Integrity and Defiance in Equal Measure

Integrity and Defiance in Equal Measure

Percival Everett’s James, set in the nineteenth century, is a novel of the present moment—when legal measures that were once regarded as essential components of racial justice are being dismantled.

Percival Everett at Shaw Theatre in London on October 14, 2022 (David Levenson/Getty Images)

by Percival Everett
Doubleday, 2024, 320pp.


“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway observed in his 1935 memoir The Green Hills of Africa. It was Twain’s spare prose, or his reliance, as Hemingway put it, on the words that people use in speech that drew Hemingway’s admiration. Nearly ninety years later, Percival Everett has found Twain’s masterpiece equally relevant to his fiction. But in his latest novel, James, Everett focuses not on Twain’s writing style, but rather on the story of Jim, the escaped slave whom Twain’s Huck comes to ally with and love despite his own racist upbringing.

Everett, a prolific novelist and professor of English at the University of Southern California, has written often about race, perhaps most notably in his 2001 satirical novel Erasure, which became the basis for the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning film American Fiction. But Erasure and James are markedly different. Erasure focuses on racial stereotyping in the publishing industry. By contrast, James relies on a familiar text to explore racial issues that cut to the heart of American history.

“I flatter myself that I’m in conversation with Twain and writing the novel that he couldn’t write,” Everett observed in a recent interview. In doing so—and setting this novel in Twain’s boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri—Everett has done more than give Jim a rich inner life and create a novel that is sure to be read alongside Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Everett has given new life to the nineteenth-century slave narrative: he has made Twain’s illiterate Jim literate and endowed him with the confidence to rename himself James. James (with help from Huck) becomes his own rescuer, rather than relying on his owner’s will for his liberty.

The novel’s plot centers on James, who learns that his owner, Miss Watson, intends to sell him to another slave holder in New Orleans. If the sale occurs, James will never see his wife and daughter again. Unlike Twain’s Huck, who at the end of that novel announces that he will head onward alone and ahead of the rest, Everett’s James never looks on his life as if it were just his own. “I couldn’t lose sight of my goal of freeing my family,” James says of his perilous situation as a runaway slave. “What would freedom be without them?”

The moral question that shapes Twain’s novel—whether Huck will defy the racist culture in which he has grown up—is of secondary concern to Everett. Instead, Everett asks how far James will go to secure his freedom and that of his family.

Everett’s James has taught himself to read and write by sneaking into the library of Judge Thatcher, the one formally educated man in Hannibal. James brings books with him when he flees Hannibal, and throughout the novel he keeps a notebook. He even carries on imaginary conversations about human rights with his favorite philosophers: Voltaire, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill. “I wrote myself into being,” James says of his self-transformation. James flees from Hannibal with Huck, who wants to run away from his cruel father. The two convene on Jackson’s Island and start their new lives together there. Before long, they begin hatching plans to rescue James’s family.

Everett satirizes American racism with unrelenting irony. At one point, James is bought by the Virginia Minstrels, a white singing group that needs to replace a tenor, forcing James to pretend to be a white man pretending to be a Black man. The ruse works until an audience member who has enjoyed the show comes to suspect that James is Black, endangering the whole troupe. Elsewhere, James meets a runaway slave who is light skinned enough to pass as white. For a brief time, the two exploit their situation by having the latter sell James into slavery in order to split the profits from the sale once James escapes from his new owner.

James’s most significant racially fraught encounters occur in his evolving relationship with Huck. Toward the end of the novel, James reveals to Huck that he is Huck’s biological father. James and Huck’s late mother had known each other when they were young. James’s revelation catches Huck by surprise, though Everett does not dwell on it in detail. We find out very little about James’s romance with Huck’s mother and how they kept their affair secret. All James tells Huck is: “Your mother and I were little children together. We were friends. And we grew up.”

Finding out that James is his biological father brings Huck a measure of relief. This revelation illuminates to Huck why the man he had thought was his father hated him so much. Early on, Huck tells James that, if all his wishes could come true, “I’d wish dat you was free like me.”

Huck is puzzled about how to treat his newfound identity. “Am I a slave?” he asks James, who replies, “You can be white or black. Nobody will question you.” James is aware that he has placed a heavy burden on Huck, who angrily points out that the entire time they have known each other, James has been lying to him. James does not contest that accusation, but he believes it was justified to share the truth with Huck only after their friendship had deepened. “I needed for him to have a choice,” James tells himself.

Once their father-son relationship is established, the overriding question for James and Huck becomes: what next? Time is not on James’s side. There is a reward out for his capture, and he needs to rescue his wife and daughter as soon as possible. Huck realizes that James’s needs are greater than his, so he offers to help him. “You need me,” Huck reminds James, who, as long as he is with Huck, has the freedom to move around in the guise of a slave serving his young master.

Everett’s novel concludes with James rescuing his wife and daughter. In contrast to Huckleberry Finn, which takes place in the 1830s and 1840s, James is set around the outbreak of the Civil War. As a result, when James and his family escape to the North, they do not have to fear the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave owners to reclaim their runaway slaves as their property. James’s rescue of his family is not easy, however. He draws solace from a make-believe conversation with John Locke, who tells James, “Imagine it all as a state of war. You have been conquered, and so long as the war continues, you shall be a slave.”

While rescuing his family, James kills two men and confronts Judge Thatcher, who turns out to be very different from Twain’s avuncular figure. As James tells the judge, “I can’t feed your fantasy that you’re a good, kind master. No matter how gentle you were when you applied the whip, no matter how much compassion you showed when you raped.”

James and his family finally arrive safely in a small town in Iowa. When the local sheriff asks James to identify himself, he refuses to give the sheriff a last name, replying, “Just James”—the novel’s concluding words. In his public self-naming, James follows an American literary tradition that includes Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz.

Everett’s book does not invite a they-lived-happily-ever-after conclusion. James observes that some of the slaves he helped rescue while freeing his wife and child would be killed, and some would probably return to the South in defeat. James does not mention what will become of Huck. We don’t know if Huck will be content to pass as white or if he will find a way to reconnect with James.

Whether James’s family will have to build a new life in Iowa on their own remains unclear. In his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass pointedly describes the help he received—first in New York, then in New Bedford, Massachusetts—restarting his life after he escaped slavery and reached the North. No such help occurs in James. In this pessimistic view of America, James is very much a novel of the present moment, in which legal measures that were once regarded as essential components of racial justice, from voting rights to affirmative action, are being dismantled.

When a biracial friend of James who could pass as white explains his decision to remain Black by saying, “I don’t want to be white. I don’t want to be one of them,” James is filled with admiration for his friend. This decision combines integrity and defiance in equal measure, asserting that the battle for racial justice in America has no end in sight.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.