The Note to Miss Watson

Something We Can Learn from a Scene in Fiction

There’s a scene in Huckleberry Finn that brings to a head what Huck has learned about himself, about what’s wrong with the way—ordinary and customary at the time—he’s grown up… and his friendship with Jim. A friendship that at the time (and still has echoes, to a degree, today) was deemed all wrong.

Huck is faced with that Jim’s a runaway slave (Jim overhears that Miss Watson plans to ‘sell him down the river’ to more brutal slave owners and flees that fate). Miss Watson was a severe woman—devout to her religion and societal norms of the times—who continually tried to ‘civilize’ Huck.

The Note to Miss Watson by Dennis LoweryAs a white person, he (Huck) is expected to turn Jim in. Huck writes a note he plans to give to Miss Watson that will alert the authorities about Jim. Here’s Huck’s inner conflict over what to do:

“It was a close place. I took the letter 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.”

At that moment—reading his note to Miss Watson—Huck faced all of the convictions imprinted on him by a segment of society and his upbringing… and balanced them against facts.

The fact was Jim was a brave, honorable and genuine friend. If Huck had judged Jim on anything else, he would not have enjoyed his friendship, help, and trust. And to violate that—how he felt deep inside—because someone claimed Jim’s blackness made him inferior, that his skin color marked him as property… that it meant a different set of rules and laws applied to him… is a type and level of wrongness that festers and sours a person. Countries, too.

Huck sensed that and made a noble choice. He chose fact and personal experience over hearsay, labels and codified beliefs and fears.

Huck chose to do what was right over what was expected. He thought things through on his own.

Still today, we meet and hear people whose convictions dictate that people of color, of race, creed or religion, gender, sex or sexual bias be treated differently, as less than equal. Their beliefs are mostly fed and maintained by fear. Often stoked by those whose agenda is best served by fomenting that fear.

Now, Huck’s a fictional character and Huckleberry Finn is just a story. But I believe we can—we all should, even today—learn from him in this scene.