Village lights: Huck Finn’s world, and ours

WILLIAM MARKLEY feels Twain’s great novel has much to say to our age

The ticking of a clock on a mantelpiece – the joy of eating corn pone after a hard day – lights of a hillside village, seen from a raft on the Mississippi River. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn powerfully evokes the atmosphere of a long-ago America. Along with the details and flavours of everyday life, Twain looks at social problems, habits and moral quandaries that were significant before the American Civil War: slavery, mob violence, feuding families, hospitality to strangers, loyalties pulled in different directions. Some readers today will immediately assume how they would respond to such issues if they found themselves transported back to the 1840s. Yet Huckleberry Finn is concerned with timeless questions and inner struggles which aren’t as easily resolved as we might think. These loom large for the narrator Huckleberry, or Huck as he is known to his friends.

I befriended Huck Finn late in life. Although the book was long considered one of the greatest of American novels, it wasn’t among my schools’ required readings. I was a bookworm as a boy, but I avoided stories with children as principal characters. I wanted to read only about adults and their adventures. Little did I know how Mark Twain offered a narrative and a power of description that would grab a reader’s attention. Huck faces his inner dilemmas as he proceeds on an eventful trip along the Mississippi valley – and Twain weaves several unforgettable characters into the story—especially the runaway slave Jim.

I’m very fortunate to have an early-19th century clock. When I hear it ticking and chiming, I marvel at hearing the same sounds which meant something to people in Huck’s day, and which aren’t commonplace anymore. We still have many of the same yearnings, fears, and joys that people had when my clock was made. And yet, as the English novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”[1] Americans in the first half of the 19th century had serious worries and troubles I don’t have: cholera, Indian attacks, how the crops would fare, and how many children in the family would survive the winter. All of us today make decisions about right and wrong, but I haven’t had to face the predicaments caused by slavery which plagued northerners and southerners.

Back to the book. Soon after Huck flees downriver to escape his abusive father, he encounters Jim, and the two develop a deep affection and appreciation for each other. Yet Huck grew up in a slaveholding society which stamped its values on him. His white family was destitute, without any slaves, but in this society everyone was expected to consider some people as the legal, legitimate property of others. Slaveholders’ rights were held sacred. At times, Huck is remorseful for going against the law and the feelings of Jim’s owner. Conscience for him isn’t the simple matter that it might seem to be, to one raised in a society that preaches egalitarianism or ‘equity.’ On the other hand, his torments resemble what we sometimes experience today when confronted with very different social matters. Ultimately, Huck decides that his loyalty to Jim and his commitment to help Jim find freedom override what society insists that he should do. Agonizing over this, he believes his conscience tells him that he’ll go to hell for this decision. His unsophisticated yet eloquent ruminations are memorable.

Such struggles might have rung true to thoughtful Southerners in the 19th century. Some of the most devoted soldiers of the Confederacy had principles regarding slavery which today’s readers might find surprising. General A. P. Hill was firmly against the institution, and he did not own slaves. “Stonewall” Jackson was very kind to his slaves, and, against the local laws, he devotedly taught them to read and write as part of a special “Sunday School” which he created for them. Some leaders, such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, believed that they offered their slaves better lives than would be available otherwise. Immediate emancipation might place former slaves in more dangerous conditions than they had lived under previously. Not all slaveowners considered these factors, but it’s undeniable that people of good will in the South found themselves in a situation without simple, easy answers. And over 600,000 men died trying to settle the issue.

While the West made tremendous, praiseworthy efforts in the 19th century to eradicate slavery, it still hasn’t gone away in the world. Various forms of human-trafficking are thriving, as the recent movie Sound of Freedom highlights. Most of us have been insulated from these all-too-hidden crimes, and yet the victims suffer as horribly as any slaves did in earlier eras.

Apart from slavery, there are other prominent moral issues which beg for our attention. We allow schools and other institutions to influence and indoctrinate our children in ways that earlier Americans would rightly find shocking, outrageous and deeply immoral, and we bow down meekly to governmental and corporate forces which our ancestors would have rejected with contempt.

C. S. Lewis aptly warned about the “chronological snobbery” of people who feel superior to those of the past. A prominent feature of ‘wokeness’ is a vicious form of this – an overwhelming disdain for our ancestors, based on historical ignorance and rampant self-regard. The destruction of monuments, memory-holing of politically incorrect writings, and transformation of public schools and colleges into indoctrination centers are among the manifestations – and of course there is the “cancelling” of individuals.

