DURING LOCKDOWN IN LONDON, I was re-reading Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the story of a white boy and a runaway slave finding freedom on a raft heading down the Mississippi. A bit of escapist fiction, at the height of the pandemic. Or so I thought. Once the video footage of the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 went viral, triggering widespread anguish and exposing America's deep-rooted systemic racism, there was no escaping the feeling that I was reading about the present somehow; the decision Twain's uncouth but good-hearted eponymous hero makes, to "steal" his Black friend Jim "out of slavery again", had suddenly gained a remarkable new relevance. Is Huck Finn, I wondered, American fiction's first white ally?
Twain's masterpiece is a deeply familiar and celebrated story. Set in Missouri in the 1840s, it begins with Huck, the story's narrator, faking his death to flee a violent father. Huck then collides with Jim, Miss Watson's slave, now a fugitive, having escaped. The two board a raft and sail the Mississippi, heading for the free North, encountering a host of memorable characters (some memorably deranged) along the way. The story's moral climax occurs two thirds of the way through, when Jim is kidnapped by two scoundrels and sold, leading Huck to a version of America's "great inflection point", as Joe Biden calls today's "battle for the (nation's) soul". What should Huck do? So conditioned is he by the warped mores of the antebellum South, he believes that rescuing Jim will damn his own soul to "everlasting fire". The alternative leaves Jim enslaved. The stakes are high, and hot: "I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: Alright then, I'll go to hell".
With Huck's resolution, Twain takes a swipe at the hypocrisy that entwines slavery in all its evil with the pieties of Calvinist Presbyterianism ("Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand", Twain believed). But that hypocrisy remains conspiciously vigorous in the US today. The same absurdity was evident, for example, when President Trump ordered the tear-gassing of a group of protesters outside St John's Church in Washington DC, so that he could stand there holding a bible for a photo opportunity. To his supporters he was insisting that God and the law will uphold property over human values. Those photographs offer what some might call a damning contrast to the moment at which Huck places Jim's humanity above the fate of his own soul.
Twain understood that contrast all too well. In 1895, a decade after the book's publication, he proposed, in a journal entry, that "in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience". Huckleberry Finn illustrates this philosophy. Twain saw it as "a book of mine in which a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat".
"Conscience", in his view, is a wholly social formation: social law internalized by the individual, as opposed...