Uncle Dan Essay

The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves
in the West at the period of this story — that is to say, thirty or forty
years ago. Mark Twain Hartford, 1876 Dealing with the role of magic in HF,
Daniel Hoffman claims “a subtle emotional complex binds together
superstition: slaves: boyhood freedom in Mark Twain’s mind.”1We know how
Twain felt about boyhood freedom – his nostalgia for it lead him to some of his
finest writing, and it lends its charm to his most enduring works, The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How Twain felt
toward slaves is more ambiguous. In his autobiography Twain wrote of “Uncle
Dan’l”, the man on whom the character Jim was based, that his
“sympathies were wide and warm” and that his “heart was honest
and simple and knew no guile” (Autob., 2.) To the time spent on his uncle’s
farm in Florida, Missouri Twain credited his “strong liking for his [Uncle
Dan’l’s] race and…appreciation of certain of its fine qualities” (Autob.,
3.) To the late-twentieth-century reader, of course, Twain’s treatment of blacks
is extremely problematic. Jim’s character presents many difficulties — are we
to think of Jim as the man who longs for his family even as he valiantly runs
away from them or the fool who gains celebrity among the slaves for a story he
invents and believes? How could Twain allow Jim to assert his human dignity on
the 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 fact
that they must remain unresolved affect all conclusions we draw about Twain and
his black characters. In considering superstition, the third part of this
triangular relationship, we are again left with questions about Twain’s
feelings. In Form and Fable in American Fiction, Daniel Hoffman writes that
“Twain’s usual assumption is that white persons of any status higher than
trash like Pap have little knowledge of, and no belief in, superstition” 2
Superstition is mainly for slaves and boys. It is important to note that within
the framework of Huck Finn, dissociating a thing from white culture is by no
means casting it in poor light. In fact when put under the scrutiny of Huck’s
honest narration, white culture suffers badly. Miss Watson, though
“good”, is harsh and unkind. The King and Duke think nothing of
tricking the Wilks girls out of their inheritance; even the Grangerfords, who
are “quality”, partake in a vicious and deadly feud. The brutalities
that Huck witnesses – Buck’s killing, Boggs’ murder – are committed by whites.

Although Pap has superstitions, folk beliefs in the story belong to Huck and
Jim, the characters we most trust. While incidents like Jim begging mercy from
the “ghost” Huck and Nat and the witch pie are clearly intended to
make the reader laugh at the ignorance of the believers, are we not somehow left
in the end with the idea that the zealous followers of superstition are somehow
safer than their Christian counterparts? In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer “a
boy of German parentage” memorizes eight or ten thousand bible verses but
goes mad from the effort. In Huck Finn the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords go to
church with their guns. On the other side, the slaves “come from all
around” to see the five cent piece which they and Jim believe was given to
him by the devil. We as readers know that the slaves have been duped by their
own superstition and by Tom’s mischief, but are we convinced that they are worse
off than the people at the camp meeting who donate a total of $87.75 to that
scoundrel, the King, for his mission in the Indian Ocean?
1. Daniel G. Hoffman, “Jim’s Magic: Black or White?”. American
Literature XXXII March 1960, pp. 47-54. back to text 2. Daniel G. Hoffman, Form
and Fable in American Fiction. Oxford University Press. New York, 1965.

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