The Mormon Reader: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The idea for this grew out of a series of conversations I’ve been having with a Mormon kid in my high school English class about the books we read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has faced considerable criticism over the years: most recently for its use of racist language and a questionable depiction of an African American, more generally for its cynicism regarding human nature and criticism of social authority. Regardless, I would argue that Twain’s Realist premise — that idealism and social mandates ought to be rejected in the face of pragmatism and experience — raises some useful questions for the Mormon reader.

Twain’s overt satire of Christianity strikes many religious readers. The main target is religious hypocrisy, illustrated by the church-going habits of the feuding Grangerfords in chapter 18:

The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good , and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.

Rather than finding Twain’s criticism of the religious offensive, as some have done before, I find it instructive. As a critic of religious hypocrisy, Twain is in good company, and our scriptures are full of exhortations to put the ideals of our faith into practice. Softening the satiric blow, Twain offers the Widow Douglas as a foil to the hard religion of Miss Watson — and despite Huck’s bewildered resistance to her efforts, Twain presents her as a sympathetic character, judged by her good works and good intentions inspired by (or perhaps in spite of) her Christian ideology.

But Twain’s criticism of religion goes deeper. Early in the novel, Huck ruminates on the nature of prayer and the promises made by Miss Watson:

Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it.  She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it.  But it warn’t so.  I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks.  It warn’t any good to me without hooks.  I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.  By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool.  She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.

I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it.  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 snuffbox that was stole?  Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to my self, there ain’t nothing in it.

Ironically, while the appeals of prayer don’t work out for Huck, the appeals to Jim’s superstitions do seem to be reliable, and by juxtaposing these two experiences Twain equates the Christian practice of prayer with the folk superstitions of the slave society. Again, I find this instructive, although perhaps not in the way Twain intended. How would we answer Huck’s ‘innocent’ question? Do we represent prayer as a sort of magic? Does the widow Douglas’ explanation of praying for spiritual gifts resolve the issue adequately? While I cannot present a universal model for the role prayer plays in our world of natural laws and individual agency, I can see that an overly simplistic view of prayer may damage my faith. Twain’s criticism unwittingly encourages me to explore these issues more deeply and to negotiate between the ideals of faith and  experiences with religious practice.

While Twain’s ideas about religion are interesting, I find the central conflict of the novel, Huck’s relationship with Jim, equally pertinent to my Mormon experience. Slavery demands a generalization of the people involved. And although Huck accepts that slavery is good and opposition to slavery is wicked, personal involvement with Jim creates a conflict. The climax of that conflict comes when Huck decides to redeem himself by writing a letter to Jim’s owner so he can be returned to her:

 I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on ; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

Twain contrasts society’s general concept of right and wrong with his own experience with Jim, and for Huck the experience wins, at least for the moment. Notably, Huck never rejects slavery as a moral wrong: but he comes into conflict with what he has been taught as morally correct in the case of Jim.

I sometimes find myself in a similar position because of certain teachings of the church, especially those related to gender and the family. (I have similar feelings about what I have been taught at church about race, but the conflict is easier to resolve as I simply don’t believe those teachings to be true.) I am in no way implying that these teachings have the moral repugnance of slavery — my identification with Huck does not go nearly so far. No, what I see is the conflict between teachings of the church that generalize about people and my experience with actual people that I know. As Huck believes in slavery, I believe (or want to believe) in the eternal family, but out of these grow a set of generalizations (perhaps necessarily, perhaps not) about families which can be harmful to people I know. As I think about my friendships and experiences with homosexuals in and out of the church, single parent families and part-member families, to name a few, I find myself conflicted between doctrine and personal loyalty. For instance, I recently read Elder Nelson’s conference talk on Celestial Marriage: I believe what he says about the topic generally (I think), but the act of comparing the worth of my family to the families of people that I know and deeply love leaves me feeling, well, conflicted. And as an active, believing Mormon, that conflict is painful.

Twain uses the conflict to demonstrate the foolishness and weakness of the individual in the face of social pressure, and so he doesn’t offer me a resolution for my conflict. As I said, my identification with Huck on this issue is more limited than Twain’s general theme. For myself, I don’t see a clear solution to my conflict either. But reading Huck Finn has raised my awareness of the conflict, hopefully reducing my personal angst as I face the confrontation between the idealized and the experienced.

Comments

  1. Well, my first thought is that I don’t really put much value on Twain’s analysis — even if it tends to reflect common perspectives.

    Perhaps I’m biased because I attended a Jesuit University, and one of the things I learned is that if you want to understand Catholicism about the last thing you should do is talk to a parish priest or attend a Catholic Church. The people there aren’t theologians — they are administrators — and their analysis may reflect common perspectives, but hardly provide any understanding of the underlying religion.

    As to the conflicts that are illuminated, I could probably spend a lot of time discussing values, trade-offs, and goals of this existence, but suffice it to say that I find that both prophets and personal revelation are quite real. I would even suggest that personal revelation includes what is not revealed — some conflicts are purposeful.

  2. john willis says:

    Jeffrey Holland of the Quorum of the 12 got a Ph.D in English Literature and his doctoral dissertation was on Mark Twain’s religous sense. He gave a BYU devotional on in in 1977.

  3. I don’t put much weight on talks by any particular church members — even Quorum members. Like I said, I’m partial to prophets and personal revelation.

    And even among prophets, it seems to me that each varies in quality of revelation and quality of interpretation of that revelation.

    But that is just my perspective…

  4. TonyD, I don’t quite get you.

  5. Count me in, Norbert!

    But I do think that Twain is a problematic author for us if we’re looking for steady rudders. I don’t know that even Huck Finn is consistent.

  6. I totally agree. That’s why I think he’s better for raising interesting questions than providing solid answers.

  7. Elder Holland received a PhD in American Studies, which is *not* the same thing as English Literature.

    (I am in no way attempting to denigrate the value of Elder Holland’s PhD. But if you’re going to attempt to make a point about an apostle’s credentials, please get the credential right.)

  8. john willis says:

    Thanks for the correction.

  9. One of the interesting things that comes out of Huck’s quandary is his resolution to pray, asking for help in strengthening his resolve to turn in his friend. Most of us would conclude that this is the wrong approach, because we have a different perspective on slavery than does Huck, but his experience can be applied to moral conflicts that are more applicable to us.

    I can imagine, for example, a California member praying for help in strengthening his resolve to support prop 8, despite reservations based on personal experience with homosexual friends. Huck’s conclusion is equally instructive for us: “You can’t pray a lie.”

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray about such things. It does mean that, when our conscience is telling us one thing, it’s not much use to ask for help in ignoring our conscience.

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