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Religion and Culture
by Gregg Camfield, Ph.D.
University of California, Merced.

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Colonial America was marked by significant cultural differences between relatively small colonies; one of the challenges of the Revolution was to make from these diverse populations a single nation, e pluribus unum. The tendency over time, as migration mixed our population and as improvements in transportation and communication technologies made geographical barriers less significant, has been to homogenize American culture. As early as 1770, J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, a French immigrant to New York, could write of America:

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. (“What Is an American,” from Letters from an American Farmer, 1782)
Here Crevecoeur invented the belief that America is a melting pot, a belief that can be tested by looking at what happened as the new nation's population spilled to the West.

In America's westward migration, new residents of the Mississippi Valley did develop a cultural identity distinct from that of the Eastern seaboard, and while the North/South dichotomy of the East persisted as migrants traveled over the Appalachians in fairly direct lines to the West, carrying attitudes toward religion, social class, manners, art, and slavery with them, the experience of settling the West after the Revolution, in concert with a revolution in education, combined to make a distinctively Western character. This western character would, in turn, change the conception of what an American is. While volumes have been written on this subject, the central cultural changes in which the Mississippi Valley played a major part can be addressed fruitfully by looking at attitudes toward religion and manners. In both cases, we see not a clean break from, but a dialogue with the East, a dialogue that was deeply part of developing an American character.


Next Sunday, we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching — all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they tall talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don't know what ll, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet. (Chapter 18 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

In this brief, satiric picture, Twain gives his interpretation of Protestant religion in the Mississippi valley. At the center of this is a doctrinal struggle over the core of Christianity, a doctrinal struggle that had been waged for centuries, but that was particularly hot during Twain's childhood as the second Great Awakening spread into the Mississippi Valley.

As with the first Great Awakening of the 18th Century, the resurgence of Christianity was couched in doctrinal terms, with the first evangelists suggesting that relatively low church membership was the consequence of a falling away from doctrinal purity. For the most part, this evangelism was doctrinally conservative, pushing the five fundamental points of the Calvinist Westminster Confession: (1) that human beings were in a state of sin after Adam's fall, (2) that we were therefore completely depraved and could do nothing in our own power to redeem ourselves, (3) that God would elect a select few for salvation according to his sovereign plan, (4) that once elected, these few would feel themselves as the beneficiaries of God's grace and would be justified by faith alone, and (5) that, while weak and therefore subject to continued sinning (backsliding), the saved would nonetheless persevere in their belief, making every effort to walk in a Godly fashion, that is, to behave according to God's laws as reflected in the Bible.

For a number of reasons, this doctrinal conservatism became extremely popular throughout most of the rural parts of the United States between 1830 and 1850. This shift significantly transformed the South, which, through the 18th century, had been the locus of Enlightenment rationalism in the United States. By contrast, New England was founded by Congregationalist Calvinists, and New York was first populated mostly by members of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. The coastal, that is to say, urban and modernizing, parts of the Northwest, had seen a softening of their religion, and the early reformers saw this ostensible apostasy from pure Protestantism as a challenge. But while many of them made efforts to reconquer their original turf, their real successes lay elsewhere. First in upstate New York, the character of the Great Awakening was formed, in part through intense revivalism, in part by blending pure pietism with moral reform. In fact, the more urbane and softer versions of Protestantism that had come to dominate the cities were already taking moral reform as their main task. They had rejected the doctrine of innate depravity to some degree, and especially rejected the doctrine of election. They had become Arminian, that is to say, they believed that salvation could be earned through good works. The good works they set themselves were, for the most part, a collection of moral reforms that showed that Christianity could do as much to ameliorate the human condition as could the rational ethics of the Enlightenment. Thus, crusades to stamp out intemperate drinking, dueling, child labor, and to encourage education, a strong work ethic, and so forth, were already a part of the religious, as well as political landscape.

The revivalists, in general, adopted reform not as a means to grace, but as preparation to receive grace. They used sins of the flesh, especially drunkenness, as markers of sin in order to “convict” sinners to prepare them to receive grace. Once converted, sobriety in manner was construed as a sign of grace. This fusion of Calvinism and reformism caught on, especially in upstate New York, and, in a way that surprised many believers, throughout the South. Intense migration westward in this period moved the Great Awakening in all of its fervor from the East to the Mississippi Valley. In that respect, the Mississippi Valley developed a common religious culture that persists to this day.

