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Jim and Mark Twain: What Do Dey Stan’ For?


[clock] 28-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1987

By the end of 1985 there were signs that people were growing impatient with the one hundredth birthday of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Essays in Harpers, The American Scholar, and elsewhere lit out for the idea that the novel’s pleasures, like its central character, speak for themselves. It is easy to get tired of a party thrown by academics, but Huck Finn remains an occasion to rise to. No American book poses a greater challenge to the adults, whether teachers or parents, who preside over our children’s experience of it. Those who have objected to its being required in the schools have identified the issue that must still be faced: is the book racist? Most of the book’s commentators have said either yes, or no. If only the answer were this simple, it would be easy enough to decide whether to require anyone to read it. Is Huck Finn racist? Yes and no; no and yes. And the reason to make it required reading is that it is the perfect occasion to confront the meaning and consequences of racism. In itself it is no solution to the problem. Indeed, since it is racist as well as about racism, in itself it is part of the problem. The vexed aptness of Huck Finn is that it makes the problem immediate, personal, emotionally compelling. At its worst, it insinuates the legacy of racism. At its best, though, it convinces us—the way novels convince, through our feelings—how much we stand to gain by trying to solve the problem.

Its worst is not Huck’s use, some two hundred times, of the word “nigger.” In the current debate about the book, that word has attracted the most attention. To those who argue that it is cruel to make black students read a work that consistently refers to Afro-Americans as “niggers,” the conventional reply is that Huck Finn is a realistic novel. “Nigger” is the word that a Southern boy like Huck would automatically use, but such a justification is hardly adequate to the book’s brilliant awareness of language. In the middle of the story, Joanna Wilks—whom Huck refers to as “the harelip,” though that is an epithet he knows he should not use— asks him to swear on a big book that he has been telling her the truth. “I see it warn’t nothing but a dictionary, so I laid my hand on it and said it.” The Wilkses, of course, would have been more likely to have a Bible than a dictionary at hand, but to Mark Twain in Huck Finn the dictionary is the bible. Throughout the novel, what one should call a thing, how words define the world, is pointedly an issue. Whenever Tom Sawyer is present, this linguistic theme is treated as a comic one. Tom’s scriptural authorities are the European romances he has read; they define the only right way to organize a gang of robbers or help a prisoner escape. To Tom, then, “picks” have to be called “case-knives,” and “mullen,” “Pitchiola”—”that’s its right name, when it’s in a prison.” Twain works this joke again and again. By showing how Tom’s artificial, literary, imported diction distorts the reality in front pf him, Twain privileges Huck’s vernacular American vocabulary. When Hemingway said that “all modern American” fiction came from Huck Finn, he was surely thinking of this linguistic emancipation.

Yet what one calls a thing also has a potentially tragic significance, especially since, in the culture of slavery Twain uses Huck’s voice to reveal, human beings were called things, “Anybody hurt?” Aunt Sally asks Huck about a steamboat explosion. “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well,” she piously replies, “it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” In the dictionary of her values, “people” is defined as “white,” even when, in a ferocious irony that all the comment on this conversation has overlooked, Twain has Aunt Sally go right on to recall a “Babtist” who was once injured in an explosion; when mortification set in, “He turned blue all over, and died in the hope of a glorious resurrection.” Here it is the diction of Protestant theology that is ridiculously out of touch with reality. But the image of this blue Baptist rising to meet his maker leads us right back to the black man, Jim, whom Aunt Sally and her husband have no compunction about keeping locked up until they can sell him, at a 400 percent profit, to his owner. A Baptist turned blue is still “people,” but what is Jim’s right name when he’s in a prison? Well, to the Phelpses, he is an investment.

Behind Mark Twain’s decision to let Huck tell his story in his own words lay precisely the desire to expose the linguistic conventions by which people distort reality, deceive themselves, and exploit others. He steadily plays Huck’s unacculturated voice off against the clichéd and corrupt vocabularies of romantic literature, genteel sentimentality, and Bible Belt Christianity. When Huck points out to Tom that the right name for the Arab caravan the gang has attacked is Sunday School picnic, Tom rebukes him for not having read “a book called “Don Quixote.”” That is exactly Huck’s strength. His book is a kind of negative Don Quixote. All the other white characters have been “enchanted” in one way or another; Huck sees what is really in front of him, and since his voice is ignorant of most of the abstract cultural assumptions by which the others organize experience, he not only graphically records what is in front of him but also unmasks their presumptions.

