The Root of it All
Updated: Aug 1
Huckleberry Finn is tragically flawed. Our national character is flawed in the same way. This is the opposite story we're customarily told about Mark Twain, that most American of authors.
This was Wendell Berry's observation, which I lifted from the same essay I wrote about in my last post (American Nightmare).
"Writer and Region" is Berry's callout for regionalism -- an undervalued literary form that Twain raised to the level of high art. But always with Berry, the closer you look the more you find, and I daresay that three pages from this essay cover some of the most poignant and instructive territory I've yet come across in my Walks with Wendell. It's not about literature. It's to do with the root of the problem of American life today.
The flaw -- Huckleberry Finn's, Mark Twain's, and ours, is isolation, and the incapacitation of community.
"There is," Wendell writes, "something stunted in Huckleberry Finn. I have hated to think so -- for a long time I have tried consciously not to think so -- but it is so. What is stunted is the growth of Huck's character."
Huckleberry Finn is a story about growing up -- but only to a point. Twain makes sure his finest character, in the final chapters of the book, remains unencumbered and unalloyed with others. He ensures that Huck doesn't grow up -- not in this book nor the next in which he appears (Tom Sawyer, Abroad).
To be clear, what Wendell means by "growing up" is taking one's place as a responsible member in community life. It's binding yourself to the needs of your place and your people. Twain can't abide that, neither for Huck, nor, it turns out, for himself. The sad truth is that nearly all of us are feeble-minded about stepping into real community.
As far as words and concepts go, none are more overused and meaning-stripped than "community." You hear the word all the time these days -- intoned to describe any kind of collective at all, online and off. We have community banks and user communities and communities of color. Comunities abound -- at least in name. In point of fact, though, the word is an empty catch-all for people who share...well, anything at all. Not that that's bad. It's just been diluted to banality.
Despite that, community remains the very heart of Berryism and is the animating force behind every one of these blog posts. When I find myself angry and wishing for a better world, it's the idea that soothes me. I believe it's the idea that soothes all of us -- the sense (whether remembered or imagined), that we belong somewhere, deeply and completely (see again Longing for Belonging).
So I was entirely unsurprised to read Berry's observation, midway through this essay, "We have hardly begun to imagine community life..." But I was absolutely dumbstruck at the second half of that sentence: "and the tragedy that is at the heart of community life."
Wait what? At the heart of community life is love, isn't it? Or fellowship, or affection, or commonweatlh, or any of those Berryist virtues that define his corpus. The ones that lift our hearts and invite us into membership.
How is tragedy the center of community life?
Determined to comprehend, and sensing that something subtle and crucial was to be learned here, I read the three pages again and again. In them, Twain's biography is described as a tragic drama, in Aristotlean terms, and it took me a few tries to get the lesson. But I think I did finally get it, and I'm going to try to share it here, as forthrightly as I can. (This is my take on it, of course, and I urge anyone who really wants to get this to read pages 76-80 in What are People For?).
Tragedy is at the center of community life because tragedy is more than just horror. Tragedy includes not just excruciating loss or abuse, but also survival. Human tragedy is lived through, It doesn't end us. It is suffered and borne; outlasted and sometimes overcome. It contains, if we are to believe Aristotle, not just fear, grief and pity, but the catharsis of fear, grief and pity. It contains the awful, and the return from awful.
How does this occur? How do we transform tragedy -- or how are we transformed by it?
In one word: together. What we continually misapprehend about community is that it's not "nice." It's necessary.
"A boy can experience grief and horror, but he cannot experience....tragedy and still remain a boy," writes Wendell. "Nor can he experience tragedy in solitude or as a stranger, for tragedy is only experienced in the context of a beloved community." This is a litle opaque, but what Wendell is saying, I think, is that while mortality, partiality and evil reside in individuals, their effect is felt communally. Think about it: Uvalde. Ukraine. January 6th. George Floyd. In each instance, lives were tragically lost. But the tragedy is not boxed up and buried (even when that is attempted). It doesn't work that way. These deaths ripped open their communities. It's the community that is left to make sense of what happened, to cry out "why" about both the villians and the victims, to carry on knowing it has been forsaken.
