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James by Percival Everett: Reimagining Huck Finn

There is humour and humanity in this recasting of Mark Twain’s flawed classic

Author: Percival Everett
ISBN-13: 978-1035031238
Publisher: Mantle
Guideline Price: £20

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) – his sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) – is a controversial classic. First banned in the US for its use of “coarse language” (ie slang, for example using the word “sweat” rather than the more elegant “perspiration”), Huckleberry Finn has more recently come into question for its prodigious use of the n-word. In an essay on this “amazing, troubling book”, Toni Morrison described her “muffled rage” at the minstrelisation of the character of Jim. Reading the racial epithet “hundreds of times”, however, “embarrassed, bored, annoyed – but did not faze” her.

Percival Everett agrees that Huckleberry Finn should not be banned or redacted to omit the n-word, which “makes perfect sense in the story”, he has said. “Without it, it would be impossible to understand the world in which this story happens.”

In James, Everett reimagines the story from the slave’s – rather than the 13-year-old white boy’s – perspective. When James learns that Miss Watson plans to sell him, thus separating him from his family, he hides out on a nearby island. After Huck fakes his death to escape his abusive father, unintentionally putting James under suspicion, the pair flee along the Mississippi river.

The stakes here are higher than in Twain’s picaresque of Huck’s boyhood “adventures”: James’ odyssey involves evading capture (there’s a $300 reward for his return) and liberating his wife and nine-year-old daughter from slavery. One poignant scene has him witnessing the rape of a girl who reminds him of his daughter. “If one knows hell as home,” he wonders, “then is returning to hell a homecoming?”


Much of James’ survival is thanks to agile code-switching, which Everett plays to great effect. Illiterate in Huck Finn, here James has taught himself to read by surreptitiously borrowing books from Judge Thatcher’s library. Even the slaves who can’t read or write are “bilingual”, using dialect only when whites are in earshot. James offers “language lessons” in “the correct incorrect grammar” to black children to secure their “safe movement through the world”.

“White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” he tells them. “The better they feel, the safer we are,” the kids chant back in unison. Or, as one of them translates the phrase into “slave talk”, “Da mo’ betta dey feels, da mo’ safer we be.”

A sly satirist (like Twain), Everett is the author of more than 30 books, including Telephone (2020), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the Booker-shortlisted The Trees (2021); and Erasure (2001), which was recently adapted by Cord Jefferson for the Oscar-winning screenplay of American Fiction (2023). Everett shifts the story of James forward from the 1830s/1840s to the 1860s, on the cusp of the civil war.

He recreates some of Huckleberry Finn’s best-known scenes, including James getting bitten by a rattlesnake, Huck disguising himself as a girl, and their interactions with the “rapscallions” the Duke and the King. Other storylines are new, including James being bought by the Virginia Minstrels, a blackface singing troupe in need of a tenor. James finds himself in the absurd situation, as such, of putting bootblack on his face and feet to try to pass as white underneath – a meta-minstrelisation, of sorts.

By inverting Twain’s childlike depiction of Jim, Everett returns James to his rightful role of father figure to Huck. In taking back his name and narrative, he reclaims his dignity. He is called Jim by whites and even his wife; when he begins to introduce himself as James, “my name became my own”. Every time he sneaks into the library, he wonders “what white people would do to a slave who had learned how to read. What would they do to a slave who had taught the other slaves to read? What would they do to a slave who knew what a hypotenuse was, what irony meant, how retribution was spelled?” When he later holds up the slave owner who has bought his wife and daughter, “it was not the pistol, but my language, the fact that I didn’t conform to his expectations, that I could read, that had so disturbed and frightened him”.

“In language, and in ownership of language, there resides great power, and resides an avenue to any kind of freedom that we’re going to have,” Everett has said. It can come at a high price, however: a slave is lynched for stealing the Faber pencil stub with which we watch James write himself “into being”. “My interest is in how these marks that I am scratching on this page can mean anything at all,” James writes, in what is to become the book we’re reading. “If they can have meaning, then life can have meaning, then I can have meaning.”

By recasting Twain’s flawed classic as a portrait of an enslaved man – in all the fullness of his courage, humanity and humour – Everett leaves a meaningful mark on American letters.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic