The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Part 1: Crash Course Literature #302


In which John Green teaches you about Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This week, we’ll talk a little bit about Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who wrote under the name Mark Twain, and how he mined his early life for decades to produce his pretty well-loved body of work. By far the best of Twain’s novels, Huckleberry Finn has a lot to say about life in America around the Civil War, and it resonates today with its messages on race, class, and what exactly freedom is.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature,
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and today we’re on a raft, floating down the great American river, reading the great american novel.
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That’s right, today we’re going to be discussing Mark Twain’s the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
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Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s the best book we’ve had.”
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“All American writing comes from that,” he added, and then threatened to punch anyone who disagreed.
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He was such an American Ernest Hemingway!
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Mr. Green, Mr. Green! No, no, no, Hemingway lived like half his life in France!?
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Well played, Me from the past, and he spent much of the rest of his life in Key West, which I also don’t think is really America.
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But anyway, Me From the Past, it doesn’t matter where you hung out with F Scott Fitzgerald,
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it matters where you died, and Hemingway died in Idaho, which is proper America!
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I’m sorry, what are we talking about today? Huck Finn?
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[Theme Music]
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So, today we’ll look briefly at the creator of Huck Finn, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. A.K.A. Mark Twain.
00:53
We’ll talk through the plot and what makes the book so important in American literature,
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and why it’s still quite controversial.
00:59
In our next video, we’ll explore some of the metaphors — the river, the raft —
01:03
and talk about why when people call Huck Finn the Great American Novel, they generally mean,
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“well, but not the last 50 pages.”
01:09
So, Sam Clemens was born to a not especially prosperous family in Missouri in 1835, the sixth of seven children.
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His father died when he was 11.
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He quit school in the fifth grade. He then became a printer’s apprentice.
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He would later go on to squander the fortune he made writing by trying to reinvent printing.
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But by the age of 15, Clemens was writing funny articles and essays for the paper his brother owned,
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and he was hanging out in public libraries, reading whatever he could, still trying to give himself an education.
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And then, in 1859 he got a license to pilot steamboats, which is basically his boyhood dream,
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and that’s how he came to know the Mississippi River, which he wrote about in “Life on the Mississippi”,
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and again with passion and precision in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
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Apparently, a steamboat needs a certain depth of water to run safely
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and so a sailor called a leadsman would throw a weighted rope over the side to measure the depth.
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That’s how he got his pen name. So right, Clemens got his license to pilot steam boats in 1859.
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Careful students of American history will know that, you know, something big was about to happen.
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In 1861 the American Civil War broke out, and Clemens volunteered for the Confederate side.
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That’s right, the man who wrote one of the great anti-slavery, anti-racist novels in American history was a Confederate soldier.
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For two weeks.
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He then decided war wasn’t for him, and followed his brother West to the Nevada territory.
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You can read about all of this — the boats, the weird ragtag confederate militia he was in, Nevada.
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Twain never had an experience as a boy or a young man that he didn’t mine for literature.
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Twain had his first great success in 1865 when he was 30 years old,
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with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
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and his writing career just hopped on steadily after that I’m sorry.
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“Huckleberry Finn” though, was published in 1884.
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It was a sequel to the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
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I have to say that although I am a huge fan of Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is not a great novel.
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In fact, I think it’s read today, mostly only for two reasons: One. Because it’s the prequel to Huck Finn,
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and two, because it’s considered somehow less controversial than Huck Finn.
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Which it is, but it is also much less interesting.
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Right, so Huck Finn is one of those rare examples — like Aliens or The Empire Strikes Back —
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where the sequel outclasses the original.
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At first, Twain had a hard time writing the book.
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He began work in 1876 and wrote to a friend,
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“I like it only tolerably well…and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when it is done.”
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And he did pigeonhole it for about six years, but then he returned to it in a frenzy of all-day, every day writing.
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Huckleberry Finn, the son of the town drunk, is the sidekick character in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
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He lives rough and never has to go to school and is pretty much the envy of all the other boys.
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But at the end of that first book he agrees to go and live with the Widow Douglas and become “sivilized” so that he can join Tom Sawyer’s gang.