It is in this specifically charged linguistic context that Huck uses the word “nigger.” He uses it because he is not wholly uncontaminated by his society’s arbitrary values. His use of it points directly to the form of slavery that Twain is most concerned with: an individual’s psychological enslavement to cultural preconceptions, epistemological prejudices. As Lionel Trilling and Henry Nash Smith were the first to point out, the novel’s thematic climax occurs in Chapter 31, when Huck must decide what to do after the King and the Duke sell Jim back into slavery. Huck is alone, but it is a dramatic moment, because the slave-holding South is vividly present to him in the voice of his conscience. And although Huck’s meditation occurs on the raft on the river, not even there can he be free. He can heroically decide to try to free Jim. Since he knows that helping a runaway slave is wicked, knows that he will “go to hell” for it, we cannot overpraise his courage, Huck’s heroism here—since it is unsustained, unacknowledged, ironic—is of the only kind we are likely to believe in in our antiheroic era. But we cannot confuse it with freedom, since he remains convinced that slavery is right and he is wrong. In other words (and “other words” is what lies at the very moral center of Huck Finn), this great scene is as much a defeat as a victory. As always in the novel, the words one uses are decisive: even to himself, Huck does not resolve to “free” Jim, but instead to “steal” him. In that one word we have to recognize his submission to the terms laid down by the South.

This same scene is also, however, the place where the debate about Twain’s repeated use of “nigger” should begin and end. It takes Huck six paragraphs to make up his mind to help Jim, and in Twain’s perfectly controlled depiction of Huck’s thoughts we can hear—we can feel— the full difference between a racist label and a human being. Huck begins by thinking of what would be best for Jim, “as long as he’d got to be a slave.” Yet when he thinks of returning Jim back “home where his family was,” he realizes what he himself is in for: “It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom.” Huck’s sudden use of his own name instead of the “I” we have grown so accustomed to reveals that he is seeing himself through others’ eyes. His own experience is helplessly overawed by St. Petersburg’s judgment, which he regards as divine. It is from this perspective that Jim, the same Jim Huck has just been crying for, gets turned into “a poor old woman’s nigger,” “that nigger,” “that nigger,” Fiction has many other passages about the terrible price people pay for prejudices, but none more telling than this. The price cannot be reckoned the way the other whites rate Jim’s worth, in terms of “dirty dollars,” as we realize when Huck goes on thinking in this passage. That “nigger” disappears. Thinking over his own experience, not his society’s values, looking through his own eyes, Huck sees Jim again:

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.

This passage goes on for another dozen lines, consistently emphasizing how Huck has seen Jim for himself. It is a beautiful moment, in which a person steps back in front of the label society has pinned to him. It is what leads to Huck’s determination to help Jim, at any price to himself. It does not, as I said, overcome Huck’s enslavement to his culture’s distorted values. It does, however, define with great human clarity exactly what is lost when you call a person “a nigger” —by showing us what you see instead when you call him by his right name. If read correctly, it also turns upside down the ostensible issue of the novel. Jim is the runaway slave dependent on his white friend Huck, except that here, Huck’s true freedom depends on Jim. It is a realist’s version of the parable of the cave that Socrates tells in The Republic: freedom depends on truth, and truth depends on breaking the chains that bind our vision to the community’s prejudices, on seeing what is really there.

II

Vision, definition, fellowship—these matters are brought into still clearer relation in the book’s best moment. That occurs in Chapter 15, after a thick fog has separated Huck and Jim for much of the night. When Huck finally overtakes the raft, he finds it littered With branches and dirt; Jim, exhausted from calling for Huck and from having to work the raft alone, is asleep. Interestingly, this is the one point in the novel where Huck, by consciously trying to exploit a scene for its comic potential, behaves like Mark Twain. He convinces Jim that he had dreamed all the night’s troubles, then laughs to himself while Jim “terprets” the dream. After a bit, the night brightens still further, revealing the “leaves and rubbish on the raft,” so Huck tries to spring the snapper in his joke by asking Jim “what does these things stand for?” “Dignity” is too abstract a word for Huck’s vocabulary, but Jim’s answer is as authentically noble as any speech in Shakespeare. As Lionel Trilling memorably puts it, “The pride of human affection has been touched, one of the few prides that has any true dignity.”

