The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn

By Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua | Go to book overview

You Can't Learn a Nigger to Argue
Verbal Battles

Misconceptions surround Jim in current public discussions. Sometimes the novel is simply not read; at other times it has not been read carefully enough. Various movie versions of Jim fail to render him as the complete, three-dimensional character Twain develops in the novel. Unfortunately, these films provide all that many know of Jim, even though they distort his character and his intent. Before considering Twain's accomplishments in the book, it is helpful to consider the ways in which the movies fail. I will argue in this chapter that Jim, when viewed in the context of classical rhetoric, proves to be an important and profound agent of social change. Hollywood, like some of the novel's academic critics, has not understood the Menippean satire in which Twain envelopes Jim, and lacking the classical perspective, all too easily misread him at crucial moments.

None of the producers and directors of the movies derived from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have remained true to Twain's words, scenes, or language. In the most nostalgic version, a seemingly sincere and puckish Huck, played by Mickey Rooney, reveals clearly that he helps Jim escape only out of fear for his life because of Pap Finn. Quite unlike Twain's presentation of Huck and Jim, this 1939 version lacks the tenacity, the linguistic mastery, and the deliberate presence the novel brings to the relationship between the reluctant abolitionist and

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