When I was in high school, I use to defile my books: I’d subject the pristine pages to highlights, underlines, and handwritten scrawls. So when I was flipping through the highlighted pages of Huck Finn, I realized that I failed to mark the most important line of the book.
That line was “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” To say the line out loud would reveal the extent of my idealism; my voice would break, crumble, staccato—and all at the utterance of such a simple sentence.
Around the same time that I read Huck Finn, I watched Mark Twain (2002), a documentary by Ken Burns. I distinctly remember an interview segment with several English professors, each one of them underlining the importance of that single line to American literature. In the story, Huck had just composed a letter to Miss Watson with the intention of bringing about Jim’s capture. Raised to believe that slaves were not human and the act of assisting a slave to freedom was a sin punishable by an all-seeing God, Huck’s only right course of action would be to deliver the letter, thereby saving his soul from an eternity in Hell. So what if it resulted in Jim’s capture? Jim didn’t have a soul worth saving; slavery was where Jim belonged–it was the natural social order. But then Huck began to think about Jim and their time drifting along the mighty Mississippi. Jim had become Huck’s friend; Jim cried at night over his lost wife and children. Maybe it wasn’t so far fetched that Jim, a slave, is capable of experiencing the same joys and sorrows as white folks.
And then Huck made his final decision: if not turning Jim in meant that Huck would go to Hell, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” He tore the letter up.
For here you have a country boy, who had been raised to believe that Hell was a real place, and yet he made a moral choice to damn himself in order to save his friend. I remember watching one of the professor’s voice break in the middle of reciting that line. I recall another professor say that the very memory of that scene would cause all the hair on his neck to stand on end and goosebumps to break out on his arms.
At the time, I was amazed how this line could mean so much to these readers. They really got it and not only that, but it affected their lives in such a resounding way that just repeating this simple statement would cause an eruption of emotion. I believe that they considered Huck’s resolution to be the hardest moral decision any human being, fictional or real, has ever made. They were brought to tears in the face of such an important illustration of human nobility. That was when I really got it too.
Every year, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is assigned to high school students throughout the U.S. Of the millions forced to read this book, maybe one or two readers will get the weight of Huck’s decision. The majority of readers will skim through the hard-to-digest Southern colloquialism, the lengthy descriptions of the Mississippi, and may even overlook this very important line. But if it means something to one person, if it enriches one life among the multitude, then it is enough.
Mark Twain states that he came into the world on the tail of Halley’s comet and he left the world in the same way. Maybe it’s not so inconceivable to believe that he was sent here to change the world with words. Even if Twain’s words affected change in one life, and that one person starts a ripple effect that impacts another life, isn’t that the hope of any author?