Last fall I turned 50 and was granted a two-part sabbatical from our Board of Trustees. I shared with my colleagues that I planned to practice the piano, catch up on leadership literature, focus on wellness, and re-read some of my favorite books, including Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
When I got back to campus at the end of the first part of the sabbatical, my colleagues offered: "Oh, I didn't think you were coming back... so soon." Or, "I didn't know you were back... yet." Or, "Are you really back?" Mostly small talk and kind words, but I was wondering when I would hear what they were really thinking. At least no one asked me: "Did you really need to come back?"
Finally, about a month later, one of the senior faculty asked me: "Why did you read that book that kids read in grade school?" And then another faculty member asked me: "You do know that Twain's book is a very touchy topic in certain circles?"
I wasn't sure what to say. I read the book for the first time 40 years ago, and I still associate the book with that time, when a 19th century book about a 13-year-old boy's journey down the Mississippi with Slave Jim was exactly what I needed during a long and boring summer. I learned about Shakespeare, family feuds, French history, the slave trade and the Old Testament through Huck's eyes.
There were Huck's thoughts on learning Bible stories from the Widow Douglas:
"After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in a sweat to find out 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."
Huck trying to fit in with other boys who have normal family circumstances, volunteering Miss Watson up so he can be part of a blood oath adventure:
"They talked it over, and they was going to rule me out, because they said every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn't be fair and square for others. Well, nobody could think of anything to do- everybody was stumped, and set still. I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered then Miss Watson - they could kill her. Everybody said: 'Oh she'll do, she'll do. That's all right. Huck can come in.'"
No one was ever going to be killed, but boys preparing for an adventure are likely to say anything. Here's Huck on what would happen in the afterlife if one hadn't been sin-free:
"I judged I could see that there were two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow's Providence, but if Miss Watson's got him there warn't no help for him any more."
Huck regarding his father's position on theft:
"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 seen pap when he didn't want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway."
And Huck's thoughts on what motivates hogs and people to go to church:
"So I slid out and slipped off up the road, and there warn't anybody at the church, except maybe a hog or two, for there warn't any lock on the door, and hogs likes a puncheon floor in summer-time because it's cool. If you notice, most folks don't go to church only when they got to; but a hog is different."
But it wasn't just Huck's insights that intrigued me that summer. Slave Jim offered his perspective about the worth of being a free man on the run:
"Yes - en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, en I's wuth eight hundred dollars. I wash I had de money. I wouldn't want no mo."
For a boy in 1973 this was a section you read a few times, trying to understand what it could possibly mean. Just like this one on murder, coming from one of the unsavory types Huck met on the river:
"I's unfavorable to killin' a man as long as you can git around it; it ain't good sense, it ain't good morals. Ain't I right?'
The different Southern dialects that Twain recreates demand close reading. In the following observation, Slave Jim rebuffs Huck's attempt to make a point using the story about King Solomon:
"Doan' talk to me 'bout your pints. I reck'n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain' no sense in sich doin's as dat. De 'spute warn't 'bout half a chile, de 'spute 'bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a 'spute 'bout a whole chile wid a half a chile, doan' know enough to come in out'n de rain. Doan' talk to me 'bout Sullermun, Huck. I knows him by de back.'
In a pre-Internet, pre-cable TV era, without any significant contact with the outside world, I read Huck Finn out of curiosity. It was a book I found at a church rummage sale. Now, in my working life, I am buried under massive amounts of information. Reading it all, trying to sort out the meaning of events and movements in my sector, I wonder if I am still as curious as I was then. Why was I embarrassed when faculty asked me these questions? Have things changed about why I read, what makes me laugh, or, what really makes me think?
Twain scholars know there has been over a century of controversy about the novel. Forty years ago I was blissfully unaware of this and just abided by the author's notice at the beginning of the novel:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
I returned to the second part of my sabbatical this week. I began by listening to Roy Orbison and reaching out for another book to revisit, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. Let's see what I remember.