Facing Huckleberry Finn’s Ironic Mirror:
Heaven, Hell, and Banned Books in America
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
If there’s one good thing that arises from the ineradicable virus of humanity’s urge to ban books, it’s that it constantly keeps the targeted books fresh in the public’s awareness—unless, of course, a ban somehow becomes effective and permanently eradicates a book from circulation. It’s impossible to know exactly how many books or authors were suppressed or purged forever by such tyrannies as the Inquisition or the Soviet Union, but in a country where the First Amendment is under constant challenge by a spectrum of forces that includes the fanatic fringes, well-organized establishments, and even people sworn to uphold the Amendments enshrined in the Constitution itself, the effect is often happily the opposite of what these forces intend.
One of the greatest touchstones of American literature—and of America’s attempt to censor itself—is Mark Twain’s endlessly challenging and endlessly rewarding 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like all great works of literature, this is a novel that’s always fresh, radically opening and transforming the minds of every generation (and, more important, every individual) lucky enough to have access to its deeply reflective American self-portrait. We read this book, and in its mirror we discover ourselves, and our country, and our world. In addressing the specter of banning books, this novel is often a central focus of debate, and as a result of the dynamic tension between the competing ideologies of democracy and authoritarianism over this book’s fate, not only does Huckleberry Finn remain constantly relevant, but so does the question, “Why Huckleberry Finn?”
Perhaps the irony of how efforts to ban this book have only kept it and its narrator as alive as ever is a reflection of the book’s contents and characters themselves—as well as a reflection of the contents of our own characters. In the nearly Shakespearean play that takes place between Huckleberry and Jim on their boatride down the Mississippi, the ironies that arise are seemingly endless, and the relativities of knowledge and truth are held up to the reader to illustrate a world in which black can be white and up can be down and north can be south. In reflecting on his conversations with Jim, Huck is often completely confused about what’s true and what’s not, at turns mocking Jim’s wisdom as folly and praising his folly as wisdom. There may be some of Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly in how these ironies illustrate deep truths, and yet it’s only the reader—and not the characters themselves—who get to comprehend something of the whole truth, which shows us our own follies as citizens and as human beings.
In perhaps the novel’s key scene, Huckleberry tears himself apart over how he’d been helping Jim escape from slavery and tries to figure out what to do now that Jim has been captured. He thinks to himself, “There was the 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.” He tries to come up with alternatives that will make his pain over Jim’s return to captivity easier to bear, and he initially decides to write to Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, so that she’ll pay the reward and Jim won’t be sold to someone else. This decision tears him up too, though, and when he realizes that he has to help Jim escape, he tears up his letter to Miss Watson and says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”
In a 1986 interview, novelist Cynthia Ozick speaks of the moral imagination and discusses the deep human beauty of Huckleberry’s decision to go to hell:
“That’s a great religious book, Huckleberry Finn, because Huckleberry in his innocence calls it hell, but we as readers know that at that moment, he’s entered the kingdom of heaven. He doesn’t [know it], because he’s a child of his society. But the wonder of that book is that we know it. And that book teaches us that. We know something that Huck Finn doesn’t know, but Mark Twain has put it in our heads so that we know it even though his character doesn’t. And I would call that a great piece of liturgical literature . . . because it praises humanity.”
As children of a slightly altered society, we as readers can see the irony in the morality at play in this scene. But in a perhaps immoral irony, the people who have banned this book (or are still trying to ban it) want to use their own morality as a reason to shield us from the truths that the book illuminates. Some parents object to having their children read a book with the word “nigger” in it, but the truth is that ours is a nation built by slave labor, and the word “nigger” is deeply ingrained into the history of who we are as a people. Is it the word “nigger” that book-banners object to, or is it that they object to having us learn the truth that owning “niggers” was for centuries considered legal and even biblically moral in our country? Do they want us to think that blacks and whites enjoy an even playing field now and that our very recent (and very current) racial divides should be forgotten? And do they want to keep us from observing Huckleberry’s struggle with his society’s ostensible morality—a struggle that makes us question the veracity of the received moralities of our own struggling society?
I remember first reading this book as a child and being aghast at the idea that setting a slave free would mean going to hell. I argued to Huck, “You’re so confused! You don’t understand at all that it’s slavery that’s the sin!” And of course he was confused. But so was I. I needed to go through Huck’s full journey to see that we are a confused people living in a society where heaven can easily be taken for hell, and vice-versa. If book-banners were ever to take Huckleberry Finn from us, perhaps we’d never see the ironies that can come into play when immoral authorities tell us what leads to heaven and what leads to hell. And perhaps we’d never truly see ourselves.