“What do dey stan’ for? I’s gwyne to tell you. . . . when I wake up en fine you back agin’, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed,”

Then he got up slow, and walked to the wigwam, and went in there, without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.

What Jim insists upon here, what Huck is made to see as the darkness brightens, is simply his manhood. Because he is black, no one else in the novel even suspects it exists. That Mark Twain can show it to us here is the measure of Huck Finn’s democratic greatness. That even after this, it takes Huck “fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger”—that is the palpable measure of his culture’s failure, as anyone who reads this passage must feel. What still might have to be pointed out, though, is how, in this novel where the dictionary is the bible, Jim here authoritatively redefines a crucial term. In the society that Huck and Jim are moving through, “trash” is another label by which certain people are denied the full humanity that Jim’s speech testifies to so eloquently. In fact, as the shiftless son of the town drunk, Huck has already been labeled “trash” in the same way that Jim has been labeled “nigger.” In this scene, a nigger slave calls a poor white boy trash to teach us the only true standard by which people should be judged. Race, family, socio-economic status are all miraculously unimportant; Huck is trash because he has betrayed his friend. His feelings concur with this radical redefinition: it takes him 15 minutes to decide to apologize, “but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.”

Despite such moments, however, Huck remains a naïve racist. His skill at seeing what is in front of him is matched by an almost pure inability to generalize from it: what he learns directly from Jim never leads him to revalue slavery. The highest compliment he knows how to pay Jim is “I know’d he was white inside”—this after he has seen repeated evidence of the cruelty, violence, and hypocrisy of white culture. Racism is the most potent form of cultural slavery that Twain explores through Huck and Jim’s friendship, which is why this story about a runaway slave was still relevant two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, and why, unfortunately, it remains relevant today. It is as a study of racism that the novel is most effectively defended against those who don’t want it taught. Huck calls Jim a “nigger.” Even worse, he remains unable to stop thinking of Jim as a “nigger.” But he also, although he is almost too good-hearted to be true, accepts his society’s valuation of himself as “low-down,” as “ornery”—as trash. He never understands his own story, just as he hardly ever smiles while making us laugh out loud. Because the book provides so many cues to its structure of ironies, we easily see through Huck’s acquired prejudices. Yet if Huck Finn were this unequivocal, even as an irony, the current objections to it would doubtless never have arisen. It is, however, racist itself almost exactly as often as it exposes the psychology of racism, though not in the same places.

The issue is not what Huck calls Jim, but how the novel portrays him. Throughout the trip down river, Jim is necessarily absent whenever Huck goes ashore, and when the King and Duke join the raft he becomes a minor character even there. Indeed, the novel only remembers that he is an escaping slave at intervals; Mark Twain’s main concern is for variety of character and incident, for picaresque comedy. Yet while the novel is on the raft Jim becomes a very impressive figure. A magnanimous figure, to use another word that is much too big for Huck’s voice, but not for Jim’s wise, great heart. The community of two that these runaways create, outlawed as it is by society, balances and implicitly condemns the deformities of “sivilized” life on shore. At one very striking point, the condemnation is made sweepingly explicit, at least to anyone who has grown sensitive to the novel’s intricacy of language: the King, Jim tells Huck, “do smell so like de nation.” As far as I know, this is the only time in 19th-century American literature that a black is allowed to comment on how a white smells. Add to that the pun Twain allows Jim unconsciously to make, and the metaphor’s moral aptness—for the nation as Huck Finn presents it stinks of aristocratic pretense, greed, and exploitation, and this one line can serve to suggest how full and rich Twain’s characterization of Jim is.

