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Was Jim of 'Huckleberry Finn' a Hero?

Boxer Archie Moore acting in the film, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

As part of the NPR series, "In Character," we take a look at the enslaved character, Jim, in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — one of the most controversial novels in American literature.

Was Jim a stereotype or a hero?

For more on the much-debated portrayal of the classic American character, Farai Chideya talks with Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, director of American studies and professor of English at Stanford University.

Plus, we hear readings from the book by actors Daniel Gray ("Huck") and Voltaire Rico Sterling ("Jim").

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Transcript

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was published in the U.S. in 1885. The story follows a poor white teen named Huck and Jim, the runaway slave he joins forces with. The book became one of the most controversial classics of American literature mostly because of lines like these, which contain a racial epithet.

Mr. DANIEL GRAY (Actor): (As Huck) We went tiptoeing along a path amongst the trees back towards the end of the widow's garden, stooping down so as the branches wouldn't scrape our heads. When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise. We scrouched down and laid still. Miss Watson's big nigger, named Jim, was sitting in the kitchen door. We could see him pretty clear, because there was a light behind him. He got up and stretched his neck out and about a minute, listening. Then he says, who dah?

CHIDEYA: Today, as part of NPR's series, In Character, a look at the fictional American characters that impact our lives. We take a closer look at Jim. Was Jim a stereotype or heroic? The fact that that debate continues today reflects the book's bold approach to race, class and the use of vernacular speech. We're going to hear more of that speech; this time, an exchange between Jim, played by actor Voltaire Sterling, and Huck, played by actor Daniel Gray.

Huck and Jim are both on the run for different reasons. Here they discuss why they both ended up hiding on the same island. A warning to our listeners, we'll be hearing dialogue and language taken directly from the book, including racial epithets.

Mr. GRAY: (As Huck) How do you come to be here, Jim, and how'd you get here?

Mr. VOLTAIRE STERLING (Actor): (As Jim) Maybe I better not tell.

Mr. GRAY: (As Huck) Why, Jim?

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) Well, dey's reasons. But you wouldn't tell on me ef I uz to tell you, would you, Huck?

Mr. GRAY: (As Huck) Blamed if I would, Jim.

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) Well, I b'lieve you, Huck. I, I run off.

Mr. GRAY: (As Huck) Jim.

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) But mind, you said you wouldn't tell. You know you said you wouldn't tell, Huck.

Mr. GRAY: (As Huck) Well, I did. I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest Injun, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum, but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways. So, now, le's know all about it.

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) Well, you see, it 'uz dis way. Ole missus, dat's Miss Watson, she pecks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn't sell me down to Orleans. But I noticed dey wuz a nigger trader roun' de place considable lately, en I begin to git oneasy. Well, one night I creeps to de do' pooty late, en de do' warn't quite shet, en I hear old missus tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn' want to, but she could git eight hund'd dollars for me, en it is sich a big stack o' money she couldn' resis'. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn' do it, but I never waited to hear de res'. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you.

CHIDEYA: Is this the voice of a hero?

Dr. SHELLY FISHER FISHKIN (Director of American Studies and professor of English, Stanford University): I think, in many ways, Jim is the hero of Huck Finn.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Shelly Fisher Fishkin is director of American Studies and professor of English at Stanford University.

Dr. FISHKIN: It is the voice of a very compelling, appealing and complicated character for whom Twain had enormous admiration and who he wants the reader to admire. He is mature, sensitive, sharp, self-aware. What he's not aware of is how completely screwed up the society is, that is imposing all the time. In other words, there was no character in the book questions the system that places the most admirable man in the book at the same level as his mistress' pigs and chickens.

CHIDEYA: The Civil War - we had more than 600,000 Americans who lost their lives in the battle between North and South. And slavery wasn't the only issue but it was the crux of how we see it today as well as one of the huge issues then. But Huck Finn was published 20 years after both the war and slavery ended. So set a scene for us, what was America like at the time that this book was published?

Dr. FISHKIN: Twain starts the book in 1876. He finishes it in 1883. And this is a very, very depressing and grim and rather shocking period in American history, when almost all of the games that African-Americans made right after the Civil War are being overturned. So what you're finding is that this is a period when African-Americans in the South are, in effect, being re-enslaved, not unlike what happens to Jim who has been running for freedom during the book and then as re-incarcerated on the Phelps' farm.

Twain is not writing a book that is attacking slavery. Slavery has been gone. But he's writing a book that engages the races and that persisted after slavery ended. And that still persists in American society. And this is one of the reasons why the book is so complicated and so interesting.

CHIDEYA: Students across America do read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" but it's also been banned for - particularly for uses of the word nigger. Was that common speech at the time or a slur or both?

Dr. FISHKIN: It was both at the time. It was common speech in much of the South, particularly. And it was also a slur at the time that was increasingly recognized as such. If you read writing in - from the same period as Twain wrote, by others, you'll find the word nigger used throughout a lot of stories and novels, pieces written by black writers as well as white writers, also in poems. But, you know, it can be used in context that are just uncritically accepting the word as what was used or it can be used in context in which people are using that word in full knowledge of the slur that it embodied and using it to subvert to thinking behind that.

CHIDEYA: Let's go back to the book. This time, Jim and Tom Sawyer. In this excerpt, Jim has been captured. He and Tom are discussing some unusual strategies to set Jim free.

Mr. GRAY: (As Tom Sawyer) You got any spiders in here, Jim?

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) No, sir, thanks to goodness I hain't, Mars Tom.

Mr. GRAY: (As Tom Sawyer) All right, we'll get you some.

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) But bless you, I doan' want none. I's afeard un um. I jis' 's soon have rattlesnakes aroun'.

Mr. GRAY: (As Tom Sawyer) It's a good idea. Where could you keep it?

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) De goodness gracious alive, Mr. Tom. Why, if dey was a rattlesnake to come in heah I'd take en bust right out thoo dat log wall, I would, wid my head.

Mr. GRAY: (As Tom Sawyer) Jim, don't act so foolish. A prisoner's got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain't ever been tried, why, there's more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.

Mr. STERLING: (As Jim) Mars Tom, I's willin' to tackle mos' anything 'at ain't onreasonable, but if you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for me to tame, I's gwyne to leave, dat's shore.

CHIDEYA: Now, Dr. Fishkin, to many of us now in the modern era, that sounds like pure shocking jibing. So what exactly is going on in this part of the book?

Dr. FISHKIN: What's tricky is that it probably sounds that way to readers during Twain's day. But we can also look at it through the perspective of history and realize that all of the crazy things that are inflicted on Jim in that last portion of the book resonate with all of the crazy things that are inflicted on African-Americans who want to vote after the Civil War, after the end of Reconstruction, up through the civil rights movement. So I mean there's a lot of lunacy in store in the next hundred years. And in a sense, this passage in the book, looks ahead to that, looks ahead to all of the absurd obstacles that are going to be thrown in the way of black freedom.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Shelly Fisher Fishkin is director of American Studies and professor of English at Stanford University. She's published widely on Mark Twain.

For our reading, the voice of Jim was played by Voltaire Sterling. The voice of Huck and Tom was played by Daniel Gray.

What great American characters inspire you? Nominate your favorites on our In Character blog. You may put your suggestions on the radio. Go to npr.org/incharacter. You can also go there to find links to transcripts from the readings as well as audio.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. And thanks for sharing your time with us.

To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our fabulous newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Tomorrow, we wrap up our Great Expectation series with a look at the people behind South Carolina's school desegregation fight in the 1950s.

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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