Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned From Huckleberry Finn and Hal Holbrook


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat." -Mark Twain

Recently, in Concord, New Hampshire, I saw Hal Holbrook perform in "Mark Twain Tonight!" I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Holbrook perform this one-man show, but it's been more than a few. Last year, for instance, I saw him in San Diego, Nashville, Long Island, and Morristown, NJ.

Okay, so I might be a groupie.

No two performances are alike. Holbrook's vast repertoire allows him to draw upon thousands of pages of Twain's writing to comment on current events, occasionally confusing audience members who are unaware of Twain's ever relevant commentary. Always flawless, Holbrook's most recent performance dropped my jaw. It was simply his best. Using Mark Twain's words, he commented on every current event from Wall Street to gun violence to evolution to Congress. And more.

Like Twain, Holbrook is a legend in his own time. He could rest on his laurels or get by reciting the same passages again and again. After all, Twain's words ring true and powerful, and how many people actually see the show more than once or twice in a lifetime? But, no, that's not Holbrook's way. He is a true Twain scholar -- reading, researching, and rehearsing, and a great actor, unlike others who think wearing a white suit and fake mustache while speaking in an exaggerated drawl are all it takes to portray "the Lincoln of our literature."

Nope. Holbrook is the real deal. He continues to add lengthy, enticing, thoughtful, even disturbing passages to his act. Oh, you'll laugh. This is Mark Twain, after all. But I predict you'll also squirm, wonder, think, and likely cry, especially with the new material Holbrook has unleashed from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I've been rereading Huckleberry Finn since I discovered it as the sequel to Tom Sawyer back in junior high school, getting more out of it with each encounter. Hearing Hal Holbrook last Friday inspired me to share a few keepers. But let these be the teasers. Better you should read (or reread) Huck Finn, and go see Hal Holbrook. And be sure to find me in the audience and say hello.

Huckleberry Finn from Hannibal

Words of wisdom from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

CONSCIENCE That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling.

CONSCIENCE ...it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway... It takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides...

CURING LONESOMENESS When it was dark I set by my camp fire smoking, and feeling pretty well satisfied; but by and by it got sort of lonesome, and so I went and set on the bank and listened to the current swashing along, and counted the stars and drift logs and rafts that come down, and then went to bed; there ain't no better way to put in time when you are lonesome; you can't stay so, you soon get over it.

CURIOSITY I was just a-biling with curiosity; and I says to myself, Tom Sawyer wouldn't back out now, and so I won't either; I'm a-going to see what's going on here.

DO GOODERS But take it all around, I was feeling ruther comfortable on accounts of taking all this trouble for that gang, for not many would a done it. I wished the widow knowed about it. I judged she would be proud of me for helping these rapscallions, because rapscallions and dead beats is the kind the widow and good people takes the most interest in.

DRINKING I'd druther been bit with a snake than pap's whisky.

FRAUDS It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn't no objections, 'long as it would keep peace in the family; and it warn't no use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.

GOOD DEED Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot. I never see pap when he didn't want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway.

INNER CONFLICT My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, "Let up on me -- it ain't too late yet - I'll paddle ashore at the first light and tell." I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone.

JUSTICE The first light we see we'll land a hundred yards below it or above it, in a place where it's a good hiding-place for you and the skiff, and then I'll go and fix up some kind of a yarn, and get somebody to go for that gang and get them out of their scrape, so they can be hung when their time comes.

LIES You can't pray a lie -- I found that out.

LITTLE THINGS It was only a little thing to do, and no trouble; and it's the little things that smooths people's roads the most...

MAJORITY Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?

PEER PRESSURE "Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing? Not for pie, he wouldn't. He'd call it an adventure -- that's what he'd call it."

PERSPECTIVE I went to sleep, and Jim didn't call me when it was my turn. He often done that. When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn't take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn't ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so.

ROYALTY Well, that's what I'm a-saying; all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out.

SELF-SACRIFICE 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.

STYLE I felt very good; I judged I had done it pretty neat -- I reckoned Tom Sawyer couldn't a done it no neater himself. Of course he would a throwed more style into it, but I can't do that very handy, not being brung up to it.

THRIFT I went to the circus and loafed around the back side till the watchman went by, and then dived in under the tent. I had my twenty-dollar gold piece and some other money, but I reckoned I better save it, because there ain't no telling how soon you are going to need it, away from home and amongst strangers that way. You can't be too careful. I ain't opposed to spending money on circuses when there ain't no other way, but there ain't no use in wasting it on them.

TRAINING They went off and I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show -- when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad -- I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

TRASH...trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed. (Jim to Huck)

TRUTH ...don't ask me nothing -- then I won't have to tell no lies.

UNINFORMED OPINIONS That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it.

VALUE He was the innocentest, best old soul I ever see. But it warn't surprising; because he warn't only just a farmer, he was a preacher, too, ...and never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.

WHITE LIES Letting on don't cost nothing; letting on ain't no trouble...

WIDE OPEN SPACES We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

All photos courtesy of Mark Twain House