But there were several significant variations in the Valley that Mark Twain's works reflect. First, the Yankee diaspora flooded primarily the upper-Mississippi Valley. From Ohio to Iowa, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches dominated the religious landscape. These two churches, with their deep traditions in American culture, including in American political and economic life, were primarily associated with the North and with the relatively well-to-do. These, along with the much less populous Episcopal, were the upper-class churches. The Methodists and the Baptists, whose appeal was much more to the previously unchurched lower classes, found their greatest appeal in the South. The Baptists and Methodists were more successful in the South in part because the South, with its tradition of free-thinking, presented the greatest opportunity for evangelism, and in part because these two churches had more flexible structures for organizing believers. European traveler Friedrich Gerstacker, in Wild Sports in the Far West (Boston: 1859), describes the frontier religion with deft economy when he describes an evening in an Arkansas homestead:

After supper the company formed various groups, and the conversation turned on shooting, pasture grounds, the survey of the land that had recently been accomplished, and then on religion. Words soon ran high; for among the company were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and unbelievers — but all disputes were put an end to by the arrival of two large jugs of whiskey, each containing about four bottles, which Collmar had sent his eldest son, a lad of fifteen, to fetch from a distant store. The boy had been obliged to ride slowly for fear of breaking the jugs. (For the complete text, click here.)
In this instance, the jug may have brought the factions to equality, but over the long run, the Baptists and Methodists gained the upper hand. Both Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches required critical masses of believers to form churches, each of which would call a trained minister to settle. While the Methodists and Baptists favored this approach, they understood the thin and mobile populations of the new western rural areas required more flexible approaches. The Methodists would assign itinerant preachers to large “circuits,” which they would cover on a regular basis. (See John M. Peck, Forty Years of Pioneer Life, Philadelphia: 1864, for an account of the growth of the Baptist church through itinerant preachers.) Baptists encouraged lay preachers to maintain the faith if no trained preacher was to hand. Silas Phelps in Huck is Twain's caricature of a lay preacher — good hearted and enthusiastic, but ignorant. At the end of the book, Huck tells us that Tom's shenanigans so confused Silas that “It kind of made him drunk, as you may say, and he didn't know nothing at all the rest of the day, and preached a prayer meeting sermon that night that give him a rattling ruputation, because the oldest man in the world couldn't a understood it” (Chapter 42). And both groups relied on camp meetings to bring in new converts and to maintain the fervor of old ones. Twain, again from his Presbyterian point of view, shared a common belief that such meetings were not sources of real religiosity, but were instead places where irreligious behavior and vice could flourish. In Chapter 20 of Huck, Twain's depiction of the camp meeting as a breeding ground for fraud is a fairly commonplace complaint against the tactics of the Baptists and Methodists.

While these different churches had different social class reputations, different structures, and flourished in greater numbers in different parts of the Mississippi valley, their shared doctrinal disputes kept them all unsettled throughout this period. When Huck in his ignorance tumbles together a discussion about “faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination,” he cut to the heart of one of the great doctrinal battles of American Protestantism, the question of human agency in salvation. Methodists by definition believed that grace was universal, that the “saving remnant” could be quite large if people would simply accept grace. But even with this one sect's stretch away from the Westminster Covenant, for all sects the question of justification by faith alone loomed large in doctrinal discussions, much as it had from the inception of Calvinism. As the Great Awakening aged, relatively liberal Christians, primarily from the cultural centers of the east, argued that the book of James, with its admonition that faith without works is a dead faith, had to be at the center of Christian practice. They developed from this basic precept more figurative interpretations of the Bible, seeing the soul's progress not so much as a strict progress from sin to salvation as an exercise in “Christian nurture,” by which the innocent, but selfish, child grows, through acts of love and devotion, into a generous person, whose generosity and brotherly love are the true marks of Christianity.

