Rereading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn With Catholic Eyes

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is a novel that evokes feeling in readers by the mere mention of its name. A quick Google search for it brings up discussions of banning, controversy, politics, school boards, and intense, almost feverish debate. Moral quandaries that speak to the voluminous American imaginary are fused with a mere mention of the title—and they play out on local, national and even global levels. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on this text. Likely as a reader you already do as well. Twain, perhaps prescient in the conversations—and controversies—his novel would incite, inserts even before his text begins his famous “NOTICE,” declaring that “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be persecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Of course, we as readers automatically engage in all of these activities, though it is often to our peril.

Nevertheless, Twain’s novel has become a touchstone in not only how children in the United States are morally formed but also in how children’s formation is discussed in public, in private, and of course in the actual reading and teaching of the novel itself. Yet, surprisingly—or perhaps not in today’s postmodernist framework—we evade Twain’s discussion of religion, a major key in how morality on all fronts is framed in the novel; at best, we relegate the discussion of religion as secondary to, and somehow separate from, Twain’s focus of race, gender, and class. For Catholic readers, though—and indeed for all honest readers—interpreting Huck and Jim’s relationship without serious attentiveness to the weighty religious themes the once Presbyterian and later unaffiliated author intertwines throughout every section of the narrative fails to engage in a full appreciation of the novel’s intellectual and moral scope.

Huckleberry Finn is intensely allegorical—a text comparable to British writer C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56). It is a novel of protest, a banned book, a complex juggernaut of abuse, confusion, and slow, moral awakening that speaks to America’s complicated relationship with religiosity and race, and even a boy’s dance (and perhaps that of the man behind the novel) to and from religious conversion that never satisfies any reader, one way or another. All this we find in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. This is America’s Christian allegorical children’s story, and it is one we ought to be considerate of as Catholic teachers, parents, educators, and thoughtful readers of all types.

Ernest Hemingway famously stated in 1935, “All American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” He added, “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before.” Readers of the novel know that Huckleberry Finn begins referencing another book of which it has also arguably been said that nothing has come before it either—the Bible. A poor, abused orphaned boy (called “a poor lost lamb” in the text) starts Twain’s novel grumbling about why he must pray before meals. Immediately after Huck questions the value of prayer, there is a pictorial and written illustration of the Widow Douglass who has taken in Huck; the widow reads the Bible to her wayward charge, pointing at specific passages within it.

In the illustration, Huck leans back, head in hand, looking receptive but simultaneously disinterested. He is a child aloof, a child forced to listen to what the adult in the room wants him to take in about morality but knowing his life has not lived up to the standards the widow proposes. What a metaphor for our current moment, for our current classrooms, for our current reading lives at home: the Bible being read, dictated to an adolescent boy, like Huck—a child being raised in a system of oppression—as he gazes around the room, only half-listening, distrustful of the motives behind the reading and wondering how it could have anything to do with his lived experience. Twain shares that Huck initially finds the Bible reading exciting, but then the boy changes his mind:

“[The widow] learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in a sweat to find all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

Here we have our first inclination of Huck’s learned presentism. Who has time for dead people when one is trying to survive in a hard world—when one is trying to survive until the next moment, as Huck has had to? Huck believes his drunken, abusive father is probably dead, wanted perhaps to imagine him so, but he is yet a child who valorizes his father simultaneously. A boy of 12 or 13, how could he wish his father dead? Huck “takes no stock in dead people.” He claims in the above passage to have no imaginative spirit, perhaps because an imaginative spirit about the dead does not bring him comfort.

Rather, Huck’s life has been one of abandonment, hardship, alcoholism, and sin from the adults who have supposedly been his caretakers. The widow’s dry reading of Moses’s story, as illustrated by E. W. Kemble’s picture, leads us to believe that she does not encourage him to aspire for the good, the true, and the beautiful. No, her “motives,” as Twain’s readers and Huck come to realize, are surface level: She is enacting piety, but she gives Huck no experiences to counter what he knows about religion.

