On the first page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck informs us that the Widow Douglas decided to take him up and “sivilize” him, but
it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.
The way Huck subverts a whole way of living, a way of thinking and relating to the world, by misspelling a word is to my mind a pure expression of the American idea. That idea is always threatened by another: the secure and smug world from which Huck and Jim turn away. Throughout the book, Huck and Jim turn the “decent” and “sivilized” world on its head, and we come out in the end with a new definition of these words.
The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.
These subversive characters, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie—all outcasts who refuse to comply—are part of a tradition in American fiction. Like Huck, they risk hell but trust their own instincts and experiences above static convention. They are thoughtful and reflect upon these experiences; they are critical not just of others but of themselves, and they act upon their reflections. This is the American idea I would like to return to: a slight subversion, an instinctive urge to do the right thing, which, in the eyes of the “correct” world, might seem to be exactly the wrong thing.
The idea that I want to believe America was founded on also depended on challenging the world as it is and, by standing up to civilized society, redefining it. That idea was essentially based on a poetic vision, on imagining something that did not exist. It has been pointed out that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence—who could state with simplicity and beauty that every individual has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—was himself a slaveowner. Jefferson lived in a slaveowning society, one in which half of the non-slave population, the women, were not equal citizens. Yet for all its flaws, that society’s saving grace was its foundation on a certain set of beliefs that transcended the individuals, their prejudices, and their times and allowed for the possibility of a different future, foreshadowing a time when other women and men, a Martin Luther King Jr. or an Elizabeth Cady Stanton, could take their ideas and words and suffuse them with new and risky and bold meanings, and with new dreams.
Huck closes his adventures with this statement:
But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
This, of course, is the whole point: In order to keep the American idea fresh and new, it must be constantly challenged. For the American idea to endure, we have to “light out,” and to find new ways to resist the “sivilizing” impulse of the Widow Douglases and Aunt Sallys among us.
And yet today it seems that America, gripped by social and political crisis, has become almost forgetful of that idea. Cynical, shallow, defensive, and at the same time arrogant and greedy, it is unfaithful to its instincts and refuses to be reflective, mistaking blame for criticism and self-criticism, and believing that success at any cost is more important than failure with honor, taking as its ideal the Widow Douglas’s paradise rather than Huck Finn’s hell.
The question is: Can we still hope to be a little less “sivilized”?
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