by Percival Everett.
Mantle, 303 pp., £20, April, 978 1 0350 3123 8
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In​ 1867, Mark Twain went to Europe aboard the Quaker City, the ‘first luxury cruise in American history’. He was underwhelmed by the Titians in the Doge’s Palace – ‘there is nothing tangible about these imaginary portraits, nothing that I can grasp and take a living interest in’ – but awestruck by his tour guide. The man appeared to be – was it possible? – a ‘cultivated Negro’. He even knew the definition of ‘Renaissance’.

He was born in South Carolina, of slave parents. They came to Venice while he was an infant. He has grown up here. He is well educated. He reads, writes and speaks English, Italian, Spanish and French, with perfect facility; is a worshipper of art and thoroughly conversant with it; knows the history of Venice by heart and never tires of talking of her illustrious career. He dresses better than any of us, I think, and is daintily polite. Negroes are deemed as good as white people, in Venice, and so this man feels no desire to go back to his native land. His judgment is correct.

Twain had grown up around Black people in Missouri, a slave state, and thought he had their measure. His father was a lawyer who bought and sold slaves, and could usually afford to keep at least one of his own. His uncle (‘I have not come across a better man than he was’) had a farm with ‘fifteen or twenty Negroes’. In his autobiography, Twain would claim that ‘all the Negroes were friends of ours,’ and that they were nearly all the same: pliant, cheerful, superstitious, deeply religious, with hearts that were ‘honest and simple and knew no guile’. At least until young adulthood, he had ‘no aversion to slavery’. No one had ever told him that there was anything wrong with it, and ‘if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery, they were wise and said nothing.’ On Sundays, ‘the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing.’

When the Civil War started, Twain was 25 years old, a riverboat pilot. He volunteered for a Confederate militia, but lasted only two weeks before hightailing it to the Nevada Territory. In Mark Twain: Social Critic the historian Philip Foner suggested that he deserted because of ‘a boil, a sprained ankle, and heavy rains’, not because of any change of heart about secession. Long after the war was over, Twain befriended Ulysses S. Grant, and helped him to publish his memoirs. But Twain’s biographers haven’t been able to work out what he thought about the war while it was happening. His letters from the period are high-spirited, obsessed with money, seemingly unconcerned about what might be happening back east. When he began writing pieces for small newspapers, he stuck to local news. One feint – he always claimed that he had written it drunk, and that no one should have taken him seriously – was an article he wrote in 1864 for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, alleging that fundraisers for sick and wounded Union soldiers were actually supporting a ‘miscegenation society’. Readers complained, but Twain wouldn’t apologise in print, telling his brother’s wife that he couldn’t ‘submit to the humiliation of publishing myself as a liar’.

Within months he had moved to San Francisco, where he still dabbled in fake news but also tried to do some real reporting. He wrote about Chinese immigrants being ‘abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded nature’, and was angry when no one would publish his account of white ‘hoodlums’ stoning a Chinese laundryman while a policeman watched ‘with an amused interest – nothing more’. By the end of the century, he would claim to be colour-blind. ‘I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no colour prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices … All that I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.’ The exception referred to Native Americans, who were ‘base and treacherous, and hateful in every way … a good, fair, desirable subject for extermination if ever there was one’.

When Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), slavery in America had been abolished for almost twenty years. He had made a life in Connecticut, and written critically of the ‘sham grandeurs’ of the South, but remembering antebellum Missouri always made him feel ‘like some banished Adam, who is revisiting his half-forgotten Paradise’. Huck is a version of a ‘juvenile pariah’ Twain had known growing up, the ‘son of the town drunkard’. He is ‘always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes.’ No one forces him to go to school or to church. He swears ‘wonderfully’, but – when first introduced in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – doesn’t know how to write his own initials. The other children are ‘under strict orders not to play with him’. In his memoirs, Frederick Douglass half-claimed to pity white boys who grew up without the ‘freedom’ of the young Black slave, which is almost the life Twain gives Huck:

The slave-boy escapes many troubles which befall and vex his white brother. He seldom has to listen to lectures on propriety of behaviour, or on anything else. He is never chided for handling his little knife and fork improperly or awkwardly, for he uses none. He is never reprimanded for soiling the tablecloth, for he takes his meals on the clay floor. He never has the misfortune, in his games or sports, of soiling or tearing his clothes, for he almost has none to soil or tear … Thus, freed from all restraint, the slave-boy can be, in his life and conduct, a genuine boy, doing whatever his boyish nature suggests.

After Huck’s ‘persecuting father’ comes close to killing him, he escapes to a ‘long, narrow, wooded island’ in the Mississippi River. He’s comfortable enough, smoking and gathering strawberries, ‘but by-and-by it got sort of lonesome’. The narrative transforms into American pastoral only after Huck joins forces with ‘Miss Watson’s big nigger, called Jim’, who is trying to escape to the North. ‘I warn’t lonesome, now.’ When Huck is with Jim, the days ‘slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely’. They swim and fish, and ‘afterwards we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by-and-by lazy off to sleep.’

We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened – Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down.

When Ralph Ellison read the novel, he could ‘imagine myself as Huck Finn (I so nicknamed my brother), but not, though I racially identified with him, as Nigger Jim, who struck me as a white man’s inadequate portrait of a slave’. Ellison argued that Twain couldn’t free himself of ‘the white dictum that Negro males must be treated either as boys or “uncles” – never as men’. Jim is old enough to be Huck’s father, and has children, but ‘Jim’s friendship for Huck comes across as that of a boy for another boy rather than the friendship of an adult for a junior.’ To Toni Morrison, Jim seemed a ‘buffoon’, wearing an ‘ill-made clown suit’.