The Jim who emerges in the novel’s middle chapters is a man we should feel privileged to know. At the same time, he is a figure who challenges the racial assumptions of the contemporary white reading public. Almost the only time the reader can agree with Huck’s conscience is when he feels guilty for denying Jim his due respect, his emotional rights, as a man. It is not at all hard to see what a potential river of guilt, wider and muddier than the Mississippi, this threatened to let loose in the collective conscience of Twain’s audience. Against this Jim, however, we have to set the entirely different figure who is portrayed as Jim at the book’s beginning and, especially, at its end. With this figure Mark Twain deliberately appeals to, gratifies and confirms his readers’ prejudices. Before and after the raft trip, for example, instead of the marvelous conversations Jim and Huck share on the river, in which they argue back and forth about the Bible or the cosmos, we’re presented with a series of routines that Twain derives straight from the minstrel shows that established the identity of the “Negro” in popular white culture. The first real exchange that Jim and Huck have is of this kind, with Huck’s voice starched into unrecognizable stiffness so he can play Mr. Interlocutor to Jim as Mr. Bones elaborating on his “specalat’n” in stock, that is, livestock. The last quarter of the novel (chapters 32—42) Twain devotes to Tom’s “Evasion” at the Phelpses; here Jim’s role is even more haplessly comic, as Tom loads down his life as a prisoner with snakes, rats, spiders, mournful inscriptions, and so on.

There are good reasons to require students, whether of literature or American culture, to read even this ending, for Jim’s presence remains an instructive one. At the very least he vividly demonstrates the difference between a character and a caricature, a human being and a stereotype. On the raft, for instance, we learn that Jim, the only character in the book who respects the fact that Huck is a child, almost the only one who feels genuine emotions, always waits until he thinks Huck is asleep before he allows himself to cry for his family. That gesture belongs to an individual; that’s Jim. At the Phelpses, whenever Tom thinks of some further gaud to hang on his plan for freeing a prisoner—say, watering a plant with tears—”Jim” rolls his eyes in amazement and resignation. As far as the student of literature is concerned, the question isn’t whether Jim is portrayed admirably or ludicrously. Rather, it is that as a character he has his own emotions, while as a caricature he expresses only stock, stereotypical reactions. That distinction is well worth teaching in any literature class. But of course something much more crucial is at stake in a case like this one, because so much of real moment to America hangs on the distinction. Again we could call it a question of definition: will people be allowed to define themselves, through their own qualities and actions? or will we force each other into the pattern of our preconceptions?

In the middle of Huck Finn, Mark Twain let Jim step out from behind the racist stereotype that has proven a lot harder to destroy than slavery. The effect of the ending, though, is to put him back in blackface so the whites of his eyes will show more conspicuously when they roll. The ending of Huck Finn has been recognized as a problem for more than 50 years, although almost no one has emphasized how it changes Jim’s status within the novel. Charles Neider, in a new edition that Doubleday published for the centennial, grandly chose to cut 8300 words from this Tom Sawyer section. It does go on and on, becoming the longest episode in the novel—but that is the first thing that must be noted about it. The second is how hard Twain works in it to make his reader laugh, piling up witches, rats, mashed teeth, pouring melting butter over the whole. When he went back on the lecture circuit in the winter of 1884—85, he used the Evasion chapters as the basis for his new program, and in his letters home he brags about their effectiveness as a comic tour de force, a continuous series of snappers. That, especially in view of our modern unhappiness with the ending, should be the third thing to note: Twain used the 1884—85 tour to promote his forthcoming novel, and this was the part of it he chose to represent the whole.

III

What the ending really reflects, however, is Twain’s need to be accepted. Strictly speaking, the need was Samuel Clemens’; it was out of his hunger for attention and popularity that “Mark Twain” was created in the first place. And what did “Mark Twain” stand for whenever he stood in front of an audience? Laughter, of course, and entertainment—but the fun that his contemporaries expected from “Mark Twain” ultimately depended on a sense that he was one of them. Twain himself explicitly encouraged this identification. The preface to his first book, Innocents Abroad, promises to show his American reader the Europe he would see if he could look through his own eyes. The preface to Tom Sawyer claims that the book will remind all adults “of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked.” America came to love him not just because he made them laugh, but also, as Louis J. Budd documents in his recent study of Our Mark Twain, because he came to seem a representative man, a best American self. Like Tom Sawyer, he was expected to misbehave a bit, but never to violate any fundamental cultural orthodoxy, just as Huck is finally right to believe that Tom would never help him “steal” a real slave. The line between mischief and rebellion—or between entertainment and assault, it’s the same thing—is a fixed one, and both Tom and Twain were expected to stay on this side, the white, middle-class culture’s side, of that line.

