The Curmudgeon: Huck’s Jim Gets a Chance to Speak for Himself In James

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Percival Everett provides a new path into Adventures of Huck Finn and addresses its problems head-on in his new novel, James.

is one of America’s greatest works of literature—and one of its most problematic. Contemporary writer Percival Everett provides a new path into the book’s greatness and addresses its problems head-on in his own novel,Twain’s book contains brilliant comic set pieces and powerful evocations of small-town American life in the mid-19th century.

Everett retells Twain’s narrative from inside Jim’s head rather than Huck’s. Most of the events are the same, but the perspective is radically different. Everett’s James is far from childish; in fact, his internal monologues resemble those of a grad student at a good university. In Chapter 2 of“Why do we talk differently for them? James asks his kids. “The better they feel, the safer we are,” they respond.

And because we’re in the head of James, an intelligent, well-read man, we get a running commentary—a political and psychological analysis of every event in the story. This is very different from Twain’s book, where we’re inside the head of an undereducated kid who misunderstands much of what’s going on., the irony derives from the gap between what the narrator knows and what Huck knows.

The two fugitives need to get away, so they pluck a timber raft out of a flood’s flotsam. Intending to reach the Ohio River and the free states of the north, they follow the current south. They visit a grounded steamboat and outwit the thieves there; when they’re separated in a fog, each tries desperately to find the other. They outwit two slave hunters, only to be separated again when their raft is shattered by a large steamboat.

This sets up the absurd spectacle of a Black man applying blackface to himself, so he can pretend to be a white man pretending to be a Black man. And that allows Everett to riff productively on America’s racially confused culture. Emmett is one of the book’s more interesting characters: both a charlatan and a true artist, not as racist as most, but racist nonetheless. Norman, one of the other singers, is also a runaway slave but light enough to pass for white.

By following James’s righteous anger to its logical conclusion, Everett gives the story a political coherence it lacked in Twain’s version. In doing so, however, Everett robs the reader of the chance to make up one’s own mind. The genius ofis the way it camouflages itself as a boy’s adventure story and/or a comic satire of life on the Mississippi. Twain leaves it to the reader to wrestle alongside Huck as to what’s more important: the letter of the law or the humanity of Jim.

 

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