In Percival Everett’s​ retelling of Huckleberry Finn from Jim’s perspective, the clown suit has been deliberately put on. James begins, as Twain’s novel does, with Huck and Tom contemplating tying Jim to a tree while he sleeps, settling for hanging his hat on a high branch.

Those white boys, Huck and Tom, watched me. They were always playing some kind of pretending game where I was either a villain or prey, but certainly their toy. They hopped about out there with the chiggers, mosquitoes and other biting bugs, but never made any progress towards me. It always pays to give white folks what they want, so I stepped into the yard and called out into the night:

‘Who dat dere in da dark lak dat?’

Twain thought of himself as an expert in ‘Missouri Negro dialect’: he conducted interviews to try to get it right, and complained to William Dean Howells that he ‘had difficulty with this Negro talk because a Negro sometimes (rarely) says “goin’” and sometimes “gwyne” … and when you come to reproduce them on paper they look as if the variation resulted from the writer’s carelessness.’ Ellison gave credit where it was due and argued that for all of Twain’s limitations, he’d managed to absorb ‘the spoken idiom of Negro Americans, its flexibility, its musicality, its rhythms, freewheeling diction and metaphors’. In James, Black people deploy what Jim calls ‘correct incorrect grammar’ only when white people are within earshot – ‘white folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them.’ They code-switch between Standard English and minstrelese, and give children lessons in how to do it:

‘“Gets some” is hard to say.’ This from Glory, the oldest child. ‘The s’s.’

‘That’s true,’ I said. ‘And it’s okay to trip over it. In fact, it’s good. You wan fo me to ge-gets s-s-some s-sand, Missum Holiday?’

‘What if they don’t understand?’ Lizzie asked.

‘That’s okay. Let them work to understand you. Mumble sometimes so they can have the satisfaction of telling you not to mumble. They enjoy the correction and thinking you’re stupid.’

As for the supposed spirituality of Black people that Twain so admired, Jim knows that ‘religion is just a controlling tool’, but wants his children to pretend to be Christians:

‘The more you talk about God and Jesus and heaven and hell, the better they feel.’

The children said together: ‘And the better they feel, the safer we are.’

‘February, translate that.’

‘Da mo’ betta dey feels, da mo’ safer we be.’


Jim also pretends to be illiterate, even though he has ‘spent many afternoons’ secretly working through Judge Thatcher’s library. He knows ‘what a hypotenuse was, what irony meant, how retribution was spelled’, and has imaginary conversations with Voltaire about the differences between natural liberties and civil liberties. When Huck asks him to imagine a wish-granting genie,

The question I played with, but certainly couldn’t share with Huck, was what would Kierkegaard wish for. ‘I dunno, Huck. I reckon I’d be scared to wish fer anything.’

‘Think about it.’

‘I reckon the genie be white. I ain’t got no need to wish fo’ sumptin’ dat ain’t gone happen. Good story or no.’

Huck let that sink in, then he looked at the sky.

No enslaved person in America ever spent their afternoons in the library reading Kierkegaard, who in any case wasn’t translated into English until the early 20th century, but then Everett isn’t writing straightforwardly realistic historical fiction. After sampling his previous novels (he’s written more than twenty), with pleasure, I wonder if he’s actually not very interested in exploring the consciousness of anyone who hasn’t read Kierkegaard. Even the narrator of Glyph (1999) is deeply read in Continental philosophy, and he’s supposed to be a baby, albeit one with an IQ of 475. Everett – I think – is trying to imagine what it would be like for a person, seemingly with a mind very much resembling his own, to be stuck in a Twainian universe. What would he notice? What would he find hilarious? Everett’s Jim – who decides by the end of the novel that he would prefer to be known as James – is more mordant and infinitely more worldly than Twain’s Jim, or indeed than almost anyone. Huckleberry Finn is set during Twain’s childhood in the 1840s. Everett moves the action to 1861, though seemingly only so that James can register his indifference to the outcome of the Civil War. ‘One side is the same as the other to me,’ he says. ‘Whatever the cause of their war, freeing slaves was an incidental premise and would be an incidental result.’ He intends to purchase or ‘steal’ his family, and go to Canada.

When James finds Huck on Jackson’s Island, he accidentally talks to him in Standard English – ‘the first time I had ever had a language slip’. He’s gentle with Huck – who seems much younger and more vulnerable now that he’s no longer the narrator-hero – and reveals a self-interested reason for trying to keep him alive for the rest of the book: ‘Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away. Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?’ In Twain’s novel, Huck and Jim separate when their raft is hit by a steamship, and before they meet again Huck has his interlude with the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. This is an opening for Everett to give James his own adventures, and he imagines him coming across a travelling minstrel show: ‘the new thing is white folks painting themselves and making fun of us to entertain each other.’ They’re down a tenor so they force James into their troupe, leading to an extended riff on the ‘double irony’ of being a Black man pretending to be white pretending to be Black. ‘Never had a situation felt so absurd, surreal and ridiculous. And I had spent my life as a slave.’ For the first time, James can be around white people who don’t know he’s Black: ‘They were open to me, but what I saw, looking into them, was hardly impressive.’ A white woman flirts with him, and her father compliments James’s costume: ‘Nice show, son. But none of ya’ll had me goin’. You kin black up all you like, but you cain’t fool me. I kin smell me a darkie from fifty country yards away. Cain’t fool me.’ More unsettling is James’s sojourn in a sawmill – the tools are dull, and the slaves keep losing fingers. In Twain’s novels, slaves are freed out of Christian charity – someone remembers them in a will. Everett’s plots are more likely to hinge on the use of firearms. By the end of James, we’re in the land of wish-fulfilment, reminiscent of Django Unchained. What would we in the 21st century like to say to a slaver? And what would we do to his house? It’s almost as improbable, fantastical and cockamamie as a novel by Mark Twain.

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