The Passage Owns Me

first published in Beguile


For we who love to read, to teach: I understand.

     Far, far too many to count let alone comment on; far, far too many even for sifting; I know.

     And yet, when we think on it, and it’s good to think on it, we who read can recall those quiet, gorgeous, or, on the other hand, those supernova passages, passages that do not simply linger but work their way into muscle and bone and become as much a part of who we are, years and decades on, as they were a part of the writer. They can, even upon, especially upon, a first-reading and then again, upon a return reading generations on, lend one a peace that, as T.S. Eliot said, goes beyond human understanding, washing over and into our pores, cells, and souls as an enduring tonic like no other. Such a passage can, too, make us bolt, upright, setting off a wonder and delight demanding multiple re-readings then and there.

     There are passages, paragraphs, even just sentences from Virginia Woolf (the ending sentences in To The Lighthouse), William Faulkner (the 100+ word opening sentence defining inner-time-and-space, in Absalom, Absalom!), or Thomas Mann (the sequences on Love and Honor in The Magic Mountain), and so many others, that work on me in this way.

     These and hundreds of other moments have stayed in me for so many years. I won’t list more now because I’m concerned, foolishly I know, about a lack of inclusion. Except for one, one that has bored a space, lodged in my heart and in my mind like no other, a paragraph that originated with Mr. Clemens, of course, but that I have come to feel, in a strange and wondrous way, that I now own, and that my soul will own long after I pass.

     Mid-way, Chapter 31: Huck’s crisis-of-conscience, the conscience of a child, the emerging battered conscience of a deeply evil national history, evil because chosen, mirrored in that small boy. He has his one chance to wrest himself from the stranglehold of nefarious criminals and he can do it by denouncing Jim to Miss Watson, Jim’s owner under law, Jim the runaway, now a man to Huck, no longer a slave-only.

     Remember with me, for a moment, this electrifying passage, a moment that subverts all traditional social and American religious ethics and demands that America grow up and adhere to Higher Law. It even now shivers me deeply and wells me up.

“Miss Watson your runaway nigger 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. HUCK FINN
“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….I went on thinking…how near I come to being lost and going to hell. 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…so I could go on sleeping; and see…how good he always was; …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”.

     As I say, I have come to believe that I own this passage; the truth is that it owns me.