While this modified Protestantism came into the mainstream first in the East, it did spread to the West, as much in books, music, and art as in preaching. Often called sentimental Christianity for its insistence on love, suffering, and gentle pleas for gradual reform, this is the Christianity that Twain gravitated toward as an alternative to the strict Calvinist Presbyterianism of his mother. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom's gradual moral development through his sympathy for Becky Thatcher or Muff Potter, and in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in Huck's gradual development from pure selfishness to caring for Jim, for the Phelps girls, and for the Grangerfords, Twain shows his affinity for this gentler form of Christianity. In fact, the Grangerfords's insistence on doctrine over brotherly love is the religious crime Twain's satire most energetically indicts. Huck, for all that he cannot understand the finer points of doctrine, understands the heart of Christianity.

At the center of sentimental Christianity is a reconfiguration of original sin. Borrowing inconsistently from the Enlightenment idea that children are blank slates or the Romantic idea that they are innocent and pure, sentimental Christianity developed a cult of childhood. While Twain felt that the idea of childhood innocence strayed too far from the truth, and his Tom Sawyer is meant as an antidote to many children's books of the period in which the children are unbelievably good, Twain was strongly attracted to the idea that children were not innately evil. Moreover, he spoke for a large number of believers, many of whom struggled with competing cultural visions of childhood. Aunt Polly's vexation at the beginning of Tom Sawyer about whether to beat the devil out of Tom, as her Calvinism tells her to, or to love him as the image of her dead sister, as sentimental Christianity would tell her to, was shared by many of Twain's contemporaries. He argues implicitly that one should follow one's heart, not the Biblical precept, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Yet for all of Twain's attraction to a sentimental version of religion, he had two impediments to his belief. For one, he doubted the religious, as opposed to the moral, truth of Christianity. His juxtaposition of superstition with Christianity suggests the depth of his skepticism. For another, he sees feelings as easily manipulable. The sentimental new judge who tries to reform pap in Chapter 5 of Huck, and the superficially sentimental Emmeline Grangerford, who would rather weep than live, show the Enlightenment rationalist in Twain, who, while preferring a figurative, sentimental Christianity to literalist Calvinism, was always uneasy about any form of religion.

That uneasiness in part stemmed from another major doctrinal schism in the Protestant churches of his day. Each of the major Protestant sects grappled with, but could not find a single, consistent position on slavery. The Presbyterian church in which Twain was raised formally split over slavery, as did the Baptist church, a branch of which to this day distinguishes itself as “Southern.” In retrospect, that inconsistency bothered Twain.

As much as the Protestant religious character of the Mississippi Valley was forged in the years of Twain's youth, no account of the Mississippi Valley's religious makeup is complete without mention of the Roman Catholic population, originally from the Spanish and French colonial periods and reinforced through immigration. Twain's own gradual broadening from Protestant bigotry to being cosmopolitan enough to say, “True reverence is reverence for another man's God” did not get off to an auspicious start with his first contact with another faith tradition. When living in St. Louis in 1854-55 he was a mildly sympathetic observer of the so-called “Know Nothing” movement. Raised on a widely held Protestant belief that Catholicism was a betrayal of Christianity, he more-or-less embraced the American Party's anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigrant agitation. In St. Louis, the original Roman Catholic population had a fully established church structure, making it a natural place for new Roman Catholic immigrants to settle. Thus, “know nothing” agitators found it easy to whoop up anti-Catholic feeling in St. Louis.

Later, when working as a pilot on the St. Louis to New Orleans trade, Clemens took in the sights of the Catholic city as a tourist, but, like so many of his Southern co-religionists, did not seem really to be influenced by it. Insofar as his reactions are typical, they explain how the port city at the mouth of the Mississippi had disproportionately small impact on the cultural development of the Mississippi Valley.


In the opening Chapter of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck begins his growth from wild boy to member of civilized society in the household of the Widow Douglas. The Widow, who Huck calls “the first aristocracy in our town” (Chapter 18), runs her house in a very orderly, well-mannered style:

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them. That is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better. (Chapter 1)
This is a deep metaphor for the Western experience: settlers were both anxious about and took pleasure in the democratic mixing that the frontier enforced. The widow herself, for all that she tries to enforce social standards, to “cook things by themselves,” has mixed her society in elevating Huck from the bottom to the top. In so doing, she implicitly endorses an American belief that education transforms. We may all be born equal, but only education puts us in civilized society. This effort at elevation was in profound contradiction to the original purpose of manners, namely, to enforce social distinctions based on the station to which one was born.

