The moral climax of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes in Chapter 31 when the escaped slave Jim is recaptured to be returned to his owner, the widow Miss Watson. Huck and Jim have formed a close bond on the raft and Huck wants to help Jim get free of his current captors before he can be returned to Miss Watson. Huck is having pangs of conscience over this because in the setting of the antebellum South where the story takes place, helping a slave to freedom is not only illegal but according to the mores of the time, quite immoral and wicked as well.
Huck is torn between his compassion for Jim, who has befriended him with loyalty and trust at a time when he desperately needed it, and the laws and customs of the world in which he lives which would condemn him for his beguiling thoughts:
The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “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.”
To follow his conscience and help Jim to freedom was to go against all that he had been come to know to be good and proper, and would surely condemn him to the “everlasting fire.” He decided to pray for guidance:
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
Huck figures if he would just write a letter to Miss Watson and tell her where Jim was, he’d be able to escape his mental distress, knowing he had done the right thing. He took paper and pencil and wrote the following:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
It worked. Just writing the letter elevated his spirit. It made him obedient to the antebellum society’s demands. It made him feel much better. Well, for a while, that is:
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, sometimes 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 sleeping; 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.
And then Huck knew he could not send that letter to Miss Watson. He knew that no matter what he knew of the time in which he lived he could not live up to those expectations, at any cost. So then we get the thesis sentence of the novel, the reason Mark Twain wrote it, the reason we still read it because it’s one of the greatest books ever written, because it defines what we as Americans stand for and is what makes America exceptional, Huck picks up the paper and makes his epiphanic decision:
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. 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.
Today high school students and even college students are given a bowlderized version of Huck Finn to read that leaves out much of the above and sanitizes it by changing all of the N-words to something palatable to “modern sensitivity.” Wendy Kaminer was recently hooted off the stage at Brown University for having the temerity to suggest that students should read the book Mark Twain wrote instead of the version race baiters prefer. Only an idiot could believe that Twain was being racist when he wrote the book in the English vernacular of the time and place in which it was set.
What a calamitous shame.