Indeed, the widow likely views herself as Huck’s (read: Moses’s) savior; she saves Huck, an orphan boy, from the clutches of an evil father and the brutish forces of poverty. Before his bedtime, she has Huck pray with the family’s enslaved people, binding Huck closely into a world of slavery just as the Pharoah’s daughter does Moses, an irony front and center in chapter one. This part of the novel is assuredly meant to be read allegorically, but it does not line up in a way that feels pleasing to readers in its unwieldy American aftermath.

As Twain’s narrative progresses onto the Mississippi River, and Huck rides on a raft with Jim (one of the enslaved persons with whom he had prayed before bedtime), Huck helps lead Jim to freedom and the two travel past a town called Cairo. Like Moses, Huck fails to enjoy the promised land, his journey thwarted right before reaching the end. Yet none of it works out in a way that feels pleasing by any measure. The allegorical promised kingdom feels always pointed to, and always eschewed.

Yes, Twain’s main character is this homeless boy, a forsaken boy, who stays in exile for the majority of the book. He is a boy who is willing to sacrifice for others even when his life, and soul, is at risk. Yes, this is an excellent, typological, allegorical frame. Who is Moses in the book, though? Who is the savior? The allegory, like all American literature, never fits perfectly, as Huck and Jim save each other at alternate times (arguably it is Jim on the raft who saves Huck’s soul in the end).

Huck fails us as readers at numerous points, too, when we want him to be better, especially in the novel’s concluding scenes when he goes along with Tom Sawyer’s long, drawn out plans to “free Jim,” as if freeing Jim were a game. In this section, Tom knows all the while Jim is already free, and the two boys act as if slavery is a game and Huck acquiesces to his old friend’s ways, succumbing to peer pressure and hurting Jim in the process. Twain’s caricaturing of Jim at various points in the novel is baffling in such a complex text and angering to read, too.

At others points in the novel, though, Twain’s deep understanding and thorough illustration of Jim’s human dignity and portrayal of that as Huck confronts and considers Jim’s abiding love for his family is what makes the book commensurately rich and abundant. It is Huck’s story, and he is a failure on many levels, as we all are; he is human. It is also Twain’s development of a real, believable, and substantive friendship between Huck and Jim that makes the book work in multi-faceted ways and keep bringing readers back to it.

The novel is complex, leaving readers with questions, thoughts, points of contention—worried rightly perhaps, too, that the United States cannot have a representative, allegorical, savior narrative that works in the same way as it does in other places: perhaps we cannot have a children’s allegory that fits neatly, beautifully, evenly, that holds up as Narnia does or is as buoyantly timeless. I suggest, however, that it is Huckleberry Finn’s unevenness that makes it a children’s religious allegory for the United States and one that continues to speak to our moment, over and over, and that in this, it shows a complexity of narrative that elevates it to the public sphere in when other texts are rarely as persistently visible.

Catholic novelist and Nobel Literature Prize winner Toni Morrison famously says that in her various readings of the book over the years Twain’s novel brought up “delight” “fear,” and “unease,” as it has for me. Huckleberry Finn is unique, she argues, because of its ability to traverse the boundaries of adult and children’s literature:

If a story that pleased us as novice readers does not disintegrate as we grow older, it maintains its value only in retelling for other novices or to summon uncapturable pleasures for playback. Also, the books that academic critics find consistently rewarding are works only partially available to the minds of young readers. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn manages to close that divide, and one of the reasons it requires no leap is that in addition to the reverence the novel stimulates is its ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately cooperating in the controversy it raises.[1]

The novel is simultaneously a children’s novel and a novel meant for adults. Like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-69) that has often been cited as a classic because of Jo’s refusal to marry Laurie and the subsequent unevenness and narrative controversy the book therefore gives readers, Huckleberry Finn works because it captures the minds of adults and children alike. It is not pure nostalgia, as are many children’s books for adults, yet it speaks to children’s experiences and how they form their moral lenses. Adults are engaged. Children are engaged. They have been since the book was first banned upon its release in 1885.

As a novelist of children’s literature, Twain realized that children rely on adults to help make sense of the world around them, but they also rely on their own senses. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, catapulted Mark Twain to fame as a children’s novelist in large part because of his ability to capture the mindset of a boy. As a genre, children’s books can help fill the gaps where slippages occur for children: that is, disruptive moments when children are processing the spaces between what they perceive as true in front of them and what they are told as true by adult and peers.

