Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: illustration by EW Kemble ‘Jim and ghost’ (1884)

Breaking free of their mindset

Mike Belbin reviews Percival Everett James, Mantle (panmacmillan.com) 2024, pp320, £20

In 1884 US humourist Mark Twain published his novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he was not the first to write about American youth. Louisa May Alcott had brought out Little women in 1868, where four young girls face issues of love and death, and attitudes to the Europe that dominates their imaginations, just like the male characters in Twain’s novel.

Twain’s book went on to sell across the world and be translated into languages from French to Lithuanian. Ernest Hemingway said that “all American writing come from [this] one book by Mark Twain”, while F Scott Fitzgerald remarked that Twain “was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west”. The book became a comedy classic with its vernacular exuberance: it reminds this reader of certain film westerns with their wild 19th century towns without squire or parson.

The first objections to the text came on the grounds of gentility, from Boston. The writing was judged too rough and naughty for well-brought-up children. More recently, criticism has been about the fact that so many pages display the epithet, ‘nigger’, while Jim, a runaway slave, is portrayed as a slow and bug-eyed figure - a characterisation that seemed to have informed most of later movie stereotypes, as quoted on YouTube in ‘Blackface Montage from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled’.1

Author and professor of English Percival Everett has written over 30 books, won several awards and been up for the Booker and a Pulitzer. His great-grandfather was Jewish and married a formerly enslaved woman. The film American fiction was based on Everett’s novel Erasure (2021) about an African-American professor who writes a satire of stereotypical ‘black’ books. Now Everett has written his own version of the Huck and Jim story. But what are we expecting? Is it just for readers interested in cotton field slavery and blackface minstrelsy? Does it offer us a slave superhero who massacres his “enemy” (Django unchained) or marries them (Bridgerton)? Is it obligingly ‘woke’?

Twain composed Huck Finn as the first-person narrative of a boy brought up in the slave-owning society along the Mississippi, who connects up with Jim, the runaway slave - both of them escaping cruel masters. (With Huck it is his drunken father). However, during their journey Huck finds himself violating the ethic of a good southern boy by not wanting to give Jim up to his pursuers.

He knows he is ‘immoral’ in helping a slave escape his legal owner, but he decides he would rather be condemned as a bad boy or even a criminal than betray the man who has become his comrade. For Everett, on the other hand, although he has the two escaping for the same reasons, it is Jim who narrates the book and whose thoughts we hear - and whom we overhear in private conversation without Huck. In Twain’s novel Jim says things like “Is Frenchman a man? Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!”2 Jim is not unknowledgeable though: he can tell when someone is dead or when it is going to rain. He can sense danger and it is not just panic. For his part, Everett does not remove the dialect, but he shows it in a different light - one essential to the point of the novel.

His James starts from the same premise as Twain’s, but the novel form allows us to appreciate the other side of the slave, inside his mind and in like company, that is hidden from the owners class. Jim is even shown teaching his children how they have to address masters and clients. For example, if there’s a fire, you don’t say, “Fire, fire”, but “Lawdy, missum, Looky dere.” That is because the master class has to “name the trouble”, to feel in control and know everything.2 Have you ever reassured your boss or said the right words to please those in power? This is not just cotton-field subordination - it is universal alienation.3


As in slave Frederick Douglass’s memoir,4 Jim has also learnt to read. In his position he takes advantage of using his employer’s library at night. On his hazardous journey with Huck he then dreams of talking to Enlightenment writers Voltaire and John Locke.

These were figures who supposedly believed in universal equality, but also accepted that people were still innately different enough to allow superiority by the colonial powers. As Locke put it, indigenous peoples in the Americas had not “mixed” their labour with the earth: they were mainly hunters rather than farmers, and so were “savages”.5 Social backwardness’ - that is, lack of property ownership - was every bit as effective an excuse for imperialism as colour or biology. It took post-Enlightenment philosophers like Feuerbach and Marx to make the issue one of control of your life - criticising the idea that sacred notions, invented by humans, should hold sway over anybody, workers or masters.

Everett’s plot soon departs from Twain’s original. In his ‘adventures’, Jim has to learn things. It is painful, his education has been poor, but out of necessity he learns the way to do things. He becomes a blacksmith and, while singing in the forge, is ‘bought’ by a minstrel show. He eventually meets up again with Huck and actually saves him from drowning rather than another slave. Now they are closer than ever before and they discuss the US civil war that has just begun. Jim reveals the diction of his ‘private’ speech and the boy is confirmed in his respect for his fellow escapee.

Huck decides to go north to join up for the union - although he does not fancy taking orders. Jim tells Huck that the boy can be anything he wants, but we are aware that this is only because Huck can pass as one of the owning class. Jim, however, must go and free his family. He takes the pistol he has learnt to use and, along the way, meets other slaves who join him to help out. Individual liberation relies on solidarity.

Much as I would have liked Everett to deal with the last few chapters in Twain, I see the discussion of who has the means to be ‘anything they like’ as an effective substitute. In Twain, Jim is captured and chained up to be sold again. However, when Huck wants to free him, the ‘good boy’, Tom Sawyer, refuses to help unless it is done the way ‘the authorities’ have it - as in European adventure books,6 like Walter Scott. This section was presumably done for humour, but goes on too long: readers can get the point soon enough that Sawyer is fetishising fictions from hegemonic Europe. Of course, Jim’s feelings and thoughts about the matter are dismissed by the boys and the book.

At last, in Everett, the runaway James finds his family at a farm. A cornfield is set on fire as a diversion. This freeing of the slaves is not done by a desperate mob, but by a tactical united front organised by those who know injustice.

By writing in the novel form, Everett uses the revelation of a narrator’s thoughts and conversations to mark the difference between reassuring the boss and breaking free of their mindset. That is why this is a tale for everybody.

  1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=C45g3YP7JOk.↩︎

  2. M Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.↩︎

  3. K Marx, ‘Estranged labour’ Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844), Moscow 1977, p66.↩︎

  4. F Douglass Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave (1845).↩︎

  5. CW Mills The racial contract New York 1999, p67.↩︎

  6. See M Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chapter 35.↩︎