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The question of what constitutes “getting sivilized” is at the very center of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
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And so it begins right there, some time in the 1830s, a few decades before the Civil War.
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With Huck going to live with the widow.
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Huck, who narrates the book himself and is maybe 14 years old, doesn’t take well to what he’s told constitutes civilization.
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Nice clothes are itchy, table manners are confusing,
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he doesn’t understand why the Widow is always trying to tell him Bible stories about dead people.
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He’s lonely in the house and his only fun is sneaking off with Tom Sawyer.
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But all of that changes when his father, Pap, kidnaps him and locks him in a shack.
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After an evening in which his drunken father nearly kills him,
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Huck fakes his own death, escapes in a found canoe, and paddles to a nearby island.
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Quick pause here to note that in the beginning of the novel, there are just these two ways of being and adult.
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The civilized way embodied by the widow.
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Which involves, like, clean clothes, and religion, and institutional racism.
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And then the uncivilized way of being, embodied by Huck’s father —
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which involves, like, terrible alcoholism, trying to kill your children, and institutional racism.
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But on the river island, away from both of these models of adulthood,
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Huck encounters Jim, a slave who ran away when he learned that his mistress, the Widow’s sister,
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planned to sell him down the river, away from his family.
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Now it’s critical to the novel to understand that Huck believes that the right thing to
04:57
do in this situation is not to assist an escaped slave.
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He believes that the ethically correct thing to do, the civilized thing to do,
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and also, by the way, the legal thing to do, is to turn that escaped slave in.
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But in Jim, Huck finds a companion and, in a lot of ways, a surrogate father.
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And so there’s an immediate tension between what Huck calls his conscience,
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which is the social order, telling him that he ought to turn this escaped slave in,
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and his actual conscience, which is saying, “hmmm maybe not.”
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But when Huck learns that Jim is suspected of Huck’s murder and that men are hunting him for a reward,
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he says to Jim: “Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain’t a minute to lose.
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They’re after us!” And that “us” is really important.
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It’s only Jim they are after, but this makes it clear Huck has decided to team up with Jim.
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From that moment they set out on the raft, and their adventures really begin.
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They face all kinds of dangers and meet all kinds of people — some nice, some sinister —
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and get into all sorts of trouble before they team up with Tom Sawyer again
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and Tom devises an elaborate and cruel plan to win Jim his freedom.
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What Tom knows, but Huck don’t, is that Jim is already free, his mistress freed him on her deathbed.
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So, in the end, Tom forces Jim to undergo an ordeal that’s just Tom’s nasty idea of a good time.
06:07
The adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not immediately recognized as a great novel.
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A lot of the early reviews weren’t terrific
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and there were several attempts to ban it on the grounds that it would corrupt any young person who read it.
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The Concord Public Library called it “trashy and vicious.”
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But pretty soon there was widespread recognition of the novel’s importance.
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Some of this has to do with plotting, and some of it has to do with style and language.
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Like, Lionel Trilling, in one of the most famous essays on Huckleberry Finn,
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argued that it was the language that really sets the book apart.
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Before Huckleberry Finn pretty much all the American writers thought that
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if you were writing an important book it had to be formal and high-flown, like James Fennimore Cooper.
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Twain, by the way, hated James Fenimore Cooper’s books.
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If you ever want a good read, you should look up “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
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It’s a Twain essay that includes lines like: “Cooper’s art has some defects.
06:53
In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ in the restricted space of two thirds of a page,
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Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”
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But, unlike ‘The Deerslayer,’ the language of Huckleberry Finn is deliberately down to earth.
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It’s casual, it’s ungrammatical, it’s frequently and deliberately misspelled.
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The genius of the book, Trilling wrote, “has something to do with the ease and freedom of the language.
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Most of all it has to do with the structure of the sentence, which is simple, direct and fluent,
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maintaining the rhythm of the word groups of speech, and the intonations of the speaking voice.”
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Right. At its best, Mark Twain’s writing sounds like talking.
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Which is, of course, much harder than it seems, and it signaled a real watershed moment in American literature.
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Let’s Go to the Thought Bubble.
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What makes the book truly significant is its treatment of the relationship between Huck, a poor white boy,
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and Jim, an enslaved African-American man.
