This week’s message concerns our fourth and final look at the cardinal virtues of antiquity. Courage, as the title clearly indicates, is that virtue and the literary work chosen by our guide, Karen Swallow Prior, to illustrate this virtue is Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The “The” we are prone to use as a prefix to Huck’s adventures was added later to accommodate our preference for placing articles before titles.
By way of review, I like to begin each message with an attribution. I am using Prior’s book, On Reading Well, to prompt my own thoughts on the broader topic of virtue, which I regard and refer to as character building. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University. I do disagree with her on a few minor points, but must concede on the depth and breadth of her reading compared to my own less academic tastes. Her knowledge in these matters is far superior to my own.
That said, my relative position in academics has not prevented me from having my say as we work our way through her well defined path for appraising the merits of a virtuous life. This is where we can cue Faye Dunaway’s character in the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man to inform us all that a virtuous life is its own reward.
Courage is defined in Professor Prior’s book as “the habit that enables a person to face difficulties well.” She, like the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians, who expounded on the value of cultivating a virtuous life, draws a line between courage and bravery. To be brave or bold is not tied to the concept of being virtuous. A villainous person can be brave. For our consideration courage – or fortitude as some have deemed it – always has a virtuous goal. Prior writes “Courage is measured not by the risk it entails but the good it preserves.”
Huckleberry Finn fits into her concept of courage as someone who faces the racial prejudices of his day and overcomes internal conflict by going against the oppressive forces of hate when helping to free Jim, a runaway slave. This brings to mind the words of the prominent political historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He spoke of Huck as the archetype of the American character and referred to the boy’s decision to risk the fires of hell in order to defy the law and free Jim as “the finest scene in the greatest of American novels.” Of this appraisal I am more than a little skeptical.
Huck is an observer. He is similar to his English cousin, David Copperfield, in providing a first-person account of what he sees on his life’s journey and struggling to reach a proper interpretation of both people and events. The comparison between Finn and Copperfield goes even deeper as Twain’s original concept for the book was to tell Huck’s story from boyhood to adulthood, just like the story arc of Copperfield’s life. Both “boys” are far less colorful in character than those who surround them and carry the storyline for them in directions at which the supposed heroes can only marvel.
Twain lost interest in his own project and set it aside to pursue other interests. When he took it up again, his original concept of Huck’s story changed, fortunately for all of us. Huck’s adventure through life is recast as a journey down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim. Both are runaways, who are carried along by events as inexorable as the current of the river. And within the repurposing of Huck’s story is the reason why I would invoke the concept of courage as it pertains to this novel; Twain’s own moral fortitude to craft an honest story about the antebellum South. It is not a harsh critique of the times and people of his youth. In fact there are moments when Huck, Twain’s alter ego, acknowledges the virtues of various men and women he encounters along the way. Twain does, however, disparage the institution of slavery on which the Southern economy depended, albeit from the safety of his New York home.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a children’s story. Racism, alcoholism, abuse, theft, murder and fraud are staples of the story. Although told by a boy, just as a young woman tells the story of the racism encountered in her childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck’s adventures were intended for an adult audience, just like Mockingbird. That it continues to be a target of censorship should not be surprising. The novelty of the characters’ colloquial speech appropriate to the day includes terms unacceptable in our own current culture. Twain was even pushing the envelope in his day and it is this lingering tendency towards shock and offense that is for me the greatest indicator of courage in the story. Sensibilities have and will continue to be violated – for the greater good.