Huck Finn was begun as Twain’s attempt to push back that boundary: to return to the world of Tom Sawyer and, by seeing it through Huck’s unacculturated eyes, by describing it through Huck’s uncivilized voice, come a lot closer to the truth of what was really there, the truth that Tom Sawyer whitewashed, the truth of human hypocrisy, cruelty, greed, violence, and above all of slavery. Twain hedged his bets by setting a child to this task, especially one who cannot add up the implications of his experiences; the book’s structure of irony works continually to reassure its readers that, if society seems vicious, they are all right, because they at least appreciate Huck. But even so, by setting Huck loose to record how whites treat blacks, not to mention how they treat each other, Twain knew that he was pushing at the very limits of his license as a humorist. That explains why Huck talks at the very end about “what a trouble it was to make a book”: it took Twain longer to finish Huck Finn than any other book, seven years, because it was potentially so dangerous to the public image he had nurtured so anxiously. And that, I think, is why he finished it the way he did, with the burlesque “Evasion” that trivializes the novel’s issues but makes the reader laugh, and thus restores the familiar bond between “Mark Twain” and his audience.

The text signals this restoration blatantly. When he first arrives at the Phelpses, Huck is mistaken for Tom Sawyer. Huck himself is overjoyed at this coincidence: “it was like being born again”; “Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable.” He impersonates Tom for the remainder of the book, which itself comes to resemble Tom Sawyer, and which disarms itself of its revelatory power by sacrificing everything else to make us laugh. If Jim is just a clown, white Americans have no reason to be uneasy or uncomfortable. (The illustrations that Twain commissioned for the novel keep Jim in this role throughout. There is, for example, no picture of the scene in which Jim redefines “trash.” Whenever he does appear, his mouth hangs open below eyes with amazingly large whites. Twain expressed no objections to this portrayal. The only illustration he deleted was of the camp meeting that Huck attends with the King, which told “the truth about it too plainly.”)

For once Tom gets a name right. “Evasion” may not be the correct word for the escape of a prisoner, but it does describe exactly what Twain is doing to his novel. No sooner has Huck resolved to free Jim, to put himself in formal opposition to society even if it means going to hell, than Twain enables him to escape the resolution by letting him play Tom instead. Not only does Huck not become a rebel; he winds up a candidate for bourgeois adoption. Mrs. Phelps insists that he go on calling her Aunt Sally after his masquerade is exposed, and wants to keep him in the family. The same Huck who was “hated and dreaded by all the mothers” of St. Petersburg has to run away again to keep from being thoroughly domesticated. Adoption was the fate of the book Twain wrote as well. On its publication Huck Finn was attacked by the stuffiest guardians of high culture for its improprieties, but reviewers generally hailed it as a triumphant entertainment, and the mass audience loved it. Of all Twain’s many books, it sold the most copies.

While Huck himself hates attention, performing for the mass audience is one of the novel’s most persistent themes. On the one hand there is Colonel Sherburn, who stands in front of a lynch mob like a lecturer on a platform and tells his audience what they are really like. They are cowardly, contemptible, “beneath pitifulness.” In a voice full of scorn, he laughs at them—and drives his audience away in droves. On the other hand are the King and the Duke. Like Sherburn, they know their audience “clear through.” Their brilliant success as performers, however, lies precisely in the fact that they never tell the audience any part of that truth, but instead give people exactly what they want. They don’t want serious entertainment; the Duke’s one mistake is to try Shakespeare in Arkansas. They want burlesque and sentiment and unction; above all, they want their high opinion of themselves and their prejudices about the rest of the world confirmed. As a whole performance, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alternates between Sherburn’s truth-telling and the King and Duke’s audience-pleasing. The Evasion chapters, however, are just another version of their Royal Nonesuch. We could call it a less indecent version, if it weren’t for what Twain does to Jim, who is stripped of more than his clothes. But the essentially racist caricature he becomes is perfectly calculated to amuse and reassure the mass audience. It is depressing to see Twain’s cynicism about the terms of popular entertainment, but we have to admit that the Notice he affixed to the front of his novel is worthy of the Duke’s promotional skills:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Step right up, he assures his reader, it’s all in fun—unless we want to notice how Sherburn’s rage is also, subliminally, evoked. Like Sherburn, the author of this Notice does point a gun at us. Mark Twain knew, probably better than any other 19th-century American writer, how to give the public what they wanted. Yet he could not easily forgive them for the apparent baseness of their appetites.

