- Rethinking Mark Twain's Skepticism: Ways of Knowing and Forms of Freedom in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996
- pp. 31-48
- View Citation
- Additional Information
MICHAEL BOUGHN Rethinking Mark Twain's Skepticism: Ways of Knowing and Forms of Freedom in the Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn Much of mark twain's reputation as a skeptic arises from his stance as satirist, his various and rigorous ridiculing of just about everything it's possible to hold dear: politics, social graces, sentimentality , all the illusions and delusions that blind us to our complicity with stupidity and injustice. Nothing, however, riled him quite as much as the hypocrisy ofreligion as he saw it around him, especially those religious currents intoxicated with God and blind to the human horrors perpetrated in the name of unexamined belief. As an enemy of that faith which fueled the Inquisition and upheld slavery in parts of America , Twain appears the skeptic, as full of Voltaire's Enlightenment as Ben Coon's laughter. Directed against the unshakable knowing of zealots, skepticism in this sense holds us to a responsibility. But it also has darker ramifications which open up when the radical questioning ofour ability to know leaks from the hermetic containment of purified languages into our own eyes, when, suddenly, we see how we see as through a glass darkly. Then what's at stake is what we call the world, literally its life or death. Mark Twain, in the Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn, evokes just such a stake in the world, linking it to an examination offreedom, as if the life of the world, and this includes the life of something called America, depended on a certain practice of freedom, and as if both of Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 610 32Mictaeí Boughn those things were dependent on an experience of intimacy that can only be described as knowing. One of the nodes in the book where these various strands of thought stand revealed in their complex interaction occurs at the beginning of chapter nineteen. After escaping from the Shepardsons and the Grangerfords , Huck and Jim take off down the river. Their routine for the next several days involves running downriver at night and laying up during the days. Describing how they watched the sun come up one morning, Huck figures the world as waking up, coming to life as ifreanimated : ... we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was just about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering , maybe. The first thing to see, looking way over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t'other side—you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; . . . and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, . . . then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; . . . and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going for it! (96)1 The world here is represented as infused with a sense of freedom that carries over from Huck's recent observation that "you feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft." That sense of freedom is informed by the purity of the living world's relation to the white boy and the black man who are sitting in the river watching it together. Saturated with a profound sense of intimacy, a being at ease,2 Huck and Jim disappear into an absolute equality based on an intimacy that, in turn, mirrors their mutual intimacy with the face of a world awakening as from a sleep. Understanding the nature of this sleep becomes crucial to understanding the nature of the freedom that comes with its passing. One way of talking about it is...