RR: Hey, Eli, have you seen the recent flap about the censored version of Huckleberry Finn?
Eli: Yeah, I sure have–Huck Finn changed my life, and I can’t believe anyone would want to mess with him. Of course, I’ve always been for free speech big time, but I’m not so sure about you.
RR: Sure, I’m into free speech, although I’m more concerned about ethical speech right now. So, on the one hand, it’s unethical to speak about others in a way that robs them of their human dignity. On the other hand, I think Mark Twain was doing the exact opposite with the n-word. I mean, Jim, who is called that name countless times, is clearly the most menschy character in the whole book.
Eli: Yeah, he even succeeds in making a mensch out of Huck. But I’m up tight about analyzing the book too much, because it puts us on notice about that sort of thing:
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
Mark Twain’s taking the exact opposite position of your Political Correctness crowd, who want to make sure that every narrative has a wholesome motive and a sound moral message. I guess they finally got up the nerve to come after him 120 years later.
RR: Right, the n-word itself is essential to the moral that we’re not supposed to look for in the book. It provides a kind of divine reversal, although Mark Twain would have hated that adjective. The folks slinging around the word that dehumanizes a whole category of their fellow humans turn out to be less human than them. The greatest irony comes when Huck decides not to send a note telling Jim’s owner where Jim is, even though he fears he’ll be sent to hell for helping to conceal a runaway slave:
I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.
Eli: Cool, Mark Twain pretty effectively skewers religion on that one.
RR: Yeah, but I think Yeshua would have left that scene in just as he wrote it. It’s kind of like what he said to some religious experts of his day: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” Of course, Mark Twain didn’t have much use for the kingdom of God, either, he just let Jim the runaway slave act like a mensch among all those people who assumed he was somehow less than human, and it rubbed off on that other lowly character, Huck.
But what’s this about Huck Finn changing your life? How did that happen?
Eli: I first read Huckleberry Finn was I was 14, living in the San Fernando Valley in LA, and it planted this vision of freedom and wide open spaces in me. I wanted to just drift down the Mississippi in some primitive, well-wooded version of early America. Huck Finn was a big factor in my drop-out years. Without him, I might still be in Southern California, kvetching down the freeway with everyone else. I don’t know if I ever would have made it to the backwoods of Northern New Mexico. Of course, you’ll have to decide whether that was a good thing or not.