How to Think Like Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer often get lumped together as middle-school books, 19th-century young-adult novels. After all, the two books share a central cast of characters and concern themselves with the often miscreant adventures of pre-teen boys. Yet Huckleberry Finn is a much more serious book, and it has come to occupy a central position in the American canon in a way that Tom Sawyer never could. Twain’s aspirations are different in his later book, essentially a coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman.

Huck’s journey is one that takes him away, literally and figuratively, from the world of Tom Sawyer. The book begins with Huck’s rejection of the hijinks of Tom’s gang, and on his trip down the Mississippi with the escaped slave Jim, Huck finds himself in situations that call for him to put aside Tom’s prankish ways and adopt the ways of a man. By the novel’s end, in spite of the attitudes prevalent in antebellum society, Huck comes to see Jim not as the property of Miss Watson but as a person worthy of freedom. Ultimately, Twain casts him as an individual, distinct from his social milieu, and in doing so offers a blueprint of sorts for educators everywhere who attempt to cultivate in their students a commitment to justice.

A crucial scene in this regard occurs late in the novel, when Huck and Jim have finally extricated themselves from the clutches of the Duke and the King, two swindlers who have never outgrown the Tom Sawyer Life Stage. Jim has been captured and is being held at the Phelps’ farm, and Huck, who for the entire story has been feeling guilty about not turning Jim in, decides to write a letter to Miss Watson back in St. Petersburg and tell her to come down and get her slave. He writes the note, and feels much better now that he’s no longer a deviant and committing a crime by helping a slave escape.

Before he sends the letter, though, he begins reflecting on his journey with Jim. He thinks of Jim’s kindnesses to him, of the friendship they had come to share. “Somehow,” Huck thinks, “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.” And he looks at the paper he had written:

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.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Here lies the moral center of the book. The journey on the raft with Jim has forced Huck to consider the slave as a human being, and Huck cannot return to his former perspective. Huck’s conscience comes into direct conflict with his society’s values. When he tears up his letter he not only rejects Tom Sawyer’s ways, but those of an entire culture as well.

When I teach this book I have a hard time getting my students to realize just what kind of a decision Huck makes here. He really thinks that he’s doing the wrong thing, and will pay for it with eternal damnation. Yet he does it anyway. Huck’s not helping Jim escape because he knows it’s the right thing; he’s helping Jim escape even though he’s been taught it’s the wrong thing. Huck would never put it in these terms, but he’s tapped into a natural law that contradicts the rules of the Christian society in which he’s been raised. Following that natural law means being “wicked” in the eyes of the world, and Huck is willing to do it. His decision is one entirely devoid of righteousness.

It’s nearly impossible for my students to imagine themselves in a similar situation. When would they ever find themselves going against accepted opinion without simultaneously feeling righteous about their decision? A student standing up for a classmate being bullied in the lunchroom is taking a risk for sure, and acting heroically, but he or she is acting with the understanding that it’s the “right thing to do,” something validated perhaps not by peers but by parents, teachers, administrators, and anti-bullying campaigns. The proliferation of clubs and activities dedicated to worthy causes—to respecting others, to ending injustice, etc.—makes it easier for students to stand up for what is right by bestowing on their actions the authority of a group. Similarly, in Catholic schools everywhere campus ministry offices have made mission trips and service projects their heart and soul, providing students with valuable opportunities to join in groups to encounter those living on the margins of society.

These programs are an important part of any educational experience and are life-changing for many, yet amount to incomplete preparation for the kind of independent decision that Huck wrestles with. One of the undesirable effects of the culture of awareness weeks and mission trips is that students rarely have to think for themselves. What kind of independent thought is required in the decision to wear an armband calling to for an end to bullying? In this culture, the decision to help those in need often requires as little moral courage as playing intramural soccer.

Students also are aware that these kind of experiences are great resume-builders. It’s not surprising that schools often market their mission trips with pitches along the lines of “have fun with your friends and help those in need!” or “spend a week among the poor and never see the world the same way again!” In doing so, they portray the service experience as ultimately serving the student. If someone else gets helped out in the process, even better.

Such justice-oriented activities are important for students’ growth but don’t demand from them the kind of strength of conscience that Huck’s situation demanded of him. Aware that he was condemning himself to hell, Huck tore up his letter anyway, a choice which benefitted no one except Jim. The decision required true courage because, unlike the decision to join a club or go on a mission trip, it isolated him completely from those around him, and it did not promise to bolster his social standing.

How can Catholic schools develop the independent growth of conscience and moral courage that Huck exhibits? One essay I’ve shared with students in the past addresses this very issue. It comes in the form of “Solitude and Leadership,” an award-winning lecture given by William Deresiewicz to the plebe class at West Point in 2009. In it, Deresiewicz, former Yale professor, argues that the two terms in his title are not a contradiction but are, in fact, reciprocal. To become a good leader, not just one that serves as a “yes man” to someone higher up in the chain of command but one who guides others onto the right path, one must grow comfortable with spending time alone in thought. Drawing heavily on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and holding up a pre-Paula Broadwell David Petraeus as a model, Deresiewicz claims that a good leader is a good thinker, and a good thinker is one who knows how to be introspective, a task that requires freedom from all kinds of distraction (not just the most recent ones):

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.

I am always interested to see my students’ reactions to this essay. Their generation has been encouraged to rise to the top by accruing accomplishments (think of David Brooks’ “The Organization Kid”), and they never fail to be startled by Deresiewicz’s insistence that the best leaders are forged in solitude, thoughtfully encountering the world’s greatest ideas. Introspection, the essay argues, is the essential requirement to being a great leader. Huck Finn, who had to remove himself from his social milieu and think as an individual in order to see Jim as a human being, would agree. He was only able to do the right thing because he was no longer influenced by his peers, because he was no longer thinking as a member of his society, which Twain presents as essentially childish, Tom Sawyer’s gang writ large.

The fruit of introspection is language, and academic writing is where students are called on to respond thoughtfully to the great thinkers of the past—writers, artists, philosophers, and scientists alike. As an English teacher, I’m biased, of course, but I’d argue that if true leadership arises from the ability to think deeply about a subject, then reading and writing are the incubators of true leaders. Christian service projects and social-awareness groups expose students to the realities of injustice, but reading and writing form the individual conscience, without which all action aimed at ending injustice is but sound and fury.

I don’t mean to suggest that campus ministry offices in high schools and colleges start reading Things Fall Apart instead of sponsoring trips to Africa. Such group action is irreplaceable, because just like Huck, students need to encounter human beings who suffer from injustice to help bring an end to it. Instead, we should recognize that classroom teachers, especially those in the humanities, share the responsibility for forming students’ consciences. In order for Christian service to avoid becoming an exercise in groupthink, we must commit ourselves to developing independent thinkers. Perhaps reading and writing about Huck Finn can actually help our students think like him.

Mike St. Thomas received his Master’s Degree in Literature and teaches English at a Catholic high school in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife and daughters. He writes about literature and Catholic education at