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TROUBLE AND JOY FROM "A TRUE STORY" TO ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: MARK TWAIN AND THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH Jon Powell University of Southwestern Louisiana Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. —Mark Twain1 One refreshing exception to the tendency to attack or to defend the whole of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a racist document, without concession, is Stephen Railton, who answers whether the novel is racist by stating, "Yes and no; no and yes."2 Using Railton as a precedent, what follows does not attempt to finalize prior discussions of the novel's racial themes but does offer a reading of Huckleberry Finn as other than a racist document by examining two possibilities simultaneously: if the novel is not racist, Jim's apparent turning from "the comical darky of plantation literature"3 into "the more complete human being who moves through the central sections of the narrative" as well as his ultimate turning back into "the submissive slave ... in the closing chapters"4 must somehow be accounted for; if, on the other hand, the novel is, indeed , racist, and assuming that unintentional racism is just as bad as intentional racism, whether the racist is Twain or one or more of his characters must be addressed. Most assessments of the novel as racist based on discussions of Jim accept, a priori, a disunity of both character and work; an answer to such readings necessitates putting Jim, and the novel, back together. Forrest G. Robinson, in his overview of the history of commentary on Jim, notes that most critics have recently turned from Brander Matthews' favorable assessment of Jim as one who "displays 'the essential simplicity and kindliness and generosity of the Southern negro' "5 to a less favorable assessment; ultimately, Robinson notes, recent critics have generally agreed that, in the final chapters, He [Jim] is a mere fragment of his former self, a two-dimensional parody, a racial stereotype with roots in the minstrel tradition, and one symptom among others of Mark Twain's failure of moral vision and artistic integrity in the complex evasion that closes the action.6 Clearly, two Jims are inherent in these arguments, and this has led to two distinct omissions. The Jim who solemnly tells Huck his future 146Jon Powell in the first part of the novel and who, importantly, continues to foresee the future is to varying degrees either left out of these arguments or devalued by his being defined as part of the Jim in the latter chapters of the novel.7 Also omitted is the Jim who is necessarily one character with whom his own contrasts must be reconciled.8 Furthermore, the arguments based on Jim's being more than one character have failed to recognize the importance of Jim's origins. Specifically, in 1874, Twain allowed himself to be admonished by Aunt Rachel in "A True Story" when she states, with biting irony, " 'Oh, no, Misto C----------, I hain't had no trouble. An' no /Oy!' "9 and in 1876, Twain gave two of these same words to Jim, who tells Huck, "You gwyne to have considable trouble in yo' life, en considable joy."10 Twain's giving Jim Aunt Rachel's epiphanic words from "A True Story" clearly illustrates Twain's respect for Jim in a context outside Huckleberry Finn, the context of interracial respect, and forces a broader perspective on the novel, one which includes both the Biblical Rachel of the Old and New Testaments and an altered perception of Twain's knowledge and use of the Bible at the time of his writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn}1 In 1875, William Dean Howells wrote a brief review of "A True Story" that does much to answer those who accuse Twain of using Jim to espouse, knowingly or unknowingly, racist views: "the rugged truth of the sketch leaves all other stories of slave life infinitely far behind, and reveals a gift in the author for the simple dramatic report of reality which we have seen equaled in no other American writer."12 Conceivably, Twain could have created such an insightful...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 145-154
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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