Prose Toad Literary Blog

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Dawn of the Modern Age

I believe it was Hemingway that said all modern American literary writing is derived from one book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. You can find an excellent free copy of the great book in Project Gutenberg. There is one section in HF in particular that any English prof worth his salt will pin point in a fierce lecture. To set the scene, Huck has run away from a churchy Aunt Polly and a drunken, abusive father. He rafts down the Mississippi River and picks up Aunt Polly’s slave, Jim. Jim is afraid he'll be sold off from his wife and children. Jim and Huck share various adventures, but they get into real trouble when two thieves, The King and The Duke threaten Jim’s freedom. Indeed, Jim would be sold down the river. The easy way out would be for Huck to write a letter to Aunt Polly. Then Jim would be Aunt Polly’s slave again. In the mid-19th Century, the ownership of a slave seemed most natural. Jim was a nigger and that meant he had no standing. Men and women were sold every day. Children were sent off never to be seen again. The misery of servile labor and harsh conditions seemed the natural order of the universe. In fact, the local preacher would rationalize: God intended the animal like nigger to live under the guidance of Christian whites. The following passage is the dawn of the modern age:

“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 wea-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.

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