Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, by Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua
(Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998)
Since its publication, there has been much debate and controversy surrounding Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. School administrators and parents alike have advocated for its prohibition in schools due to its explicit language and “racist” portrayal of Jim. As Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua argues in her book, The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, these opponents of Huckleberry Finn have misread how Jim is portrayed in the novel when they declare that he appears as “an Uncle Tom, an embarrassment, and a minstrel” (Introduction xiii). As an educator and an advocate of keeping Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, Chadwick-Joshua hopes to answer to these objections and argues that we should not view Twain’s treatment of Jim as negative. Instead, she argues that readers should admire how Twain presents Jim’s character and embrace Huckleberry Finn in our classrooms in order to avoid ignoring such a pivotal character in American literature and to promote themes of tolerance and acceptance in our society today. Throughout the book, Chadwick-Joshua tries to prove that Jim is not a passive, “Uncle Tom,” flat caricature of slavery in the south, but instead a heroic figure characterized by his loyalty, sense of duty, ability to manipulate language, and acute awareness.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things to read in this book is the opening chapter where Joshua presents evidence of her research to argue Twain’s position on slavery. Joshua offers parts of letters and journals which convey Twain’s sense of toleration and his abolitionist spirit. Readers find out that Jim, like many of Twain’s characters, is a composite of three slaves who Twain shared substantial and intimate time with. There is an especially poignant anecdote about John Lewis, a slave who saves Twain’s family from a runaway carriage (21). Through these anecdotes and evidence outside the text of Huckleberry Finn, which present the amiable interactions between Mark Twain and slaves, Chadwick-Joshua convincingly argues that one cannot simply label Twain as a racist, but instead should look back at the primary text to see what Twain’s intentions were for his slave characters in light of this relevant information.
The chapters that follow in Chadwick-Joshua’s book, struggle to relate temporally and culturally disconnected readers with the scheme Twain was working within when he wrote Huckleberry Finn. Chadwick-Joshua does this by highlighting certain key scenes that readers of today may not grasp the gravity of. Her discussion of Pap’s rant about a black professor is especially interesting in that it encourages the reader to view just how foolishly Pap appears instead of viewing Pap as the vehicle through which Twain expresses his racist ideals. Chadwick-Joshua challenges the reader to understand how just the simple presence of a black professor on the same streets as whites is a declaration of his worthiness and dignity. Readers of today may not understand how inspiring and important such an act was for Twain’s time. Through her persistent use of rhetorical questions, Chadwick-Joshua achieves her goal of making readers realize the gravity of the situation because as they are so simply stated, one cannot help but strongly consider them: “If Twain is a racist writing a racist novel, would he render such a bigot as Pap or show an elevated Negro?” (37).
Furthering her mission to prove to the reader that Jim is more than just a flat and plain character, Chadwick-Joshua argues that Twain uses complex literary tools to portray Jim and so there is more behind Jim’s character than a cursory reading would render. She stresses Twain’s use of a “mineppean symposium,” logomachies (arguments between Huck and Jim), and his classical satirical techniques combined with regional realism. It is in these chapters where the real critical analysis occurs and the reading definitely becomes challenging and dense. These very interesting and different literary perspectives shed new light on Jim, giving him an empowerment and depth that many opponents and movie adaptations have failed to give him. Chadwick-Joshua gives a comprehensive analysis as she not only argues about where Jim does speak in the novel, but she also pays attention to where he is mute but definitely in the scene.
It may be important to note that the readability of the first few chapters, with its heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence as opposed to textual dissection, might have served a purpose for Chadwick-Joshua speaking to two separate audiences: parents and school administrators on the one hand and literary critics on the other. The first chapter lends itself to answer the objections to parents and those who have not had formal literary training. For those parents who condemn the work before giving it a deep analysis it deserves, the opening chapters provide for them, reason to go back and reread or sometimes read for the first time, the novel with a better perspective; they may not have the appetite for the dense critical analysis later on in Chadwick-Joshua’s work, and so offering the gentle introduction that she does allows the casual reader or parent to get what he or she needs from Chadwick-Joshua’s book without tripping over more complex literary language later on in the book, which is reserved for literary critics anyway.
Personally, I do not think a work like this should be included on our syllabus because of course there is never enough time for the primary texts. The topic of this particular critical analysis though, race and slavery, without a doubt will be a recurring thread throughout Twain’s works. It might be helpful then to read Chadwick-Joshua’s book for a final paper on the same topic because not only does it offer a convincing argument that Twain’s work is not racist, but also does a good job of presenting the opposing case. Chadwick-Johnson mentions that she was especially conscious of presenting the best case possible for the opposing view and to consider these objections adequately (Introduction xiii). If one wanted to take the other stance, interested students could retool the opposing case to make it an even stronger objection to Chadwick-Joshua’s argument and so her book would provide a great foundation to start upon.