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The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn.

Chadwick-Joshua offers a spirited and often eloquent defense of Huckleberry Finn. Even for someone, such as myself, who cannot accept without reservation the premises or the argument, there is much to be learned from her inquiry into the "Jim dilemma." The author's vital interest in the question of the supposed racism of Twain's novel, and more specifically of the image and the example that the character of Jim supplies to white and black readers alike, is not purely academic. For she speaks as an African American, as a mother whose daughter was in high school when she was writing the book, and as an educator who has addressed many high school students and their parents who object to the presence of the novel in the public schools.

Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua. The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998. 159 pp. $17.00.

The "dilemma" the character of Jim poses is multi-layered, and the audience the author addresses is likewise heterogeneous. Why do some readers, especially African American readers, fail or refuse to recognize Jim's loyalty, intelligence, sense of duty, and magnanimity as truly heroic? Why, she continues, do some readers prefer to regard him as yet another degrading racial stereotype? The answer, she proposes, is that "the pride we should, and do at times, feel in Huck, Jim, the northern professor, Jack, and other characters too often mutates into a form of self-loathing and historical denial, our Jim dilemma."

African American and Euro-American readers alike have failed to recognize the form of the novel and the true purposes of its author, she contends. Huckleberry Finn is a Menippean satire, a form which, in the words of Northrop Frye," deals less with people as people as such than with mental attitudes," and "presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern." This pattern, insists the author, is "slavery, with its concomitant Southern response, ambivalence." So conceived, Jim is absolutely central to the book, and (except for Huck, who by degrees outgrows his racist assumptions) the other characters exist to embody "a world that has not gone beyond racism." Even when Jim is conspicuously absent from the narrative, his presence is felt on every page, and his plight gives satirical bite to otherwise disconnected episodes.

This premise permits Chadwick-Joshua to read the novel in ways that are at times very perceptive. She notes, for example, that the presence of other African Americans in the book has generally been neglected but serves to emphasize and better define Jim's precarious position and enhance his dignity. A picture of the freed "professor," for example, is rendered to us in the bigoted and drunken rhetoric of Pap; nevertheless, she rightly observes, we can and are meant to infer an admirable and courageous black character from Pap's remarks. Likewise, the several verbal battles in which Jim and Huck indulge in the middle portion of the book constitute a "Menippean symposium" in which Jim's words are necessarily "double-voiced."

Jim is compromised by circumstance, and he expresses himself with shrewd caution, but that does not mean that he does not have a voice or that he does not assert his own independence and integrity. Both characters evolve during these verbal exchanges, and, according to the author, "the reader discovers and experiences a different truth as the characters themselves discover and experience different truths." Most crucial in these exchanges is Jim's response to the "joke" Huck plays on him in Chapter 15. There, Jim's tongue lashing of Huck for violating their friendship and Huck's subsequent decision to "humble [him]self to a nigger" mark the moment when Jim is no longer silent or invisible and when Huck begins to reassess all that he has imbibed from his Southern culture.

With the appearance of the King and the Duke and later on the Phelps farm, Jim must resume his mask of servility, though even there he speaks in double-voiced resistance to the con men and to the cruel pranks of Tom Sawyer. The problematic "evasion" episode in the last chapters is, far from a humorous burlesque delivered at Jim's expense, instead a dramatic fulfillment of Huck's decision to help Jim and of Jim's commitment to freedom. Both Huck and Jim adopt the masks society has provided them, but they covertly act in the service of a friendship "lying across racial boundaries--the only real solution to the Jim dilemma."

One can appreciate the author's motives and profit from her analysis of Twain's novel without fully accepting her argument, I think. While no one can dispute that Huckleberry Finn is satirical, I am not at all sure that it is not something more, less, or at least other than a full-fledged satire. At any rate, neither Twain's compositional habits nor the working notes that he made for the novel suggest that he was interested in or even capable of presenting a fictive world conceived under a "single intellectual pattern." While one may agree that there are some powerfully anti-racist moments in the book, Twain's interests often strayed from race matters, and at times he seems to have forgotten Jim altogether. Moreover, his dramatic rendering of Jim in subsequent Huck and Tom narratives remains just this side of minstrelsy and makes one doubt Twain's unwavering loyalty to and admiration of his created character, even as he appears in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Finally, there is a related problem that is central to Chadwick-Joshua's purpose in writing her book. Namely, she advocates the continuing presence of this novel in the high school curriculum. For some readers and teachers, myself included, the question is not whether or not Huckleberry Finn is racist, but, supposing that it is not, "Do high school students possess the literary sophistication to discern and respond to its subtleties regarding race?" If readers as diverse as Charles Nilon, Leo Marx, Bernard Bell, Henry Nash Smith, Peaches Henry, and others have, as the author contends, profoundly misread the novel, can we truly expect high school students to get it right? The author relates, both in the text and more often in the notes, her own effective methods in teaching the novel to high school students, and I envy her successes in that regard. But I am not convinced that the book might not still have hurtful consequences in the high school classroom.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Quirk, Tom
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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