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"I WOULDN'T BE AS IGNORANT AS YOU FOR WAGES": HUCK TALKS BACK TO HIS CONSCIENCE Gregg Camfield University of Pennsylvania Most readers of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn find the climactic scene in which Huck decides to go to hell to be the moral center of the book, seeing Huck's decision to throw away the stereotypes of his culture in favor of his obligation to Jim as a conversion to a higher morality. But in the scholarship trying to explain the meaning of that conversion, critics have, not surprisingly, come to radically different conclusions about what the passage means. According to one school of thought, Huck the empiricist has tested his culture's mores by experience and found them wanting. Another school argues that Huck is a Romantic, whose innately good heart perceives a transcendental morality from which his culture has tried, in vain, to alienate him. Much evidence goes to support the former notion. Particularly, we know that Clemens, reacting to W. E. H. Lecky's 1879 History of European Morals, came to support the utilitarian idea that morality is merely learned and that moral behavior is contingent ultimately upon selfishness. Indeed, this seems to be the consensus opinion now, with the annotation in the Iowa-California edition of the novel referring to Clemens' utilitarianism in the note to a parallel passage, the Chapter 16 episode in which Huck's lie about smallpox on the raft saves Jim from capture.1 Interestingly, it is this same passage that, in a circuitous way, provides the Romantic reading with its best evidence. During his 1895 world lecture tour, Clemens performed the "Smallpox and a Lie Save Jim" sequence quite regularly, and in his introduction to the segment, he said the passage illustrates the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience. I sh'd support this doctrine with a chapter from a book of mine where a sound heart 6c a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.2 In Romantic interpretations of the book, it is this sound heart, Huck's innate goodness, that comes out in the moral emergencies surrounding his involvement with Jim. One wonders, given the overwhelming evidence that he at least thought he was promoting utilitarian morality when he wrote the novel, whether Clemens was merely changing his mind at this point 170Gregg Camfield in his career, or whether his commentary casts light on the fundamental question of what kind of morality he wished to promote when he wrote the book. The question is further confused by the rest of the 1895 introduction, which again, by Lecky's standards, seems utilitarian in its precepts. Clemens concludes that since southern whites, slaveholders and "white trash" alike believed in the sanctity of slaveholding , "that strange thing, the conscience—that unerring monitor —can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early &c stick to it." Once again, Clemens voices the ostensibly utilitarian doctrine that morality is socially relative and is merely trained, even though the adjective "wild" suggests that reason, or humanity, or perhaps intuition gives the enlightened mind a picture of a true morality. Whether this is Clemens' confusion or that of later critics cannot be satisfactorily determined without more evidence. One tantalizing prospect of further information is held out by a Melbourne newspaper review of Twain's platform performance. The Melbourne Age of September 30, 1895, reports: In telling the half humorous, half pathetic story of Huck. Finn's dilemma in sheltering a runaway slave, the author gives us in much greater detail than in the book the terrible struggle which goes on between Huck's sound heart and his "deformed conscience."' Some of this "greater detail" can be found in an entry in one of Mark Twain's notebooks. The entry has not hitherto been transcribed, probably because it is very difficult to decipher. Not only is the handwriting difficult to read, suggesting that Clemens was travelling while he wrote it, but the entry appears completely disordered. It begins in the middle of a thought, jumps back to the beginning, and is marred...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 169-175
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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