The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slavesin the West at the period of this story — that is to say, thirty or fortyyears ago. Mark Twain Hartford, 1876 Dealing with the role of magic in HF,Daniel Hoffman claims “a subtle emotional complex binds togethersuperstition: slaves: boyhood freedom in Mark Twain’s mind. “1We know howTwain felt about boyhood freedom – his nostalgia for it lead him to some of hisfinest writing, and it lends its charm to his most enduring works, TheAdventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How Twain felttoward slaves is more ambiguous. In his autobiography Twain wrote of “UncleDan’l”, the man on whom the character Jim was based, that his”sympathies were wide and warm” and that his “heart was honestand simple and knew no guile” (Autob.
, 2. ) To the time spent on his uncle’sfarm in Florida, Missouri Twain credited his “strong liking for his race and. . . appreciation of certain of its fine qualities” (Autob.
,3. ) To the late-twentieth-century reader, of course, Twain’s treatment of blacksis extremely problematic. Jim’s character presents many difficulties — are weto think of Jim as the man who longs for his family even as he valiantly runsaway from them or the fool who gains celebrity among the slaves for a story heinvents and believes? How could Twain allow Jim to assert his human dignity onthe raft, then subject him to a series of gross humiliations at the Phelps farm?Definitive answers to these questions are impossible. However they and the factthat they must remain unresolved affect all conclusions we draw about Twain andhis black characters. In considering superstition, the third part of thistriangular relationship, we are again left with questions about Twain’sfeelings.
In Form and Fable in American Fiction, Daniel Hoffman writes that”Twain’s usual assumption is that white persons of any status higher thantrash like Pap have little knowledge of, and no belief in, superstition” 2Superstition is mainly for slaves and boys. It is important to note that withinthe framework of Huck Finn, dissociating a thing from white culture is by nomeans casting it in poor light. In fact when put under the scrutiny of Huck’shonest narration, white culture suffers badly. Miss Watson, though”good”, is harsh and unkind. The King and Duke think nothing oftricking the Wilks girls out of their inheritance; even the Grangerfords, whoare “quality”, partake in a vicious and deadly feud. The brutalitiesthat Huck witnesses – Buck’s killing, Boggs’ murder – are committed by whites.
Although Pap has superstitions, folk beliefs in the story belong to Huck andJim, the characters we most trust. While incidents like Jim begging mercy fromthe “ghost” Huck and Nat and the witch pie are clearly intended tomake the reader laugh at the ignorance of the believers, are we not somehow leftin the end with the idea that the zealous followers of superstition are somehowsafer than their Christian counterparts? In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer “aboy of German parentage” memorizes eight or ten thousand bible verses butgoes mad from the effort. In Huck Finn the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords go tochurch with their guns. On the other side, the slaves “come from allaround” to see the five cent piece which they and Jim believe was given tohim by the devil.
We as readers know that the slaves have been duped by theirown superstition and by Tom’s mischief, but are we convinced that they are worseoff than the people at the camp meeting who donate a total of $87. 75 to thatscoundrel, the King, for his mission in the Indian Ocean?Bibliography1. Daniel G. Hoffman, “Jim’s Magic: Black or White?”.
AmericanLiterature XXXII March 1960, pp. 47-54. back to text 2. Daniel G. Hoffman, Formand Fable in American Fiction.
Oxford University Press. New York, 1965.