Twain’s Corner

This was Twain before he lost the ability to look away. Down the Mississippi lay the heart of American darkness. When Jim was seized by the Phelps family, who scratched out a living in ‘one of these little one-horse cotton plantations’ along the river, Twain gave up the struggle. He switched books. The last third of Huckleberry Finn is stage-managed for laughs by Tom Sawyer, dropped into the story by authorial fiat. Tom masterminds Jim’s escape from the Phelps plantation according to all the ‘best authorities’ of boys’ literature. Any evening after dark Jim might have walked out of the cabin where he was being held prisoner, but no, Tom insists they must dig him out, and secret letters must be written, and Jim the lonely prisoner must be friends with spiders and snakes, and a whole lot of other nonsensical stuff which we may as well concede is funny in its way and funny to a point. But it is no longer Huckleberry Finn; it is no longer an unflinching tale of the cruelty and wrong of human bondage. ‘In the whole reach of English literature,’ Bernard DeVoto wrote in 1932, ‘there is no more abrupt or more chilling descent.’ He meant from a brave book to a silly book, which DeVoto considered a shocking failure of literary courage on Twain’s part.

But consider the problem from Twain’s point of view. He had written himself into a corner. Jim had been captured by men who intended to contact his owner and return him to slavery. The owner had sold him down the river. Jim’s only friend was a penniless and semi-literate boy in his teens. They had drifted too far south to hope to escape overland to the north. A novel that finished as it had begun, saying plainly what any honest man would know to be the case, would have seen Jim returned to bondage with shackles on his ankles and fresh stripes on his back, and Huck turned loose on his own, far from home, without friend or protector, at just about the age when boys began to be treated as men: paid little or nothing for labour, beaten for show of defiance or for gazing too long at a woman in the street; jailed for stealing a watermelon, and liable to be hanged for stealing a nigger. Jim’s history would have been lost; he would have disappeared from the view of any white man who was not his owner or his driver. Huck’s history would have been sad and short – probably much like Tom Blankenship’s. Twain looked away, set Jim free on his own say-so, and spared Huck the fate life did not spare Tom.

More on Twain, his books, life, and autobiography at Thomas Powers’ outstanding essay at the LRB.

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