By the end of his life, Twain had had much experience with the manners of aristocratic Europe, and knew that even as late as the turn of the twentieth century, courtliness had its attraction to Americans. In his Autobiography, he mocked that attraction:

Back of the Virginia Clemenses is a dim procession of ancestors stretching back to Noah's time. According to tradition, some of them were pirates and slavers in Elizabeth`s time. But this is no discredit to them, for so were Drake and Hawkins and the others. It was a respectable trade, then, and monarchs were partners in it. In my time I have had desires to be a pirate myself. The reader — if he will look deep down in his secret heart, will find — but never mind what he will find there; I am not writing his Autobiography, but mine. Later, according to tradition, one of the procession was Ambassador to Spain in the time of James I, or of Charles I, and married there and sent down a strain of Spanish blood to warm us up. Also, according to tradition, this one or another — Geoffrey Clement, by name — helped to sentence Charles to death.

I have not examined into these traditions myself, partly because I was indolent, and partly because I was so busy polishing up this end of the line and trying to make it showy; but the other Clemenses claim that they have made the examination and that it stood the test. Therefore I have always taken for granted that I did help Charles out of his troubles, by ancestral proxy. . . . And so, . . . I have always been obliged to believe that Geoffrey Clement the martyr-maker was an ancestor of mine, and to regard him with favor, and in fact pride. This has not had a good effect upon me, for it has made me vain, and that is a fault. It has made me set myself above people who were less fortunate in their ancestry than I, and has moved me to take them down a peg, upon occasion, and say things to them which hurt them before company.

A case of the kind happened in Berlin several years ago. William Walter Phelps was our Minister at the Emperor`s Court, then, and one evening he had me to dinner to meet Count S., a cabinet minister. This nobleman was of long and illustrious descent. Of course I wanted to let out the fact that I had some ancestors, too; but I did not want to pull them out of their graves by the ears, and I never could seem to get the chance to work them in in a way that would look sufficiently casual. I suppose Phelps was in the same difficulty. In fact he looked distraught, now and then — just as a person looks who wants to uncover an ancestor purely by accident, and cannot think of a way that will seem accidental enough. But at last, after dinner, he made a try. He took us about his drawing-room, showing us the pictures, and finally stopped before a rude and ancient engraving. It was a picture of the court that tried Charles I. There was a pyramid of judges in Puritan slouch hats, and below them three bare-headed secretaries seated at a table. Mr. Phelps put his finger upon one of the three, and said with exulting indifference —
"An ancestor of mine."
I put my finger on a judge, and retorted with scathing languidness —
"Ancestor of mine. But it is a small matter. I have others."
It was not noble in me to do it. I have always regretted it since. But it landed him. I wonder how he felt? However, it made no difference in our friendship, which shows that he was fine and high, notwithstanding the humbleness of his origin. And it was also creditable in me, too, that I could overlook it. I made no change in my bearing toward him, but always treated him as an equal.

But it was a hard night for me in one way. Mr. Phelps thought I was the guest of honor, and so did Count S.; but I didn't, for there was nothing in my invitation to indicate it. It was just a friendly offhand note, on a card. By the time dinner was announced Phelps was himself in a state of doubt. Something had to be done; and it was not a handy time for explanations. He tried to get me to go out with him, but I held back; then he tried S., and he also declined. There was another guest, but there was no trouble about him. We finally went out in a pile. There was a decorous plunge for seats, and I got the one at Mr. Phelps's left, the Count captured the one facing Phelps, and the other guest had to take the place of honor, since he could not help himself. We returned to the drawing-room in the original disorder. I had new shoes on, and they were tight. At eleven I was privately crying; I couldn't help it, the pain was so cruel. Conversation had been dead for an hour. S. had been due at the bedside of a dying official ever since half past nine. At last we all rose by one blessed impulse and went down to the street door without explanations — in a pile, and no precedence; and so, parted.

The evening had its defects; still, I got my ancestor in, and was satisfied.

With typical irony, he makes the Mark Twain persona exemplify the worst traits of snobbery in order to get his readers to scoff at them. Obsessions with precedence, Twain tells us, are literally painful, but we'll put up with these pains for the trivial pleasure of a specious distinction.

