Last week we had another fine presentation in the series of Twain lectures that my colleague Ben Click has been running. Once again a talk about race and Huckleberry Finn deepened my respect for that magnificent book. Here are some of the ideas I picked up, which I share with you from memory since I didn’t take notes.
Roosevelt University’s Lawrence Howe spoke on “Mark Twain and America’s ‘Ownership Society’: Race, Language and Property in Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Howe sees Jim as a far more complex character than most readers give him credit for. His complexity becomes clear, Howe said, once one realizes that he is property and is acting in a world where he has limited options.
A common objection to Twain’s depiction of Jim—a complaint that goes almost as deep as Huck’s liberal use of the “n-word”—is that Twain sets him up as a minstrel figure designed to elicit laughter or pity from white readers. In other words, Twain is accused of creating a racial stereotype, not a fully formed character. In his lecture, Howe walked us through a number of scenes to show that there is much more there.
One of these scenes is Jim’s heartrending account of beating his daughter for disobedience. He has just watched her recover from a serious bout of scarlet fever and, now that she is well, he gives her an order: to “shet de do’.” Here’s what follows:
“She never done it; jis’stood dah, kiner smilin’ up at me. It make me mad; en I says agin, mighty loud, I says:
“‘Doan’ you hear me?- shet de do’!’
“She jis’ stood de same way, kiner smilin’up. I was a-bilin’! I says:
“‘I lay I make you mine!’
“En wid dat I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin’. Den I went into de yuther room, en ‘uz gone ’bout ten minutes; en when I come back, dah was dat do’ a-stannin’ open yit, en dat chile stannin’ mos’ right in it, a-lookin’ down and mournin’, en de tears runnin’ down. My, but I wuz mad, I was agwyne for de chile, but jis’ den- it was a do’ dat open innerds- jis’ den ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam!- en my lan’, de chile never move’! My breff mos’ hop outer me; en I feel so- so- I doan’ know how I feel. I crope out, all a-tremblin’, en crope aroun’ en open de do’ easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof’ en still, en all uv a sudden, I says pow! jis’ as loud as I could yell. She never budge! Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! de Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb- en I’d ben a-treat’n her so!”
The key word in this encounter, according to Howe, is “mine.” On one level, of course, the word is to be read as “mind,” as in obey. But Howe, through a long and sometimes circuitous explanation that involved looking at the original manuscript, talking about the accuracy of Twain’s rendering of black dialect, and examining Twain’s understanding of the corrosive impact of treating people as property, made a convincing case that Twain is deliberately punning here. There’s an element of ownership tied up with the command.
Howe said that Jim, in his treatment of his daughter, is replicating his own master’s view of him as property. Unlike slave-owning whites in this world, however, Jim makes an adjustment: from seeing her as a thing to seeing her as a person.
Contrast this with one of the book’s most noxious incidents of treating a man instrumentally, which is Tom’s use of Jim as a toy at the end of the book. After the talk I asked Howe about what we are to make of Jim’s failure to protest Tom’s machinations. Howe pointed out that it could well be a case of leverage. As someone now deep in slave country, Jim has to play along with Tom and Huck in order to make sure that they don’t change their minds.
Howe cited several instances of the precariousness of Jim’s position throughout the book. Take, for example, Jim covering up the identify of Pap, found dead in a floating house. I’ve always assumed that Jim, as a friend, wants to spare Huck, and this may be one reason. But Howe pointed out that, if Huck were to find out that Pap is dead, then he would have no reason to keep escaping with Jim. Perhaps Huck would continue on anyway, but Jim can’t be sure.
Or think of the scene in chapter 16 when Jim and Huck believe they are close to Illinois freedom and Huck, starting to have second thoughts, considers turning Jim in. The fact that Jim, at that precise moment, starts singing Huck’s praises may be no accident. Maybe he’s using gratitude to ensure Huck’s loyalty. Whether calculated or not, that’s the effect the words have on Huck. Here’s Jim:
“Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.”
I was paddling off, all in a sweat to tell on him; but when he says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me. I went along slow then, and I warn’t right down certain whether I was glad I started or whether I warn’t. When I was fifty yards off, Jim says:
“Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.”
Jim’s words not only pay dividends here but also later in the famous “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” scene. Prepared a second time to turn Jim over to the authorities, Huck remembers this earlier moment and tears up his note:
. . . 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, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; 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.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.
One can’t entirely say that Jim is insincere in that earlier scene. Human motivations are far more complex. Even in the best of friendships it is hard to distinguish how much is calculated and how much is sincere, and this is especially true of relationships marked by race and power imbalances. (For another author’s handling of the power dynamics in interracial friendships, see my post on Oroonoko, by the 17th century’s Aphra Behn.) Huckleberry Finn becomes far more interesting, and far more true to life, if Jim’s friendship with Huck is seen as tempered by his awareness that Huck could betray him.
We might prefer a Jim who is more assertive and angry, who doesn’t suck up to Huck or play along with Tom. Certainly the book would seem more racially acceptable if that’s what it looked like, and it would seem easier to teach. But I’m not convinced it would be a truer book.
In his talk, Howe made a compelling case that Twain is able to intuit what it feels like to be property. The book neither sentimentalizes nor denigrates Jim. Rather, it shows how one who is in his position must use the options at hand. Just think what profound lessons teachers could impart if, instead of slapping Twain around, they explored with their students these subtle power plays. The very passages that make us most uncomfortable might be the ones that open our eyes the most.
That would require teaching in the deepest sense. Why don’t we think our students could handle it?
*Other prints by artist Barry Moser can be found at: www.rmichelson.com/artist_pages/moser/Prints/Barry%20Moser%20Prints.html