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The Truth, Mainly - 01/14/2008

On Twain, Huck, and morality

OK, I confess: I was an English teacher for 40 years before I retired eight years ago. In my dotage I like to talk about those writers whose books I coerced my students to read. I'll probably get over it eventually. But I still brag about having read Mark Twain since I was in fifth grade. If I remember right, thatís when I read—all the way through—"Tom Sawyer" (published in 1876) and "Huckleberry Finn" (published in 1884).

"Tom Sawyer" was just funny, but "Huck Finn" was both funny and serious at the same time. I think I must have read it on my own three or four times while I was still in grade school and junior high. The serious part had to do with Huck helping Jim, a runaway slave running away from his owner.

Huck and Jim ran away on a raft floating down the Mississippi—which wasnít going the right direction because the further south they got, the deeper the established slavery and Huck's worry about being found guilty of helping a runaway slave run away. He got so spooked that he wrote a letter to Jim's owner saying where Jim could be found, but when it came time to mail the letter, Huck started to remember all the things Jim had done for him. Then he said to himself "All right, then I'll go to Hell"—and tore up his letter.

Knocked me out.

I was reminded of all that a year or so ago when our current President Bush, speaking to an American Legion audience, wound up with this: "Thanks for having me. May God bless our veterans. May God bless our troops. And may God continue to bless the United States of America."

The President's idea is that God clearly is on our side, likes our war in the Middle East, and blesses our efforts in pursuing it. And then I read what Alan Greenspan—you remember, the guy who put in 18 years as our Federal Reserve Chairman—wrote in his new book called "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World" that "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to argue what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

But I digress. I'm getting away from Mark Twain. We all ought to read his piece called "The War Prayer." It's only three or four pages long and it's in response to some U.S. fighting in the Philippines. It's about "an aged stranger" who takes over the pulpit in the middle of the minister's prayer about supporting the war and tells the congregation about the implications of the prayer. Here's part of what he says:

The Truth, Mainly


"I come from the Throne—bearing a message from Almighty God!"

He then goes on tell the congregation the unspoken part of the minister's prayer. It goes like this:

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst."

It goes on and on, then silence. Then the speaker says "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits."

Then Twain, the satirist, ends on this note: "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said."


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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