Children’s books offer pathways to compare one child’s experiences with the experience of others. Twain is acutely aware of this by the time he finishes Huckleberry Finn almost ten years later: he plays with a hypocritical world organized by adults and his boy narrator in his sequel to Tom Sawyer to make sense of it, often failing. No wonder this book has been banned; it invites children to think and examine their experiences for themselves.

Huck is a child narrator who is perhaps the most discerning, the most Jesuit-minded of child narrators ever written in classic American literature. After Huck is sent to bed in the first chapter (upon eating dinner, reading the Bible, then praying with the entire family, and the enslaved peoples), readers learn that while Huck denies his imaginative spirit aloud, stating dead people have no concern to him, his lived experience as Twain describes it is different. He is an adolescent figuring out who he is, and he is skeptical of the teachings of an adult like the widow whom he cannot trust. Huck lies in bed and contemplates:

I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful, and I heard an owl, away off, a who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and whippoorwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me that I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.

Huck, as he is in many other passages of the novel, is by himself, suffering. He then thinks of “somebody that was dead” and “somebody that was going to die.” He does not name this person to us. Is it Moses? Is it his father? Is it Huck himself, as he imagines his own death? Or is it an amalgamation of all? Huck tries to make sense out of something the “wind . . . whisper[s]” to him. With all the prayer that happened in the house, all the Bible reading, this is the closest to a true spiritual moment that Huck has in this first chapter, and we see him grappling with difficult concepts—death, loneliness, abandonment—and seeking answers in the night, alone.

Huck, here, is undergoing a form of prayer, learning to do so by himself, to talk to God in his own way. Throughout the book, as he progresses, we see him thinking, contemplating, examining, praying. So many of E. W. Kemble’s illustrations show Huck in this manner, alone, reflecting, thinking. Whereas Tom Sawyer is always an actor, his imaginative spirit filled with activity and motion, Huck Finn is a thinker, a prayer, a child seeking solace as he examines the world.

We are quickly led to understand the difference between Huck’s contemplative spirit and the adult world through which his spiritual life is dictated. When Huck sneaks out to play with Tom and gets his clothes dirty, Miss Watson, with whom he also lives, lectures him and uses prayer as a punishment for his behavior. Twain writes, “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.”

Here, we learn that Miss Watson is taking Matthew 6:6 literally, praying in a closet rather than understanding the metaphor of not praying for the purpose to receive accolades for doing so. She is the epitome of Protestant sola scriptura gone awry: Huck’s education while living with the widow and Miss Watson depicts this misalignment. Miss Watson and the widow are praying all the time, but Huck is called “a fool” when he asks questions about prayer that they cannot answer. For them, prayer is about utility.

Huck, however, is different. When alone in his room at night, he instinctively (or perhaps via interpretive work unmentioned in the novel) attempts prayer quietly on his own; he imbues the spirit of Matthew 6:6 and communes with God without fanfare. Throughout the text, Huck engages with the adult’s religious teachings, and craves more, but he also recognizes when they do not have answers and when they refuse to acknowledge what they do not know. Consistently, he compares his experience of the world with what the adults are saying to him it is.

Again, this mimic’s one purpose of children’s literature as a genre. How does Huck understand the adults who are teaching him about morality? How do children reading books like Huckleberry Finn understand the adults who are teaching them about morality? Twain, a storyteller, a moralist, is cognizant of how both children and adults will read these scenes. Thus, teaching in these moments when faith, prayer, and spiritual life are discussed, and when Huck is contemplating them, becomes key to unlocking the powerful moral moments in the story and having conversations that unlock truths that the novel imparts.

The climax of the novel, when Huck Finn has his moral awakening, significantly begins with his struggling with prayer—and his understanding of it: “I know’d I could pray, now. But I didn’t do it straight off. . . . [I] set there thinking.” Twain writes this about prayer as Huck decides whether to turn his friend Jim in to Miss Watson as they reach a turning point on their trip or whether he should finally decide, once and for all, to work toward Jim’s freedom. Huck thought he could pray because he had settled on turning Jim in (he could pray because he was going to do what he thought the adults would want him to do), but then “he thinks” it over instead.