The point is that with our species, survival is the job of communities, not individuals.
We live in communities for the very sake of community. For continuity and survival. Which is why all of us, including the Huckleberry Finn's and Davey Crockett's, ultimately must come into community. It's the essential step in a human life. Because evil and partiality exist in people, individuals will do harm, will be harmed. Community is our only real immunity -- the only possible path from grief to joy.
Mark Twain's own life is a testament to the disease of rampant individuality and isolation, and Wendell's explanation of how Mr. Twain lived out his final days helped me understand the entire thesis we're discussing.
By his later years, despite his phenomenal publishing success, Twain had experienced significant losses both personal and financial, losses that caused him to retreat further into his own grievances and "deeper in outrage as he continued to meditate on the injustices and cruelties of history." Twain withdrew from even the imagining of community, targeting Hadleyburg in his late work (an imagined village he had written about earlier with sympathy and good humor) as greedy and self-righeous.
Then comes a remarkable set of sentences from Wendell, which I will quote in full:
"(These are) evils that community life has always had to oppose, correct, ignore, indulge or forgive in order to survive. All observers of communities have been aware of such evils, Huck Finn having been one of the acutest of them, but now it is as if Huck has been replace by Colonel Sherburn. "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" is based on the devestating assumption that people are no better than their faults. In old age, Mark Twain had become obsessed with 'the damned human race' and the malevolance of God -- ideas that were severely isolating and ultimately, self-indulgent. He was finally incapable of that magnanimity that is the most difficult and the most necessary: forgiveness of human nature and human circumstance. Given human nature and human circumstance, our only relief is in this forgiveness, which then restores us to community and its ancient cycle of loss and grief, hope and joy."
Maybe it's me, but I find more wisdom in that one paragraph than in all of the Bible. The reasons we are so much trouble, and the way out of our trouble, are right here:
Yes community life has evil and partiality in it. Community is not utopia. Anyone who's actually shared space and resources with other people know this.
The evil and partiality needs to be opposed, corrected, ignored, indulged or forgiven. Otherwise the community perishes. The proper response must be determined by the community, which has power in numbers.
The response is a form of real, human engagement. It must be interactive because troubled people are more than their faults. When we assume people are no more than their defects, we demonize them. Defects then have reason and ground for fermentation, for expression, for doing damage.
Further, demonizing others is self-indulgent. It asks nothing of us. It corrects nothing.
The proper response, ultimately, though difficult and necessary, is to forgive -- if not the person, then "human nature and human circumstance."
There is no other option, "given human nature and human circumstance." We always have been, and always will be, faced with tragedy and the need to forgive.
Which is the way through -- the restorative act that brings together what was torn asunder. Forgiveness allows survival and renewal. Hope and joy can return.
This chain would seem to have a lot of the Christian gospel in it, but I don't think it's "Christian." Rather, I think that the early Christians appropriated something older and universal from time immemorial -- the quintessential human need to go together, stay together, survive together -- the quality we now call "community." And the ancient truth that "human nature and circumstance" can be forgiven even if individual humans cannot be. We've lost all this.
Despite my tendency to over-simplify, I really do think that our intersectional crises of rising ethno-nationalism, climate devastation, extreme inequality and weakening democratic institutions spring from a fundamental error in our modern ways. And these three pages by Wendell helped spell it out for me, as I hope this post may do the same for others.
We either scoff at real community life or we idealize it, but like Huck Finn, we don't grow up into it -- we hardly have a choice. Community life, in real life, hardly exists. We're ignorant about how to do it. It's too hard, we think, and we don't really want responsibility for others, for our places. Maybe because, like Mark Twain, we mistakenly assume people are no better than their faults. We live without working structures and forms that would help us engage and forgive the troubled, greedy, partial or self-righteous. Hope and joy have far too little room to return.
Community is at the root of it all, whether we like it or not. If we're going to survive the ever-widening tragedy of the 21st century, it's going to be in community. It's not a better way to live. It's the only way.