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Twain may have written this book after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery,
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but America was and of course, is a nation deeply shaped by racism,
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so the friendship between the two characters and the emergent moral intelligence that it foists upon Huck
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are what really makes the book unusual.
08:00
As we saw, Huck first throws in his lot with Jim when they’re still on the island,
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but throughout their journey Huck struggles with the idea of what it means to help a runaway slave,
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and what it means to treat Jim as a comrade and a friend.
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This is partly due to Huck’s conscience, which is telling him over and over that he’s
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going to go to actual Hell for helping Jim.
08:18
But in the beginning of the book, Huck can be quite cruel to Jim.
08:21
Early in the book, he and Tom Sawyer play a trick on Jim, hanging his hat in a tree so that Jim,
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who is very superstitious, thinks that witches have taken it, which Jim is very proud of.
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But later in the book, Huck tries to pull another prank,
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making Jim think that his fear that Huck was lost in the fog was only a dream.
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But Jim knows it’s a trick he tells Huck that people who try to make others feel ashamed are trash.
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Now, of course, Huck is an expert at tricks and telling lies.
08:44
Through the book he never uses the same name or the same origin story with any two people he meets
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and the people almost always believe him.
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Well, except for when he dresses up as a girl. He’s really bad at being a girl.
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But on the raft Huck learns that you can’t trick the people you care about.
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So Huck feels ashamed for trying to trick Jim, and eventually works himself up to apologize.
09:02
He says, and I’m quoting selectively here, “I done it, and I weren’t ever sorry for it afterwards neither.”
09:07
Thanks, Thought Bubble. And on the topic of me selectively quoting,
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we now need to take a short break to talk about the language that Twain uses to describe Jim.
09:15
You know what? Let’s just do this as an open letter.
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Let’s see what’s in the secret compartment today.
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Oh! It’s Mark Twain.
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I like your suit, buddy. Hi Mark Twain, it’s me, John Green. First off, big fan.
09:25
Secondly, in your novel, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’
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Huck and other characters use the n-word, to describe Jim many, many times.
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This is the reason most often cited for the banning of your book here in the 21st century,
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so it’s important to talk about.
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And it’s important to understand that when you were writing the book, it was already an offensive term.
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Like, abolitionists had been arguing that we should use the term person of color as early as 1825.
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And since your work is no longer protected by copyright,
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editions have been published of Huckleberry Finn in which that word is changed.
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But whether or not you, personally were racist, Mark Twain, your book, I would argue, isn’t.
10:00
According to the scholar David L. Smith, the word, quote,
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“establishes a context against which Jim’s specific virtues may emerge as explicit refutations of racist presuppositions.”
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It’s really important to understand that although Huck seems like a pretty good kid,
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the social order has taught him to dehumanize Jim.
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To treat him as property, rather than as a person, but Jim’s humanity forces Huck to contend with him as a person.
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And that’s what makes your book so, so good.
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Best Wishes. John Green.
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It’s this recognition of Jim’s humanity that leads Huck, in the climactic scene in Chapter 16,
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to break with all the morality and religion he knows.
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When he learns that Jim’s plan is to gain his freedom and gain the freedom of his wife and children,
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Huck writes a letter informing his mistress, but then he tears it up.
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Huck has been taught to confuse social law with divine law.
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And he sincerely believes that helping a slave is a terrible sin that will lead to damnation.
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And he has been with the Widow long enough that Hell is a real place for him,
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but he ultimately decides that it doesn’t matter.
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He will risk damnation if it means he can help Jim.
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He tears up the letter, saying, “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell…
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It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.
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And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.”
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Huck rejects what he has been told is civilization, while also rejecting his father’s version of uncivilization,
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and for me at least, that’s why he’s a hero.
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As Twain said in his lectures, Huckleberry Finn is a book
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“where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”
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And that’s where we’ll leave Huck and his sound heart for today —
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unreformed, unrepentant, realizing that he has to follow his own moral path, whatever the risks.
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And maybe that’s where Twain should have left it, too.
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But instead, we get a jumbled mess of an ending that is often criticized,
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but which I will do my best to defend next week.
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Thank you again for watching. And as we say in my hometown: Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

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