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

And true enough, these are to be found in Huck’s famous closing statement: ‘if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory.’

Professor Fishkin knows perfectly well that she is moving in the realm of ‘conjecture’ and ‘surmise’ and is ever scrupulous – with her ‘quite possibly’s, ‘perhaps’s, ‘may have been’s – not to overstate the nature of her case. As far as I am concerned, the only test when offered such a conjecture is: is it interesting and plausible? The answer in this case is: yes on both counts. I am also perfectly ready to believe that Mark Twain met a black lad named Jimmy (some seem to have doubted his existence), and tried to transcribe that talk which was such a revelation to him. But, just because the child was black, how can we be sure that what he was speaking should be called ‘African American’? I have no doubt that Mark Twain was profoundly influenced, even enthralled, by the black voices which would have surrounded him during his formative years. It was so for every white Southern child. The evidence for this is copious. Both Fishkin and Piersen give examples; and one will do here, from W.J. Cash’s famous The Mind of the South: ‘in this society ... in which nearly the whole body of whites, young and old, had constantly before their eyes the example, had constantly in their ears the accent of the Negro, the relationship between the two groups was, by the second generation at least, nothing less than organic. Negro entered into white man as profoundly as white man entered into Negro.’ I have italicised those last words because this is part of the equation which is sometimes forgotten, certainly played down, in much contemporary debate in this field. The danger is of asserting what used to be called a ‘one-way determinism’ (‘negro entered into white man’) and in all matters concerning social and cultural influences, one-way determinisms are highly dubious. I believe in Jimmy, and in his voice; but I do not begin to see how one could ascertain, never mind demonstrate, that the constitutive uniqueness of that voice should be called African.

Mark Twain himself maintained that Huck Finn was based on a lad called Tom Blankenship, a poor-white outcast son of the town drunk of Hannibal. This opens up various possibilities. Perhaps Tom talked like Jimmy, or, indeed, Jimmy talked like Tom – we can never know. Perhaps Twain unconsciously drew on his memories of Jimmy’s voice when he handed the narrative over to Huck. Or perhaps he was covering his tracks. It had proved indecorous, even shocking, to introduce an illiterate white child narrator into American literature (‘very coarse ... veriest trash ... very low grade of morality ... rough, ignorant dialect’ huffed and puffed the Concord Public Library in 1885, when it banned Huckleberry Finn). Perhaps Mark Twain was, in his ambivalent way, too much of an aspirant to gentility or genteel acceptance to confess that the child’s voice was, basically, black. Or perhaps – and even Fishkin would have to admit this as a possibility – Jimmy played no special role in whatever private alchemy produced Huckleberry Finn.

But it is certain and verifiable that Twain had a special feeling for black people. As a child he preferred his ‘darkey playmates’, and as an adult he not only employed and befriended them (his wife advised him to ‘treat everyone you meet as black until they are proved white’), he financially helped a number of black students to pursue further education. The rest of Professor Fishkin’s book goes over Mark Twain’s relations with, interest in and possible debts to black people (not just in his writing: one of his black servants, John Lewes, risked his life to save some members of Twain’s family from certain death – an altruism also exhibited by Jim in Huckleberry Finn). A lot of this material is familiar, as Professor Fishkin most scrupulously acknowledges and details (there are some 100 pages of notes and bibliography to 140 pages of text), but she brings the material together with lucidity, elegance and a non-polemical judiciousness and poise. The teaching and study of American literature has tended to segregate white writers and influences from black, and Professor Fishkin is one of those who has, laudably, made it her mission to persuade us ‘to acknowledge the very mixed literary bloodlines on both sides’.

She nicely concludes with Huck’s slight grumble about the food served by the Widow Douglas: ‘everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.’ In the context, Huck is, as so often, saying far more than he could ever realise.

‘What would happen if we shifted our normal perspective so as to make our nation’s black legacy a primary point of reference?’ That is Professor Piersen’s point of departure in Black Legacy. He contends that ‘in a debate over the meaning of cultural diversity and national history, putting the “Afro” back into America does make a difference.’ He works from the assumption – an assumption which he seems to concede is at least hazardous – that, despite ‘difficulties’, when the slaves were brought over ‘the African cultural heritage was not destroyed, that aspects of Africa did survive in America, at least in generalised form, and that African-American culture not only stood up to the challenge of the white world but sometimes changed the ways that whites themselves lived.’ Professor Piersen wants to redress a balance, and right what he sees as a wrong. He admits that he may be overstating his case, and recognises that some readers ‘will suspect that in my chapters on African cultural influences I go overboard, overlooking possible European precedents while overemphasising potential African ones.’ Professor Piersen’s motives are generous, and his intentions are honourable. Though overboard is certainly where he goes.

