Voice of America

Tony Tanner

  • Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices by Shelley Fishkin
    Oxford, 270 pp, £17.50, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 508214 1
  • Black Legacy: America’s Hidden Heritage by William Piersen
    Massachusetts, 264 pp, £36.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 87023 854 X
  • Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism by Kenneth Warren
    Chicago, 178 pp, £21.95, August 1993, ISBN 0 226 87384 6

Was Huckleberry Finn black? Of course he wasn’t. By today’s accredited categories he was poor, male, white trash. So what – besides a desire to be arresting – lies behind Professor Fishkin’s clearly tendentious title? Mark Twain, Clifton Fadiman wrote, is ‘our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Virgil, because Huckleberry Finn is the nearest thing we have to a national epic. Just as the Declaration of Independence ... contains in embryo our whole future history as a nation, so the language of Huckleberry Finn (another Declaration of Independence) expresses our popular character, our humour, our slant.’ ‘All modern American literature,’ Hemingway famously announced, ‘comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’ So if, in one sense or another, Huck was black, then it has to follow that American literature, American literature, is, in one sense or another, also black.

What made Huckleberry Finn such a revolutionary book was the fact that it was entirely narrated in the vernacular by an illiterate child from the very bottom of the social scale, or, indeed, right off it. There had been garrulous vernacular characters in literature before, not to mention prattling children, but they were always ‘framed’ in some way by a more authoritative, sophisticated, adult voice. But Huck and his ‘voice’ are allowed complete narrative control (or lack of it). Fishkin readily admits – it is part of her story – that she is not the first person to state that Huck’s voice is, in crucial ways, at least partly black. In 1970, Ralph Ellison claimed ‘the black man [was] a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence ... without the presence of blacks, the book [Huckleberry Finn] could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it.’ But, as Fishkin says, ‘his comment sank like a stone, leaving barely a ripple on the placid surface of American literary criticism.’ It was not allowed to challenge ‘the reigning assumption that mainstream literary culture in America is certifiably “white” ’. (This assumption was certainly operative when I first studied American literature in the late Fifties. There were books by black writers, Washington, Douglass, Du Bois and so on, but they came from another, very regrettable area of American experience – slavery – and thus were in some unspecified way apart from the literary mainstream.) Fishkin renews the claim that ‘Mark Twain helped open American literature to the multicultural polyphony that is its birthright and special strength ... Twain allowed African-American voices to play a major role in the creation of his art.’ What is new in Fishkin’s work is that she believes she has chapter and verse to support her claim.

Her evidence is based on a piece by Mark Twain called ‘Sociable Jimmy’, published in November 1874. Jimmy, Mark Twain claimed, was a ‘bright, simple, guileless little darkey boy’ who served him supper in his room in a hotel in a small Midwest town (probably Paris, Illinois). Jimmy, it appears, talked non-stop, and Twain (who made a point of trying to transcribe as accurately as possible the many dialects and regional accents he encountered) noted: ‘I took down what he had to say, just as he said it – without altering a word or adding one.’ He did this because he ‘wished to preserve the memory of the most artless, sociable and exhaustless talker I ever came across. He did not tell me a single remarkable thing or one that was worth remembering; and yet he was himself so interested in his small marvels, and they flowed so naturally and comfortably from his lips, that his talk got the upper hand of my interest, too, and I listened as one who receives a revelation.’ Fishkin’s claim is strong and simple. ‘I suggest that the voice of Jimmy ... became a model for the voice with which Twain would change the shape of American literature.’

Fishkin helpfully reprints ‘Sociable Jimmy’ in an appendix, and, as far as I am concerned, she is right. For quite a lot of the time, Jimmy does sound like Huck. (It is astonishing, and no doubt revealing, that scholars who have delved into the Mark Twain archives – and that includes me – seem to have overlooked this piece. If for nothing else, Professor Fishkin is to be highly commended on this perceptive act of retrieval.) She then attempts to back up her claim by more detailed exposition of the similarities. Both boys indulge in repetition and tense shifting, use adjectives for adverbs, show an instinctive aversion to violence and cruelty, both seem at home with dead animals. I think much of this is fairly tenuous – with all due respect to Jimmy, such features and characteristics could have come from anywhere. Yet Fishkin strengthens her case by referring to articles written in the 1870s and 1880s on ‘Negro Patois’ or ‘Negro English’. This can hardly count as hard evidence, but some of it is persuasive. There was, for instance, an article by one James Harrison in 1884 on this subject, and under the heading ‘Specimen Negroisms’ he included the following:

Ef I’d a knowed = if I had known
To light out fer = to run for

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