Why might tearing up the letter Huck wrote to Miss Watson in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be described as one of the greatest moments in American history?

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This could be described as one of the greatest moments of American literary history (it is not actual history), because it shows Huck has developed his own moral compass and rejected what Southern society in the ante-bellum South has taught him is "moral" behavior.

This is great moment in literature too (at least to white audiences; blacks have a more complicated reaction to this story) because while deeply moving, Twain's humor keeps it from becoming sentimental or maudlin.

Huckleberry Finn, musing over whether to send the letter betraying Jim, shows in this passage that he fully understands and accepts Jim's humanity. Jim has moved from being a piece of property to fully human in Huck's eyes. Jim has moved from an inferior to an equal. Huck can no longer allow what he has been taught about blacks to override his experience of what a black man really is. He cannot, no matter what the cost, repay Jim's loving behavior with hateful behavior.

The comedy and pathos emerge in the irony of Huck truly believing he will go to hell for protecting Jim, when we as an audience know he is behaving with moral courage.

This scene could also be considered a foil to the story of Yarico and Inkle, a tale spread by abolitionists that became very widely known in the 18th and 19th centuries, even spawning an opera, though it is obscure today. In it, an Indian woman named Yarico saves a white man named Inkle from being killed by her people. She hides him in a cave and cares for him. They fall in love, and he promises to marry her and take her to England, if she helps him to escape. She does so, but once they get to an English port, he agrees to sell her into slavery. When she begs him not to because she is pregnant, that is all the better for Inkle: he will get a higher price. Inkle's hard-hearted behavior is the opposite of Huck's generous morality and empathy.

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Tearing up the letter is significant because it shows that Huck has rejected the racist attitudes of society and decided to follow his conscience.

Throughout the book, Huck struggles with the idea of slavery.  Before spending so much time with Jim, he never thought much about it.  Jim shows him that slaves are real human beings with feelings and pain.  When Huck tears up the letter, it is a symbol of how he is rejecting the narrow-minded hate of prejudice.

Huck is feeling bad about helping a slave escape.  He has always been taught that it is wrong.  There is nothing worse in Huck’s world than being an abolitionist.  He writes a letter to Miss Watson to tell her where her escaped slave is, and at first he feels good, but then he feels bad.  His really conscience, not what society tells him is his conscience, tells him that slavery is wrong.

“All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up. (Ch. 31)

This is one of the most significant lines in American literature because it demonstrates the American spirit of independence.  There is nothing more important to Americans than being able to make up their own minds.  Huck has done that.  He has rejected the institution of slavery completely, and with it he is rejecting mainstream society. 

Huck realizes what he is doing.

I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. (Ch. 31)

This is a brave thing to do, but it comes from the heart.  Huck believes he will go to Hell for this, but he doesn’t care, because to him he is doing the right thing.

Although this is not an actual historical event, the publishing of the book is.  Twain captured a national consciousness with his work, and a shift in perception.  Slavery was becoming less accepted and more people opposed it as time went on, and Twain's purpose was to demonstrate that not every American blindly followed the crowd.

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