At any rate, when the colonies were first settled, the idea of inborn station was built into law, and despite the real social mobility that arose far from the centers of aristocratic power, every social practice, every legitimately constituted colonial government more or less depended on feudal obligations of condescension from and obedience to higher ranks. When the colonies became a nation, these principles were thrown out on philosophical and political grounds, but traditional practices and attitudes did not die with the signing of the Constitution. The United States from its inception has had a love-hate relationship with etiquette, and nowhere did this ambivalence play itself out more rigorously than in the trans-Appalachian west, settled after the Revolution, and thus self-consciously committed both to a European idea of civilization and to the principles of democracy. The confusion engendered by this dual agenda finds its way into the history of the Mississippi Valley, as documented in many of the texts reproduced on this web-site.

This confusion had both theoretical and practical roots. Dating from the publication of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, the justification of hereditary honors disappeared. According to Locke, the human mind at birth is a blank slate, and the customs of society are arbitrarily written onto that slate. While Locke developed his position to challenge the theocratic certainties that led to religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries — the wars, incidentally, that were more of less responsible for populating the British colonies in North America — the consequence included an idea of fundamental human equality. At least his followers developed his idea in that direction, though two camps emerged. The one, completely realist, empirical, and verging on atheist, diminished the role of art in human life. Utilitarianism is the natural outgrowth of the rationalist strain of Locke's thinking. The other strain, concerned that a purely blank slate could never endorse human community, beauty, or god, postulated a number of innate sensibilities that could be cultivated through experience. Followers such as the Earl of Shaftesbury, Frances Hutcheson, and Adam Smith elaborated on these ideas of innate sensibilities, arguing that at core, a moral sense gave the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain a natural harmony with morality. The American founders were deeply influenced by this line of reasoning; Jefferson's statement that “all men are created equal” comes very much from this idea that were are all morally equal, with equal access, through the moral sense, to a feeling of right and wrong. Thus, human beings both desire and are able to govern themselves and their society in their own best, moral interests.

In this picture of the human mind, as the philosophical popularizer Hugh Blair put it, “The exercise of taste is, in its native tendency, moral and purifying.” Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) were widely used in the schools of the new American republic to cultivate a democratic moral esthetics. The only problem was, that, as a European writer, Blair took his examples of cultivation from European models and European manners. Inasmuch as the New Republic turned to Blair, his fellow Scots Archibald Alison, Adam Smith, or Frances Hutcheson, Americans imbibed a philosophy that was simultaneously democratic in its implications, but elitist in its standards. On the East coast, that mixture tended to reinforce the status quo. Easterners looked to Europe for models of etiquette, speech, and deportment.

But once across the Appalachian frontier, actual experiences reinforced the democratic tendencies of America's philosophy. Frontier experiences usually forced most migrants, regardless of their education or family, into crude circumstances. Numerous commentators disparaged American mobility because crude circumstances prevented the “exercise of taste” according to European standards. By this vision, the goal of an immigrant was to climb, to achieve distinctions in material circumstances in order to demonstrate good taste. This led to a very competitive social environment, with each family vying to become wealthier than the others by trading land, or in producing and selling commodities.

At the same time, the lack of any civic infrastructure on the frontier required all to bind together in mutual aid societies. At the minimum, one must lend one's goods as needed in order to insure that one can borrow from others as necessary. As Caroline Kirkland in her 1839 memoir of homesteading in Michigan observed,

Whoever comes into Michigan with nothing, will be sure to better his condition; but wo to him that brings with him any thing like an appearance of abundance, whether of money or mere household conveniences. To have them, and not be willing to share them in some sort with the whole community, is an unpardonable crime. (A New Home: Who'll Follow?, New York, 1839, Chapter 18.)
Kirkland's Eastern senses of propriety and decorum where challenged by the rough democracy of the frontier, where holding things in common and treating all as equals were necessary for survival. After all, in a land where all were new and the character of none was known, one could not stand on decorum. In the manners of the west, one had to declare one's self. If one declined the offer to “take a drink,” it was an insult, a challenge, and could lead to a fight. By the same token, to make friends out of acquaintances was necessary for one to get the help needed to build a house, a barn, or to bind together to petition for government funds for roads, canals, piers, levies, or whatever improvements were necessary to turn wilderness into productive land. The question, then, was what was to happen to a society as it moved beyond its crude origins? Was it to maintain its democratic openness of manner, or to put on airs as it climbed? The catch-22 of Western manners was to be caught between being vulgar or stuck-up.