‘Unlike emigrants from Europe and Asia, who were most often the flotsam and jetsam of their homelands, Africa’s forced migrants were not the “teeming refuse” of their native shores; instead, many of the enslaved Africans were a true people of class – a reality almost antithetical to the stereotyping of slaves as simple “black folk”.’ I have no doubt that, if you insist on thinking in terms of ‘flotsam and jetsam’, you could fairly say that Europe, not to mention Asia, shipped a lot of inferior human material to America. But to deem the transported slaves ‘America’s only royal immigrants’; to suggest that ‘by now a majority of black Americans may have the blue blood of African royalty and aristocracy in their veins’; to assert that ‘when compared to European Americans with their middling and lower ancestry, Americans of African heritage truly are a noble people’ – all this is not only to indulge in an inverted romantic snobbery (and what is a good American doing genuflecting to the notions of ‘class’, ‘ancestry’ and ‘blue blood’?), it is to invite ridicule on the author and risk derision for his subject. No doubt there were many Africans styled as kings, chiefs and nobles in their own villages who ended up in America, and no doubt many of them brought their dignity and bearing with them; but to suggest that many slaves ‘continued to feel the innate superiority of their inherited status and élite upbringing’ strikes me as something between a fantasy and a mockery.

Southern speech patterns; manners (the famous Southern honour and politeness and grace); the best of Southern cooking, medicine, music, work habits, religious style – all out of Africa. Mardi Gras was thought to have old European carnival origins, but ‘without African-American history the essence of Mardi Gras simply cannot be understood correctly. It is that way with much of American history.’ Perhaps most astonishing is the suggestion that the costumes and practices of the Ku Klux Klan can be traced back to those of African secret societies: ‘such was the pervasive power of African-American culture that even a racist organisation designed to protect white civilisation paradoxically had to become African American to be effective.’ Well!

Despite all this, the book contains some fascinating material drawn from a variety of sources – folk tales, legends, oral histories – and, like Fishkin, Piersen wants to insist that ‘whatever American culture is, it is a blending, a blending in which the Afro is an essential part.’ But in stressing only ‘black to white acculturation’, he risks gravely weakening his case.

Kenneth Warren’s Black and White Strangers is an altogether subtler exercise. The motivating question of his inquiry is ‘the story of African Americans from emancipation through the turn of the century ... a story of social intolerance and violent suppression of difference and perceived disorder. Is there a way to locate the realistic novel in that story without assuming realism’s general complicity with, or inherent opposition to either the initial efforts to make freedom real for American freedmen or the nation’s acquiescence to the white “Redemption” of the South and ultimately to the “separate but equal” decision handed down by the US Supreme Court in 1896?’

There has been a long debate concerning how truly adversarial literary realism can be, and to what extent it is ultimately complicit with the society it seems to expose and criticise. Indeed, as Warren points out, there are theorists who question the capacity of any literary form to sustain an oppositional politics (‘The only relation literature as such has to culture as such is that it is part of it,’ wrote Walter Benn Michaels). Warren picks his way through the thickets of this debate with great poise and an ever-alert tact (the book is notable for its patient discriminations, painstaking thinking and nuanced formulations). Like Fishkin and Piersen, Warren is writing against doomed attempts at cultural segregation. ‘Staring across the void of American identity, African and European Americans have been constructing themselves and each other, each side trying to lay claim to an unchallenged cultural legacy and each failing (to paraphrase Twain) to prove unambiguous title. As each side strives to construct a sui generis account of its own heritage, the Other insists upon emerging in unexpected and embarrassing places.’ You won’t catch Warren being seduced by one-way determinisms!