Nor could he easily forgive himself for being so dependent upon their approval. In that Notice is also a fund of bitterness about his own identity as an entertainer. After complaining in the last paragraph about how hard it was to make the book, Huck says he “ain’t agoing to no more.” One of the most curious aspects of Twain’s career is the retirement he decided on after publishing Huck Finn. He told his family and friends that he would publish no more books, and for the next four years devoted his energies to Paige’s typesetting machine and his own publishing company. Since we would say that in Huck Finn he had finally found a means to express his imaginative powers most fully, this creative silence seems perplexing. One explanation for it could be the disgust he might have felt with himself and with literature after selling out Jim and Huck in the last quarter of the novel. As its first paragraph suggests, he began Huck Finn determined to use Huck’s voice to tell “the truth”; by turning to the machine and the company, he implicitly conceded that words are just a means to make money.

The only direct evidence of such a disgust comes from the lecture tour he timed to advertise his novel: following one typically masterful performance, full of laughter and applause, he confessed to George Washington Cable that “I am demeaning myself. I am allowing myself to be a mere buffoon. It’s ghastly. I can’t endure it any longer.” But there is another kind of evidence to be found in the books Twain published after the failures of the company and the machine forced him to resume his role as a popular writer. Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee who wakes up in King Arthur’s court, is desperate for the undivided attention of 6th-century England; to secure it, he must play down to his audience, playing to their prejudices about magic and superstition. He wants to bring them the truth too, but succeeds only in trapping himself in the covenant the entertainer must make with his audience: to gratify their expectations. He cannot free the enslaved Arthurians and, in his failure, actually winds up using on a considerable part of his audience the gun that Sherburn had only threatened to use.

The single most resonant echo of the ending of Huck Finn, however, is probably the book Twain entitled The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. By the end of that book Wilson is a celebrity too, but what makes his success tragic is that, to gain the homage and adulation of Dawson’s Landing, he has to confirm the town’s racist assumptions about slavery and freedom. Wilson initially is an outsider to the system of slavery. As a “free-thinker,” he can say at the start of the book that the only difference between the two infants Roxy takes care of is their clothes, that “One’s just as handsome as the other.” Since one of them, her own child, “ain’t on’y a nigger,” Roxy is surprised and delighted by his remark. At the book’s end, though, Wilson becomes the hero of the town after his consummate courtroom performance, which is climaxed by the labels he attaches to the men these same infants have become: one is “white and free”; the other, “negro and slave.” The crowd bursts into applause again and again. The “negro” is sold down the river.

Only the title of Pudd’nhead Wilson suggests the tragic character of this popular triumph. Advertisements for the novel assured readers that Wilson “furnishes much of the fun that one naturally expects to find in a narrative by the author of “The Innocents Abroad.”” Nor, as far as we can tell, did any contemporary readers object to the way Mark Twain sold Jim into burlesque at the end of Huck Finn. We obviously cannot say what might have happened, either in the book or to the book’s reception, if Twain had not decided to turn Huck into Tom, and Jim into a comic stereotype. We must, however, reckon the price Twain paid for that decision. Huck can’t free Jim. Jim can’t free Huck. Between them, Huck and Jim could not free Mark Twain from the pact his need for popularity forced him to make with his public’s self-protective prejudices. Twain’s own sense of remorse is only a partial compensation for his betrayal of Jim. By Jim’s definition, which is surely entitled to be definitive, the ending of Huck Finn is “trash.” It is trash, though, that we cannot afford to throw away until we have finished learning what it has to teach us about our culture’s appetites.

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