The following review appeared 10 December 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Kim Martin Long <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Do we really need another book about the Huck Finn controversy? Didn't Tom Quirk in Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn (1993), Jonathan Arac in Huck Finn: Idol or Target (1997), and Joe Fulton in Mark Twain's Ethical Realism: The Aesthetics of Race, Class, and Gender (1997) give us all the dialogue we need about whether or not to canonize and to teach Twain's masterpiece? Although these three works (and many others) have come out in the last few years, and although they contribute significantly to Twain scholarship, they do not do what Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua's does: carefully examine Twain's rhetoric in order to show Jim as an important, vital character.
Chadwick-Joshua--as a Southerner, an African-American descendant of slaves, a rhetorician, and Twain scholar--makes a compelling and convincing argument for keeping Twain's book on the top shelf of American literature. She eloquently answers the critics who would ban the book by demonstrating Twain's method, if not his madness, of using Huck's vernacular language to convey respect, humanity, and dignity. Rather than argue that the use of the word "nigger" brings the book down to a level of base racism, Chadwick-Joshua expertly shows how the use of the word (and other racist discourse) contributes to Twain's satire of the racist nineteenth-century South. What many of us who value the book know and feel, Chadwick-Joshua makes us see and understand.
The book contains only four chapters and an introduction; however, Chadwick-Joshua covers a lot of ground. The introduction to the book presents her thesis: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn compels us to confront what I call 'the Jim dilemma': the need to distinguish a richly positive and generous humanity from the confusing crosscurrents of prejudice that obscure it. The challenge to face these sensitive issues offers us all a great opportunity to realize our highest potential as a thoughtfully integrated culture" (xiv). Chadwick-Joshua says that her book seeks to confront directly Huck Finn's critics and detractors; she claims that the book's opponents have misinterpreted Jim. She seeks to examine him closely in order to reveal his heroic nature, his resourcefulness, and his humanity, the "true visionary center of the novel" (xx). As Chadwick-Joshua claims, until "we embrace Jim and all that he represents, . . . we will forever pale as a people, will be historically colorless" (xxii).
The first titled chapter of the book, "Reading Race: A Dilemma," presents Twain as a rebel writer, not afraid to embrace the darkness of the American past (alluding to Toni Morrison), one who forces readers to think. Chadwick-Joshua surveys older and more recent criticism of Huck Finn: here you'll find Brooks, Trilling, Marx, et al., as well as Kaplan, Fishkin, and Smiley. But, as Chadwick-Joshua claims, the "time has long since been propitious to reexamine the text of this work in light of difference. The difference cited here is a rhetorical one. . ." (8). She acknowledges that many modern readers, especially African-American readers, have trouble seeing Jim in the novel as anything but a grotesque caricature; she explains that modern audiences (especially high school and college audiences) may need adequate preparation and guidance through this work in order to understand Twain's carefully constructed satire, "which distorts values" (9).
As Chadwick-Joshua suggests, because "the wound [of slavery] is yet open or because of unconscious denial, a significant number of African-Americans today do not wish to confront and explore the issues and language Twain depicts" (26). She challenges and even demands that African-American audiences be willing to explore what the novel has to say to them, not to shrink from it or to keep it from their children. This chapter seeks to address the controversy directly in order to open minds for the careful explication of the book within the rhetorical context that follows.
In Chapter 2, "'You Can't Learn a Nigger to Argue': Verbal Battles," Chadwick-Joshua argues that Jim, when viewed "in the context of classical rhetoric, proves to be an important and profound agent of social change" (29). She asserts that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic Menippean satire that seeks to expose the "evil and absurdity of the slavery system, class hierarchy, and religious and filial hypocrisy" (42, citing Frye 309). Chadwick-Joshua examines four logomachies, or verbal battles, that occur in the novel (the conversation between Huck and Jim about King Solomon, for example), showing through rhetorical analysis that Jim "wins" with his superior logic. This examination and (re)formation of Jim as a strong, vital force in the novel supports the book's argument that Huck Finn is not only worth keeping in the canon, but is a powerful book for African-American empowerment.
The other two chapters ("In the Dark, Southern Fashion: Encounters with Society" and "'Whah is de Glory?': The (Un)Reconstructed South") continue the rhetorical analysis of Twain's (Huck's) discourse related to Jim and to racism. Sample these sentences: "Through powerfully provocative maneuvers, Twain moves us to consider the ways Jim is constantly recruiting Huck's support and solidifying his subsequent transformation, thereby sustaining and expanding Jim's only chance for freedom" (66); "Rather than giving us one more romanticized fiction about mistreated slaves and their indomitable but silent spirit, Twain dodges logic by letting his characters continue in the wrong direction, flinging us into the paradoxes of the mythic South" (70); and "Contrary to the criticism that Jim disappears, yet again [in the Grangerford section], because Twain did not know what to do with him, Jim's apparent invisibility and loss of voice are more productive and powerful than had he risked a meaningless capture and certain exposure" (87).
Chadwick-Joshua ends her book with the idea that "Twain never meant for this novel to be painless" (134), and throughout The Jim Dilemma, she demonstrates the art and the science of Mark Twain's masterpiece. She addresses the race question head-on, without emotionalizing or sensationalizing. Her credibility and her sensitivity are evident on every page. Yes, we do need another book about Huck Finn.