An African-American, Warren has decided to address the work of two major white ‘realists’ – Henry James and William Dean Howells. He does this hoping ‘to reveal that concerns about “race” may structure our American texts, even when those texts are not “about” race in any substantive manner’. He is hearkening to Toni Morrison’s call for an ‘examination and reinterpretation of the American canon, the founding 19th-century works, for the “unspeakable things unspoken”; for the ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure – the meaning of so much American literature. A search, in other words, for the ghost in the machine.’ This enterprise is not without its procedural dangers. When you license yourself to prove that something is there precisely because it is nowhere referred to, allow yourself to infer a presence from an absence, you open up a potentially limitless field in which conjecture may roam unconstrained. But slavery and its aftermath were so occluded from 19th-century American literature that the enterprise, conducted with all necessary tact, can be justified. (When Whitman published Drum-Taps, his sequence of poems about the Civil War, in 1865, there was literally nothing in the sequence to indicate that slavery was the primary cause and issue of war – nothing, indeed, to indicate that such a being as a slave existed. And when he added a poem which does mention the topic – ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colors’ – it was, it has to be said, a mighty strange one, beginning ‘Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human’.) Warren’s arguments are not always clear (we might wonder, for example, how ‘the social markings of race become crucial’ in The portrait of a Lady), but he does possess intelligence and tact.

He clearly admires and takes pleasure in his chosen texts, but nevertheless argues that ‘James’s work, and that of the realists in general, assisted in the creation of a climate of opinion that undermined the North’s capacity to resist Southern arguments against political equality for African Americans during the 1880s and 1890s through its conflicted participation in discussions about the American social order.’ Summarised very simply, that ‘conflicted participation’ involves the perennial struggle for the realist between the commitment to the aesthetic and the obligation to the political. Art must ‘make friends with Need’, said Howells; ‘Realism is the tool of the democratic spirit’, said Perry. So surely democratic realism should fight for the rights of the emancipated black who was, throughout this period, being effectively re-enslaved by a cynical South and an ultimately unprotesting North. Well, politically it did speak out for political equality; but aesthetically, having to make compromises with gentility, it could not countenance social equality. Blacks in the voting booth, yes; blacks in the drawing room, no – or not yet.

Unreproachfully, indeed almost sympathetically, Warren demonstrates how ‘difficult’ it was for the realists ‘to reconcile African-American needs with the art of the real’. Warren cites An Imperative Duty by Howells, in which Rhoda, discovering her black ancestry, wonders whether she should go down South and help to educate her people. These sentiments are made to appear humorous, even ridiculous, for the realist will always satirise romantic idealism. Howells the artist always did. Yet Howells the citizen was a founding and committed member of the NAACP. As Warren amply shows, writers who were ‘friends of racial egalitarianism’ were, in their work, often ‘checkmated by their ambivalences’.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin brings the issues into sharp focus. For the realist writers it was, as Warren shows, ‘an inspiration and a problem’. It had clearly had an enormous political and social impact on behalf of the black cause, and was thus to be admired; but it was distressingly sentimental, and thus to be deprecated: ‘the definition of the realistic novel as an instrument for altering social relations could not include an embrace of a sentimental aesthetic’. In attacking ‘sentimentality’ realist writers were often undermining causes they would elsewhere espouse. Critical, in this instance, was the ‘identification of sentimentalism with the figure of the New England female reformer.’ Her idealism was always, in the name of realism, to be mocked or discredited. Yet Warren quotes Du Bois to very telling effect. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois called the New England effort to educate the freed blacks ‘the finest thing in American history ... the women ... did their work well. In that first year they taught one hundred thousand souls and more.’ Do-gooders sometimes do do good. (Warren juxtaposes The Souls of Black Folk with Henry James’s The American Scene to very good effect.)

Meanwhile, the realist novelist retreated from social intervention into ‘high art’ and concentrated on eliminating the sentimental. This led to an unholy, if unintended, alliance. The Southern writers, busily sentimentalising the South into sympathetic victim status, ferociously attacked those women coming from the North to educate the emancipated blacks. The result was a ‘convergence of Northern realistic and Southern critique of the female reformer’. Small credit to either. By the end, one has to allow Professor Warren his conclusion: that ‘the realistic novel not only helped discredit the abolitionist legacy, but also conceded the central argument that social discrimination was unavoidable’. But, no matter what the detectable evasions, compromises and pusillanimities of the realist novel might be, Warren aims at nothing like a total indictment since he can appreciate its very considerable achievements. Taking a characteristically moderate line, he says, ‘one must take care neither to exaggerate nor to deprecate the effects of the novel as a force for political and social change.’