an act that most of Twain's readers would, two decades after the Civil War, recognize as morally correct, is here identified without equivocation as anti-Christian. Even Twain's Christian readers, however, will understand that Huck is doing the right thing, and, thanks to the sympathy and affection they will have developed for him over the first three-quarters of the novel, they will perhaps, even if only in the moment of reading, be seduced into accepting Twain's equation of Christianity with the evil of slavery and, by implication, with evil in all its forms.

The irony of these scenes lies, of course, in Huck's belief that by aiding Jim he is committing a despicable act. What makes this ironic is that Twain's readers will understand that he is, in fact, doing good. Indeed the irony is so broad that no reader of even minimal sophistication could miss it. What many readers have missed, though, is that Twain's irony has a target, and that the target is the same one he has been battering throughout the novel, the Christian religion.

Why is it that even sophisticated readers, in Twain's time and our own, have, for the most part, been oblivious to this? The answer to this question is clear. While slavery is something all right-thinking people deplore and enjoy deploring together, to criticize Christianity is taboo. This was true in Twain's time and remains true today. Ignoring Twain's criticism of religion and reading Huckleberry Finn as an attack on slavery and, by extension, racism, makes it a part of the moral mainstream. Reducing Twain's masterpiece, though, to a moral feel-good book not only blunts the novel's edge, but more important, refuses to acknowledge what is being cut.


David Cozy has lived in Japan for two decades. He reviews books for The Japan Times and Asahi Shimbun. His fiction and literary criticism has also appeared in the Kyoto Journal, The Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Antigonish Review, and Faces in the Crowds: A Tokyo International Anthology.


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