Saturday, January 20, 2018

Julius Lester (1939–2018)

The writer and cultural critic Julius Lester has died at the age of seventy-eight. The New York Times has an obituary.

Here is an excerpt from a brilliant essay, “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1984):

Twain’s notion of freedom is the simplistic one of freedom from restraint and responsibility. It is an adolescent vision of life, an exercise in nostalgia for the paradise that never was. Nowhere is this adolescent vision more clearly expressed than in the often-quoted and much-admired closing sentences of the book: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

That’s just the problem, Huck. You haven’t “been there before.” Then again, neither have too many other white American males, and that’s the problem, too. They persist in clinging to the teat of adolescence long after only blood oozes from the nipples. They persist in believing that freedom from restraint and responsibility represents paradise. The eternal paradox is that this is a mockery of freedom, a void. We express the deepest caring for this world and ourselves only by taking responsibility for ourselves and whatever portion of this world we make ours. . . .

It takes an enormous effort of will to be moral, and that’s another paradox. Only to the extent that we make the effort to be moral do we grow away from adolescent notions of freedom and begin to see that the true nature of freedom does not lie in “striking out for the territory ahead” but resides where it always has — in the territory within.

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