Huckleberry and other characters use coarse language, especially regarding race, which publishers and HR staff would now find shriek-worthy. Yet Mark Twain shows much more compassion, understanding, moral clarity and nuance about race, character and moral dilemma than many modern people will offer. And despite uttering words which would immediately get him cancelled today, Huckleberry clearly shows in his actions, and in his other words, that he loves others, no matter their race. Jim does the same, and is presented by Twain in a rounded way, rather than as an unblemished victim. Like Huck, he admits that he has acted in ways which he deeply regrets. Both characters are curious observers who sometimes think critically, yet sometimes succumb to superstition, as many of us still do. As T. S. Eliot says, Huck and Jim “are equal in dignity.”[2]

One unforgettable episode, while Jim is absent for a time, is a tragic feud between two families. After Huck is nearly killed in a mishap on the river, he is cared for by a cultured family, the Grangerfords. The intriguing Colonel Grangerford is a sympathetic, strong character, but he and several members of his family are urged on by dire imperatives imposed by their clannish local society. In some regions of America, where law wasn’t as firmly established as elsewhere, family and tribal ties and obligations were much tighter than we see today. This could result in feuds lasting for generations, with later participants not even understanding the origins of the violence. In the case of the Grangerfords and their opponents, Eliot noted that Twain allows “the reader to make his own moral reflections.”[3] My own reaction is that while the feud is undoubtedly a terrible folly, some of the Grangerfords show admirable loyalty to their own kin. Today, maybe we have strayed too far from such loyalty. Somewhere there’s a balance that should be sought.

For the most part, America has traveled far away from the kind of clannishness shown by the Grangerfords. We now have widespread rootlessness, and a separation from family and community. Many grandparents, parents and children live in different states, and social media doesn’t offer enough to make up for the distance. Neighbours rarely interact with each other compared with earlier times, when families frequently invited neighbors and even strangers over for a meal. This atomization has obviously grown more extreme with the growth of digital technology, and the influence of mass popular culture. In Huck’s day, the frontier encouraged some similar centrifugal tendencies, while it also offered opportunities to people who needed a fresh start. Mutual-assistance organizations strengthened community ties, even in frontier areas. These have almost completely vanished. A close-knit community can descend into a mob, as shown in Huckleberry Finn, yet something has clearly been lost.

Grimness isn’t the only mood of the book – far from it. And Twain has a way with describing the world of the Mississippi:

“Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them…”

As much as I like the book and find it thought-provoking, a few parts of it are unappealing to me. Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer makes a welcome appearance at first, yet his elaborate schemes for pushing Huck and Jim into 19th-century romantic adventure-novel scenarios become tiresome. Nevertheless, the lyrical passages, adventure narrative, well-drawn characters and realistic, perceptive portrayals of moral questions and resolutions more than make up for any weakness. People act kindly, cruelly and with mixed motives, and in some cases this is all demonstrated by a single character. Like most boys, Huck can be callous, and also kind and generous. In his thoughts he contradicts himself, as most of us do. Along the river he meets murderers, frauds and other unpleasant characters, along with people who are models of charity, and although he and his creator wouldn’t want themselves to be pigeonholed into any particular church or creed, Huck develops a very Christian ability to love his neighbors.

Twain had seen a lot of the world and of people by the time he wrote this book. Born in 1835, he grew up in small Missouri towns, worked a variety of jobs including riverboat pilot, spent time in the American far west, and settled down in the more established east. He knew too much to present simplistic characters and an overly sentimental story. And yet, as critic Fred Pattee wrote, Twain “was a knightly soul, sensitive and serious, a nineteenth-century soul who would protect the weak of the whole world and right their wrongs.”[4] With Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows us a lost world, but he also helps us understand ourselves, if we’re willing to put our smartphones down for a while.

[1] Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953

[2] T. S. Eliot, “An Introduction to Huckleberry Finn”, in Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Huck Finn, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004, p. 20

[3] Ibid, p. 19

[4] Pattee, Fred Lewis, A History of American Literature Since 1870, New York: The Century Co., 1915, p. 61

Has the National Trust lost its way?

MAURICE GEORGE fears the heritage institution is forgetting its origins and aims

The National Trust is 125 years old, has a membership approaching 10% of the population and exists to preserve things. How can such a body lose its way? To answer that question, we have to look at the context within which it operates and its sensitivity to current trends and fashionable ideas.

