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Mark Twain 1835-1910
Huckleberry Finn’s friend Jim was a slave, and Jim was caught as a runaway slave while on a trip with Huck. In the following passage, Huck considers whether or not to write a letter to Jim’s owner and do what society expected of him (turn Jim in) or to be loyal to his friend and help him escape to freedom. In these lines are a decision by Huck which both embody and symbolize a turning point in American history.
A passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that slave goes to everlasting fire.”
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that slave’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway slave Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade) (Gutenberg.org, August 20, 2006 [EBook #76]).
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
We all write history. Whatever we write about in the realm of non-fiction is something from the past, or it may be our take on past events. In fact, there is no way those events could be anything else but past events; even if we are writing about our feelings, those feelings have to happen before we can write about them. Fiction writers also write about history, because everything they create is based on what they have experienced and learned in their own past. The fact that they are going beyond the bounds of reality in their imagined worlds does not prevent their own past experiences from setting the guideposts for what they portray happening in their stories. Why is this important? Well, as a historian myself, I have had many opportunities to learn about the limitations a historian faces when trying to explain a past event: quality of sources, personal inclinations, etc. So, if it is true that all writers engage with history, then I think some consideration of the things to watch out for when you are writing history may assist you to be “clearer” in your own writing.
One of the trickiest things about being a writer is being able to write without your personal preferences getting in the way of your subject matter. To write about a subject without any personal bias is impossible, it is what is referred to as “writing objectively”, but you can be clearer in your writing style and avoid writing subjectively — that is, writing purely from your own perspective. The first step is to simply acknowledge that you have this bias and make some effort to reign it in. Admitting you have biases that will make your written work less clear, unless the point of your work is to explain to the reader what your biases are, is the first step to writing in a more convincing way. Consider the observation of historian John Lukacs on two other historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt [and do not worry about the German words he throws in, historians have a tendency to throw in German, French, or Latin terms; it’s just one of “those things”.]:
It is perhaps significant that the limits of objectivity were recognized by Tocqueville and Burckhardt better than by Ranke: unlike the latter, the aristocrat Tocqueville and the patrician Burckhardt admitted and knew many of their personal inclinations and their existing prejudices: and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that they succeeded in overcoming them on occasion. “I began my study of the old régime full of prejudices against the clergy,” Tocqueville wrote, “I ended it full of respect.” (How few of our professional intellectuals would dare to admit such a thing nowadays, let alone put it in a book!) Burckhardt in one of his lectures made a beautiful distinction between Vorliebe and Parteilichkeit, a personal tendency of being attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures, as distinct from mere partisanship; the former was good and proper, the latter wrong. The person of the historian is to determine his work, Burckhardt said. “We are not objective.” “Personal participation is unavoidable.”
Historical Consciousness (Transaction:2003): 235.
For clarity’s sake, Vorliebe means ‘preference’ or ‘liking something’, whereas Parteilichkeit means ‘partiality’ or ‘bias’. This relates to the general tack of this blog, clear writing, and here the eminent historian is not being clear to the average English reader. The question he had to answer is whether, given the fact the average reader will not understand the German terms, he still wanted to use them anyway? Clearly, he did. In your own writings you will also have to consider the use of technical language, for lack of a better term, and where and when you are willing to use it. But for now, let’s quickly consider what Lukacs observed about writing objectively. That is the important bit!
We take it as a given that we participate in what we write, a la Burckhardt. But here we are presented with two trajectories of participation in writing: one where we are “attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures,” and another where we are partial to a cause or person, or have biases that guide our writing. These historians agree that — I paraphrase and translate — a healthy interest and respect for a subject is a good thing, while writing out of our biases is a bad thing.
Their observations are good ones. Happy writing.
You can find more tips on writing here.