Mark Twain's works often take this dilemma as their subject matter; indeed, the political and moral implications of etiquette are at the heart of much of his humor. He was fully aware of the desire for distinction, and equally aware of the democratic impulse toward equality. He mocked either tendency from the point of view of the other, but mostly sided with democracy, which is another way of saying he sided with the West. His great friend and literary advisor William Dean Howells understood this and even agreed with it, but found himself unable to embrace Twain's courage in fighting Eastern standards of propriety. After all, he, too, had moved from the West, from Ohio, but in taking up residence in Boston, he took up too many of its rigidities. In his remembrances of his friend, My Mark Twain (1910?), Howells “gladly recognized the phrases which Clemens employed for their lasting juiciness and the long-remembered savor they had on his mental palate.” But while Howells took pleasure in remembering the Western speech of his childhood, he could no longer embrace it. He said Twain had an “Elizabethan breadth of parlance, which I suppose one ought not to call coarse without calling one's self prudish.” As for Twain's refusal to conform to the eastern styles of dress, Howells was appalled, remembering with particular revulsion one winter meeting in New York:

Clemens was wearing a sealskin coat, with the fur out, in the satisfaction of a caprice, or the love of strong effect which he was apt to indulge in life. In spite of his own warmth in it, [it] sent the cold chills through me when I once accompanied it down Broadway, and shared the immense publicity it won him."

Clemens knew that his style annoyed easterners who felt that conformity in expensive, but dull, dress, was a point of moral order as well as of social class solidarity, and that, in part, is why he persisted. One could say that Twain performed the difference between Chicago and Boston: he juxtaposed the notoriety of showiness against the show of propriety to demonstrate that there were really much the same thing.

For similar reasons, he persisted for a long time in wearing neckties that were fashionable in the mid and far West, but that were too thin to be in style out east. He finally gave in but in doing so mocked those who forced conformity on him. In a December 18, 1874, letter to Howells, Clemens remarks on his change in fashion:

You & Aldrich have made one woman deeply & sincerely grateful — Mrs. Clemens. For months — I may say years — she has shown an unaccountable animosity toward my neck-tie, even getting up in the night to take it with the tongs & blackguard it — sometimes going so far as to threaten it. When I said you & Aldrich had given me two new neckties, & that they were in a paper in my overcoat pocket, she was in a fever of happiness until she found out I was going to frame them; then all the venom in her nature gathered itself together — insomuch that I, being near to a door, went without, perceiving danger. Now I wear one of the new neck-ties, nothing being sacred in Mrs. Clemens's eyes that can be perverted to a gaud that shall make the person of her husband more alluring than it was aforetime.
Again, Mark Twain shows the arbitrariness of fashion, and he is aware, too, that it forces a kind of conformity to rules for the sake of rules, rather than rules for the sake of a higher idea of civilization.

This is one of the fundamental points of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Every moment Huck spends with Tom Sawyer or with Miss Watson is an exercise in proper behavior according to rules. Yet from the Widow he learns not only rules to follow for their own sake, but also the deeper lesson of America's more-or-less standard moral philosophy, that the exercise of taste is uplifting only insofar as it is an exercise in sympathy. The widow tells Huck to seek spiritual gifts by doing for other people. When he tries that out as merely programmed behavior by trying to save the “deadbeats and rapscallions” on the wreck of the Sir Walter Scott, it does him no good. But when he exercises sympathy by getting to know Jim as Jim is, rather than as slaveholding society describes him, then Huck finds that his moral sense has quickened, that he has in fact become truly civilized by becoming truly democratic. But suffering under the Eastern, and Southern, idea that propriety means following rules by the letter rather than the spirit, that is by being obedient to authority rather than responsive to the real morality of his situation, Huck never sees that his own Western democracy is the true civilization, one that is, indeed, an exercise in taste that is moral and purifying.

© Copyright 2005 Mark Twain's Mississippi