More than one hundred years have passed since the death of one of America’s finest wits, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). His characters still live on in the national imagination. They are stark images, as rough and ready as the everyman, and they shine light on the nature of what it means to be American. Of those characters, Huckleberry Finn is the manifest expression of the American identity. But even this conception does disservice to the young river wanderer. Huck Finn is larger than a country. He is all of us. We are attracted to his compassion, and we fear his demons.
Huck coexists with his demons—some his own, some his culture’s—not the least of which is religion. The crucifix found on his father’s boot heel is perhaps the darkest image Huck encounters. The sight of that grim stamp on the ground sends shivers through the boy, and rightly so. It signifies precipitous abuse and potential captivity by an absent father. Sound familiar? Luckily, Huck is strong, and in one of the greatest affirmations of individual freedom in American literature, the boy leaves behind the tyrant father in favor of direct engagement with the natural world.
Huck is the embodiment of the American impulse, and it is decidedly a secular one. The last line of Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (first published in the United States in 1885) should draw admiration from every reader: at the prospect that Aunt Sally will “sivilize me,” Huck responds, “I can’t stand it. I been there before.” We can presume that civilizing Huck would include religion, but part of the lesson we learn from Huck is that prayer is as passive as it is unsubstantial. It is part of the Christian dogma that Twain condemned as justifying the unforgivable institution of slavery. The boy Samuel Clemens remembered reciting Bible verses in Sunday school that provided the moral justification for an immoral system. Even the most liberal and conciliatory within the fold recognize that these grotesque verses abound in the Scripture. Somehow, the more secular morality evolves, the more so-called enlightened believers struggle to conform their tired religion to the progress of modernity. For Twain, the difference is clear: Christianity is of the land; Huck is of the river. On the river, in the absence of religious dogma, a black man and a white boy are able to look at each other as two human beings. Huck need not pray for this—he experiences it. Jim doesn’t appeal to a ghostly dictator for salvation—he finds it in the eyes of a friend.
One of the most striking and brave episodes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Huck’s outright rejection of Christianity. I suspect that the further we get in time from the novel, the more revelatory this episode will become in defining the American identity:
I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me. [Chapter 3]
Huck has no use for religion. He is a born naturalist. More important, Huck becomes a progressive humanist. He does not need religion to guide his moral compass. To the contrary, the further Huck withdraws from the Christian law of the land, the truer his needle aligns. When Huck comes close to failing his friend, religion is at fault, not the nature of the boy. His mediated “conscience,” which is strapped to the conventions of civilization and the moral tutelage of the Widow Douglas, nearly convinces him to turn Jim in. “Conscience says to me, ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? . . . Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners. . . . That’s what she done.”
The book he is referring to is, of course, the Bible. Jim is only a “nigger” because that is what the Bible says he is. But Huck knows better and proves so by his actions. Nonetheless, that inveterate and unrelenting specter of religious guilt dogs the boy and, for a second, convinces him that Jim is less than a human being. This is Huck’s religious “conscience” speaking; this is not Huck Finn. Dogma has convinced the young boy that Jim is a piece of property, mere chattel. The child has done nothing more than internalize the message from the Good Book, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
But despite all the propaganda that Christian society has thrust on him, Huck retains his humanity. Deep within himself, he finds secular reasons for protecting Jim: human solidarity, friendship, empathy, shared tragedy. Huck, on the river, begins to see himself in Jim—a lost soul in a morally corrupt world. Both slave and child undergo severe abuse that goes ignored by so-called Christian morality. But as two humanists, Huck and Jim outpace the weary and tired antagonism that religion shoves on humanity. In this respect, Huckleberry Finn is not merely for America—he is for all humankind.