Kemble’s illustration shows a boy, eyes closed, his hands together in a prayer position; the caption is titled “Thinking.” For children looking at the picture and reading the passages that follow, Huck’s thinking certainly translates to actual prayer. Adult readers will recognize large spiritual contemplative prayer patterns, too, as Huck “thinks”:

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. I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind . . . I was 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.”

This moment, when Huck studies, holds his breath, then breathes out, in certainty, is a moment of contemplative prayers. Readers breathe out with Huck, relieved of his decision, of this burden he has been carrying. This is a rhetorical moment of conversion, one used in St. Augustine’s Confessions, too. Twain takes readers back and forth on a spiritual journey throughout this climactic passage. Huck’s feelings are telling him the truth: Jim ought to be free. Society’s mores are telling him something different: Jim ought to be enslaved. Similarly, what society tells Huck about prayer is different from his actual participation in it, his “thinking.” Readers know—and can see through Kemble’s picture—that it is prayer, and they have prayed with him.

Huck converts to truth, finally. Like St. Augustine, he finds truth; he finds salvation; he is converted to knowing the good. Though Huck says he is going to Hell, readers know the opposite has happened. This is a post-Civil War book. Huck’s soul has been saved because its compass is now set toward truth, a truth readers knew from the beginning, and Twain led us through a spiritual journey and through Huck’s ultimate conversion represented by this prayer moment. That back and forth, the spiritual tug of war moment, shows that truth wins. Huck decides he will risk anything to help Jim, his body, his soul: he will put it all in danger. He is willing to sacrifice all for the other.

 “Then I set to thinking,” Huck tells readers again next. Of course he does. Huck, after a spiritual conversion, prays. Yet, as Catholic readers we know Mark Twain is no Joan of Arc—although he did write a very good book on her—and one that he claims himself was “the best of all my books.” Twain was raised in a tradition that was anti-Catholic, and he had a complex relationship with the Catholic Church throughout his life. Certainly, he had no qualms about criticizing it; nor had he any qualms about criticizing much of anything else either, of course.

Like his child-narrator, Twain’s world became more ecumenical, and more open spiritually, as he traveled. His travels through the Holy Land and Italy especially affected him. He is known to have jested about nearly every tourist site he visited on his Grand Tour of Europe in his 1869 travel narrative Innocents Abroad. However, while in the Holy Land part of his pilgrimage, he writes reverently of “standing on ground that was once actually pressed by the feet of the Saviour” and says that the experience felt “suggestive of a reality . . . and a mystery.” Twain, famous for his irreverence, here basks in reverence. In awe. His own story, like Huck’s, pushes us toward truth, then skirts away from it. Twain’s next moment, in his writing, in his life, is always a reality check for anyone who seeks neatness in religiosity, in living. It invites possibilities. It invites the Catholic imagination.

In the early 1890s, not long after Huckleberry Finn’s publication, and still a few years before he published Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), Twain’s youngest daughter Jean went to reside in a convent because of increasing problems with her epilepsy. He wrote to his wife Livy then, “Away deep down in my heart I feel that if they make a strong unshakable Catholic of her I shan’t be the least little bit sorry . . . If I ever change my religion, I shall change it to that.”[2]

We often want authors who are within the “Catholic literary canon” to be at the end of their spiritual journeys, to hear their Confessions, like St. Augustine, once truth has been struggled with and knowledge of some sort of insight has been gained. Twain, like most of us, and the boy in his novel, was ever in the process—and it is this that I think makes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn unique in a Catholic literary religious canon.

After all, it is as religious a novel as Joan of Arc and just as important for readers of classic religious fiction, especially classic children’s religious fiction. That is not to say Twain’s novel is where we want it to be; nor, are we, where we ought to be. On this note, perhaps we all ought to do some more “thinking.”

[1]Toni Morrison, “Huckleberry Finn: An Amazing, Troubling Book,” Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader,” ed. Stephen K. Geroge (Lanham, MD: Sheed&Ward, 2005), 280.

[2] Aurele A. Durocher, “Mark Twain and the Catholic Church,” Journal of the Central Mississippi Valley American Studies Association, vol. 1, no. 2, (1960): 39.

Featured Image: Photo by Chefalinsky of Sergey Lyubaev's illustration in a collection of Mark Twain's writings; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

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