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'James' reimagines Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' with mordant humor, and horror


Ernest Hemingway was not known for his generosity to other writers, but even he felt the need to humble himself before Mark Twain. In 1935, Hemingway famously declared that:

Hemingway was talking about the slangy, cussin' voice of the novel's narrator, Huck Finn, who spoke a blunt, funny American dialect that leapt off the page. But just imagine if the other passenger on that immortal raft ride down the Mississippi had taken over the narration. American literature — and, perhaps, America's sense of itself -- really would have been upended had Twain allowed Jim, a man fleeing slavery, to have his say.

That's the premise of Percival Everett's magnificent new novel, called James. Admittedly, the strategy of thrusting a so-called supporting character into the spotlight of a reimagined classic has been done so often, it can feel a little tired: We've heard from (among a multitude of others) Ahab's wife; Daisy Buchanan's daughter; Father March, the patriarch of those Little Women; and Bertha Mason, that poor "madwoman" in the attic who terrorizes Jane Eyre.

So, when is a literary gimmick not a gimmick? When the reimagining is so inspired it becomes an essential companion piece to the original novel.

So, when is a literary gimmick not a gimmick? When the reimagining is so inspired it becomes an essential companion piece to the original novel, so much so that you can't imagine ever again reading one without the other. Such is the power of James.

Everett, like Twain, is a first-rate humorist. He begins his novel by merrily exposing the absurdities of racism through language lessons that James conducts with his little daughter and some other children. It's crucial that these kids learn to put on a "slave filter" when they talk because, as James says: "White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don't disappoint them."

James then tries out what he calls "situational translations" with the children:

This sly comic tone predominates throughout the first third or so of the novel, which also sticks pretty close to the route of Twain's original plot: Huck, running away from his abusive father teams up with James, who's learned he's about to be sold away from his family. Together the two hide out on Jackson Island and then embark on the Mississippi, braving violent storms and towering riverboats that suddenly bear down on them, as well as the pursuit of slave catchers and conmen.

But, gradually, the familiar rafting voyage veers off into newer, more ominous tributaries of the mighty Mississippi. James realizes that he's envious of Huck's naiveté, his ability to be "highly excited by the adventure of it all. ... [T]o be able to feel that in a world without fear of being hanged to death or worse."

Of course, the stakes of their shared journey were always different for Twain's Huck and Jim (and Everett's Huck and James) but Twain chose not to dramatize the racist barbarity of antebellum America. Everett does. Alternating mordant humor with horror, he makes readers really understand that for James, the Mississippi may offer a temporary haven, but given the realistic odds of him reuniting with his family and making it to freedom, the river is most likely "a vast highway to a scary nowhere."

Though Jim achieves the victory here of naming himself "James" there'll be little chance of him simply "lighting out for the Territory."

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.