There are at least two reasons why Twain--who was a careful student of
history--would have had Jim take the Mississippi River around to the
Ohio River instead of the land route through Illinois.
As a matter of established fact in the novel, those pursuing Jim simply
expected him to escape to/through Illinois. Remember, in chapter eleven
Mrs. Judith Loftus tells Huck that Pap Finn (who blamed Jim for Huck's
"murder") had appealed "to Judge Thatcher to get money to hunt for the
nigger all over Illinois with." Of course Pap never set out to hunt for
Jim and instead got drunk with the money. My point here is that even Pap
thought an escaped slave would run to Illinois. Loftus, by the way,
along with several of her Illinois neighbors suspect that Jim is in the
neighborhood, too. It's obviously very likely that Jim and Huck
uderstand the danger of running to Illinois.
A second reason for Twain's selection of the the river route is a matter
of historical fact. Illinois of course was a free state. However, many
border states like Illinois, especially in those areas along the border
with slave states like Missouri, were notoriously (and paradoxically)
sympathetic to the property rights of slave owners in slave states. And
even if the residents of free states were not so philosophically
motivated, the prospect of making $200-$400 bounty for returning an
escaped slave to a slave state proved powerful motivation to these
individuals. (Loftus's husband--an Illinois resident--in chapter eleven
is out searching for Jim, we are told, because of a $300 reward.) Where
would you set up business if you were an ambitious individual looking to
make good money as a bounty hunter in the 1840s? Along the border of a
slave state makes a lot of sense doesn't it?
In the end, the escape route Jim and Huck select down the Mississippi
should not be viewed as an "ideal choice" for flight as much as it ought
to be considered a pragmatic reaction to the realities of 1840s
Mississippi River Valley. I might agree that at the surface, the notion
of drifting down the Mississippi to the Ohio seems "ridiculous." But if
one considers further the cultral/historical phenomena of the American
1840s, this particular feature of Twain's plot begins to expose itself
as both logical and practical.
One last word: these two rationales for Jim's escape down the river
(there are several others) are documented fact in academic criticism.
Credentialed historians and literary scholars (who may or may not have
"loved" Twain) have argued these points in numerous books and articles,
all meticulously supported by solid scholarly research. (I happen to
enjoy Twain's work a great deal myself, and I've never really understood
the argument that logic and scholarly objectivity are necessarily
impossible if one possesses affection for one's subject.)
There may or may not be "historical problems" with HF, but Jim's escape
route is not one of them. (With every piece of new information we learn
about Twain and the nineteenth century, however, there seem to be fewer
and fewer cases of "historical problems" with HF!) Sure, many slaves
escaped from Missouri to Illinois, but Jim's escape route is not as
fundamentally "Romantic" as many would have it.
Feel free to write back if you have additional questions. Good luck.
Eastern Michigan University