My perspective of the National Trust is based on my experience of visiting properties, reading the magazine, and press coverage when things go significantly right or wrong.  A matter of particular concern has been the publicly expressed disquiet among the volunteers, upon whom the Trust is implicitly dependent to be able to open its properties to the public. At one point in the last couple of years I was getting so annoyed at the way the Trust was being run that, had I not been a life member, I might have resigned my membership in protest. In my 60 years as a member of the Trust, membership has increased five-fold and with increasing emphasis on attracting yet more visitors to its properties, I have the impression that the Trust may be losing contact with its origin and fundamental purpose.

I have a special interest in the Lake District, where an essential element in the motivation for what became the National Trust, originated. My first visit to the Lakes as a teenager was for me, a Londoner, a life-changing experience and I have devoted much time since to exploring it and studying its history and culture.  For the past 25 years I have been an active supporter of the Armitt Collection held in the museum and library at Ambleside in the Lake District and for 11 years I was Chair of the Friends.  This year marks 100 years since the death of Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (one of the three co-founders of the National Trust – see and I have spent the past two months helping to prepare an exhibition celebrating his work as ‘Defender of the Lakes’.

It was Rawnsley whom we have to thank for really starting the movement to protect the English Lake District for access and enjoyment by future generations and for enabling the creation of the National Trust. Others, including Wordsworth, had raised their voices against perceived threats, but to little effect. Most importantly, Rawnsley recognised that to succeed, his movement needed to be on a national basis and it was the coalescence of his vision and energy with the desire of Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter for a national organisation to protect open spaces that led to the foundation of the National Trust. This year is the 125th anniversary of that event and for the first 25 years of its existence, Rawnsley was the Trust’s honorary secretary.

The National Trust was set up originally to preserve the scenic value of open spaces and access to them for the inhabitants of over-crowded towns and cities. The preservation of buildings followed, with the realisation that there was also an architectural heritage that needed to be saved from neglect or destruction. The National Trust now represents around a tenth of the population of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is remarkable, that since the passing of the first National Trust Act in 1907, the governance of so large an organisation has only once been subject to significant public scrutiny, following the controversy in 1966 over the management of Enterprise Neptune, the coastal protection initiative.

Running the coastal project, which aimed to protect as much of the coastline as possible from development and loss of access, placed too much of a burden upon the existing management of the Trust and it was decided to appoint an appeals director.  Conrad Rawnsley, grandson of the founder, was, with some reluctance on the part of the Trust, engaged for the post and thus to run what he called Enterprise Neptune.  Rawnsley had radical views as to how the Trust as a whole should be run, and the organisation he set up engaged young people, a group somewhat neglected by the Trust. It also exposed the weakness in the Trust’s management to an extent that the tail (Enterprise Neptune) was wagging the dog. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, Rawnsley’s contract was terminated. At the next AGM, Rawnsley’s Reform Group failed to get any of their members elected to the Trust Council and he requisitioned an Extraordinary General Meeting, at which 4,000 members filled Church House, Westminster. My wife and I were active supporters of Rawnsley and the Neptune project and we were among the noisy hecklers who shouted down the chairman when he tried to use procedure to thwart the protest over Rawnsley’s dismissal. The Trust were forced to put a critical resolution to a poll of all members, who rejected it by a margin of two to one. At the next AGM, Rawnsley publicly tore up his membership card and walked out of the meeting.

As a result of this furore the Trust convened an advisory committee, chaired by an eminent accountant, Sir Henry Benson. The ensuing Report reviewed the constitution, organisation and responsibilities of the Trust and recommended changes, which were subsequently largely implemented. The major organisational change was for the management of properties to be devolved within a new regional organisation – a change that had been recommended in an earlier management review but not implemented.  There have been various reorganisations since the Benson Committee report but no objective review of the Trust’s purpose and function, despite the fact that the committee had recommended that the Trust should review its workings every ten years or so.  Is it perhaps now time for another such review?

There have been other moments of controversy in the life of the National Trust but nothing on the scale of the Neptune affair. However, recently we have seen significant adverse comment in newspaper articles and letters, concerning how the Trust is meeting its declared objectives and the extent to which it should pay attention to current trends of thinking. It is therefore timely to ask whether the National Trust may indeed have lost its way.

The current issue capturing the attention and evoking responses from Arts and Heritage organisations is the extent to which the profits from the slave trade enabled the philanthropy, from which we all benefit today. Attention to issues such as slavery may be inescapable, if we agree with the Director of the National Gallery that silence is construed as denial or disagreement. The fundamental issue here is the attainment of equality of opportunity for all groups in our society, and slavery is being used as an emotive element to gain popular support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The enslavement of black Africans in America is the social focus, which has been carried forward to the present day, notwithstanding a civil war and the passage of time. If however we can detach ourselves from the American situation, and look at how societies have operated over several millennia, we have to acknowledge that slavery, in one form or another, has been an integral element of social organisation and, regretfully, still is, in the sex industry and other forms of exploitation.

