31 Days of Stories, Day 26: “Rivers” by John Keene

From Counternarratives

Mark Twain’s 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a foundational text in American literature. It has been read, dissected, discussed, and disparaged more intensely than pretty much any other work of American fiction. No less a literary lion than Ernest Hemingway was moved to declare, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Almost from the moment it was published, the novel has also been a lightning rod for controversy. Notwithstanding its perennial appearance on high school reading lists, it retains its status as one of the most frequently banned novels in the canon. It has been alternately castigated as racist and celebrated as a subversive critique of racism. In 1996, the novelist Jane Smiley published an article in Harper’s magazine called “Say It Ain’t So, Huck,” which sought in part to dismantle the latter stance: “The sort of meretricious critical reasoning that has raised Huck’s paltry good intentions to a ‘strategy of subversion’ (David L. Smith) and a ‘convincing indictment of slavery’ (Eliot) precisely mirrors the same sort of meretricious reasoning that white people use to convince themselves they are not ‘racist.’”

In 2011, NewSouth Books released its own controversial edition of the text, with the offensive epithets “nigger” and “injun” expunged. The revised version was an attempt to make Twain’s novel palatable to the sensibilities of modern readers, according to the editor, Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. Gribben told the Guardian at the time, “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”

Missouri-born author and academic John Keene takes a different approach to Twain’s novel. Instead of altering the original text, Keene augments it by writing a story that takes the form of a postscript to Huckleberry Finn. “Rivers,” which was included in Keene’s extraordinary 2015 collection Counternarratives, is set several decades after the events of Twain’s novel and told from the perspective of Jim Watson – now James Alton Rivers – the runaway slave who famously served as Huck’s rafting companion along the Mississippi.

Applying the name “Rivers” to the character is one of Keene’s central acts of subversion, since it explicitly recalls the earlier novel, though in Keene’s story, the protagonist explains the name as an acknowledgement of the several bodies of water he had to traverse in order to gain his freedom. (Alton, he says, is “the town where I first breathed real liberty.”) As an allusive echo, the name also recalls Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: “I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. // My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Keene, likewise, has made effort to deepen the reader’s understanding of Jim’s soul beyond the comic caricature in Twain’s novel, giving him real psychological depth and a complete backstory.

One need only note the different pitches of language the two authors employ to understand how much more incisive Keene’s portrait is. Twain has Jim speak in a rural dialect that renders him a source of laughter, as does his recourse to unscientific superstition and melodrama: “Doan’ hurt me – don’t! I hain’t ever done no harm to a ghos’. I awluz liked dead people, en done all I could for ’em.” By contrast, here is Keene’s version of the character, recalling an incident that befell him in the time after his owner, Miss Watson, died and he was freed as a condition of her will:

One night when I was waist-deep in the water I had to remind a white patrolman strolling the levee I was emancipated and showed him my papers which I kept in a waterproof metal locket that hung around my neck, though they were also on file down in the main courthouse of Marion County, Missouri, and he said he ought to lock me up just for talking so freely, like I was equal to a white person, but since I had belonged to the late Miss Watson, God Rest Her Soul, he would let me go, which I knew well enough to nod to, before I crept carefully back to my little room in the black section of town, and resolved even more to flee.

Notwithstanding the greater eloquence and dignity Keene affords his character, there is nevertheless the constant menace at the hands of the white constabulary, the constant fear that regardless of his legal standing, he might be summarily apprehended and returned to slavery should he make one wrong gesture or comment. (There is a clear resonance with the plight of young Black men in 21st century America who must adopt the same kind of potentially life-saving deference when confronted by police or other state figures.)

A further act of narrative subversion involves the structure Keene gives his story. Rivers sits for an interview with a journalist, putatively to discuss his involvement with the Union army, in which he enlisted despite being in his late forties. But it is immediately clear that what the reporter really wants to hear about is the former slave’s experience with Huck and Tom Sawyer. Rivers takes umbrage at the idea that his military exploits in the cause of Black emancipation are of less interest than his connection with two white boys made “briefly famous” by “that writer … from Hannibal.” Invoking a classical rhetorical strategy, Rivers assures us, “I ain’t about to devote a minute to those sense-defying events of forty years before,” then proceeds to do precisely that.

He recalls an encounter on the street with Huck and Tom, now in their twenties, in which the two treat him with condescension and arrogance, with Huck the lesser culprit once again. Indeed, it becomes apparent that Tom has graduated from his boyish hijinks to become a full-fledged white nationalist. “You better watch yourself, Jim, you hear me?” Tom says. “Good thing we know you but you walking these streets like they belong to you, and they don’t to no nigger, no matter what some of you might think these days, so you watch it, cause the time’ll come when even the good people like me and Huck here have had enough.” (These words, too, have frighteningly contemporary resonance in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville atrocities.)

In an assessment of Counternarratives for the Kenyon Review, the critic Daniel Green cites Tom’s progression to white supremacism as “predictable,” arising out of his youth as a “white boy whose freedom is predicated on the unfreedom of others.” Green suggests that the prevailing counternarrative here isn’t the depiction of Tom and Huck per se, which is an understandable extrapolation from what we know about the characters in Twain’s novels. “What Keene does counter,” Green writes, “is the popular perception of Tom Sawyer as the prototypical American boy, offering instead a glimpse at what American ‘innocence’ can seamlessly become.” In other words, Keene offers a cogent rejoinder to the oft-cited bromide “boys will be boys,” and a dire warning about the roots of extremism.

Even Huck, though the less virulent and mean of the two, is not immune to this kind of poisoning. The final encounter between Huck and Rivers occurs on the battlefield, where Huck is fighting on the side of the Confederacy. Though Keene does not provide an explicit description of what happens when the two confront one another with guns drawn, it is clear from the story’s framing device that Rivers has survived to tell his tale to the journalist. History tells us which of the two characters fought on the winning side of that war, though the present day resonances in Keene’s tale also sound a cautionary note about the ongoing racial strife that continues to tear at the American fabric. What Keene has provided in “Rivers” is a counternarrative to Twain, a reclamation of Jim Watson’s voice and dignity, and an alternate version of the consequences that accrue to lighting out for the territory.

31 Days of Stories, Day 26: “Rivers” by John Keene
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