Joe, you and Terrell Dempsey and John Davis make many great points about the
history and the scholarship about the history, but I'd like to elaborate a
little on the excellent points you bring up about the novel itself.
Jim's original plan IS to cross over to the Illinois side. He knows that if
he keeps "tryin' to get away afoot, de dogs 'ud track" him; and if he stole
a skiff, the owners would be after him, so he tells Huck that he decided on
a raft, which he wants to ride on until about "fo' in de mawnin'" so he'd be
"twenty-five mile down de river" and then "slip in, jis' b'fo' daylight, en
swim asho' en take to de woods on de Illinois side" (Ch. 8, 53-54). As Joe
points out, Jim clearly is thinking about pursuit.
Why 25 miles downriver? As he's been hiding, Jim has heard devastating
news. A rich local white boy has just been killed (they all think) in the
Illinois woods a few miles upriver--and a slave disappears on the same
night. The slave is likely to be blamed for the death, particularly one who
was known to be associated with the family of the missing boy. The
townspeople are likely to lynch first and ask questions later.
(Historically, some Missouri slaves did violently attack their owner or
owners' families, and this possibility would be something the townspeople
would think of immediately--as they do: the townspeople are convinced it's
either pap or Jim; Huck's faked robbery fools no one.)
But Jim doesn't make it twenty-five miles, and he is forced to take refuge
on Jackson's Island, just a few miles downriver--not far enough to escape
slave catchers or people hunting Huck's murderer.
Jim's in trouble and he knows it. He decides to trust Huck as far as he
can. When Huck finds out from Judith Loftus that there is a price on Jim's
head--$300, as opposed to the $200 for pap-- what choice does Jim have,
really? People will be looking all over Missouri, Iowa and Illinois for
him, as runaway and scapegoat for a murder he now knows was never committed.
And again, as Joe points out, it even turns out that pap gets money from the
Judge to go hunt Huck's killers --in Illinois--though I'm not sure that he
drinks all the money. Pap has a good instinct and he knows he's a suspect:
he'd be happy to pin it on Jim in order to get out from under suspicion
himself. Clearing himself is the only way he'll ever see Huck's money.
Incidentally, this is another reason for Jim to stick to Huck like glue,
isn't it? Huck's own presence is Jim's only proof that the boy is alive.
Huck literally stands between Jim and execution or lynching, if caught.
It is only AFTER Judith Loftus gives Huck this information that Jim works to
make the raft a home, a suitable craft for a long journey, not just for a
hop downriver aways . It's a scene I'd like to see done well in a movie--it
haunts me, the way Jim so carefully makes the raft fragment a home. I can
see his hopes and dreams ebb and flow with each improvement he makes to the
raft, wondering if he'll ever have a home again, if he'll ever live to see
his wife or children again. I hope Spike Lee makes that movie and doesn't
neglect this scene.
Jim is a man trapped by the bad luck that he chose to escape the same night
Huck did. He's completely hemmed in by that circumstance. He's got to go
with the boy, a boy he likes, but can't fully trust, a boy who has his own
agenda but who came back to warn him, yet still a white boy who might
ingenuously reveal Jim's whereabouts before he realized what he was doing.
The question for me is not why did Jim go downriver, but what other choice
did he really have? I mean, aside from killing Huck in earnest. He can't
afford to let him go. And Jim is too caring and decent to murder. So what
choice does he have?