However, to focus on one aspect of enslavement without reference to the wider historical perspective leads to self-indulgent attitudes of apology for the acts of our ancestors. Unfortunately, the National Trust and other cultural bodies have been drawn into seeking out historical connections to slavery, but we may ask what useful purpose does this form of navel-gazing actually serve? I believe it is an intellectual dead-end which simply diverts attention away from the object of preservation, into a discussion of the acts of our forbears, and the passing of judgement on their actions according to the standards of our own time.

Being wise after the event is prudent in respect of avoiding the repetition of potentially harmful errors, but for little else. Do we really want theoretically to punish swathes of royalty, chieftains, and religious leaders for acts of oppression, bigotry, or greed, carried out at a time when such actions were a normal aspect of society? We should surely always look forward to providing a better living environment for our successors and preserving for them the cultural wealth of our times.

Even before the current obsession with slavery, we had the Trust applying a common theme across all its properties. Examples were the emancipation of women and gay pride, which were a distortion of the perspective for viewing all those places. This was taken to extremes in some cases, for example with depictions of wartime conditions. Was it rational to store all the artworks and furniture in order to show a house in its wartime condition as the home of a bank, albeit the one of which the property’s owner was Chairman? For a whole year, anyone wishing to see any of the very fine artworks or to view the porcelain collection, the usual reasons for wanting to visit the house, was denied the opportunity to do so.

The Trust has also attracted criticism for amalgamating some of the Lake District farms bequeathed by Beatrix Potter, with the instruction that they should be maintained as she had left them. They also defeated a group of farmers seeking to purchase and maintain other Lake District farms in the traditional way. Hardwicke Rawnsley and Beatrix Potter sought to preserve land, traditional farming practice and Lakeland culture, and that should remain the objective of the National Trust today.

Rawnsley’s final book, published in the year of his death, was a valedictory tour of National Trust properties in the west of England. Only a quarter of these properties comprised buildings as well as open spaces.  How much has changed since then, and how wonderful are many of the buildings in the care of the Trust, but do we really understand the purpose of this national archive of natural and constructed beauty and interest? Moreover, the guardianship of properties that have not come into the ownership of the Trust but are deemed to be of value to the nation’s heritage, has passed from government department to public charitable support with English Heritage. All of these places attract visitors from overseas and contribute to export earnings, yet we have no overall cultural policy for this nation.  Culture matters too.

There is though some hope that common sense and rationality will ultimately prevail. The Director General has indicated that there will in future be more emphasis on the open spaces in the Trust’s care. However, she is thinking of closing some smaller properties to the public and presumably members too, and maybe in this electronic age, we will have to make do with virtual tours. She is also saying that the report on connections with slavery was an investigation and has opened the way for discussion on what should be done with its findings. There is clearly a need for a genuinely objective review of the status and function of the National Trust and what its future conservation policy should be. History is a mixture of fact and hindsight, but it is open to subjective analysis, from which this article is not exempt, but that should not be allowed to spoil the average day out at a Trust property.

Finally, here are some suggestions that might help to bring about some beneficial changes in National Trust policy. For domestic buildings, there should be a clear understanding that they represent an encapsulation of social, and often, architectural history, for the period when they came into Trust ownership. Their history should be presented in an accessible, scholarly, and unprejudiced way. Public buildings no longer fulfilling their original purpose may offer scope for exhibiting material not necessarily connected with that purpose, and which would not be easily accommodated in domestic properties, unless those properties have much unused space.

Open spaces should retain their original character wherever possible unless the pressure of public access demands changes, such as the strengthening of mountain paths to prevent more widespread damage. Grazing of upland areas should be commensurate with maintaining the character of the landscape as near to its original state as possible. Areas that were not wild when they came into the Trust’s care should remain as they were at that time, and not now be allowed to go wild. Traditional farming practice should be maintained, with as little change as possible even if uneconomic by current standards, since that practice is part of what is being preserved. Appropriate subsidy from within the Trust’s huge estate should not be an impossible burden. Tree planting and clearance should take account of the distant views that might be lost or restored. Preservation should be the driving force in decision-making.

The National Trust does not have a remit to modernise its properties in any way, other than providing satisfactory facilities for visitors. However, the use of digital aids supported by good scholarship should of course be employed to enhance the experience of visitors. At the same time, the historical perspective and the reason why properties came into the care of the Trust must not be forgotten or obscured by subjective contemporary ideas.