Q: You referred to one of the main characters in Twain’s novel, the slave Jim. There’s been a lot of controversy about this novel, centered on a debate about Twain’s characterization of Jim. Many call the book "racist." It’s been banned in a lot of schools.

That saddens me. By my reading, Twain’s book is an attack, not only on the institution of slavery, which is represented in a brutal way by the dividing up of Jim’s family, but also an attack on racism per se. A lot of the work of the book, it seems to me, is to sort of radicalize Huck’s consciousness. That is, to make him aware of Jim not as a slave, or a grown-up play partner, or even as a black man, but instead as a human being—and a heroic one, at that. The fact that Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer are capable of tormenting Jim at the end of the novel by keeping him imprisoned to suit their childish whim, is evidence of how difficult it is for anyone, even a free spirit like Huck, to overcome the enormous influence of the "civilized" world.