Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices

Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices

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by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

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Published in 1884, Huck Finn has become one of the most widely taught novels in American curricula. But where did Huckleberry Finn come from, and what made it so distinctive? Shelley Fisher Fishkin suggests that in Huckleberry Finn, more than in any other work, Mark Twain let African-American voices, language, and rhetorical traditions


Published in 1884, Huck Finn has become one of the most widely taught novels in American curricula. But where did Huckleberry Finn come from, and what made it so distinctive? Shelley Fisher Fishkin suggests that in Huckleberry Finn, more than in any other work, Mark Twain let African-American voices, language, and rhetorical traditions play a major role in the creation of his art. In Was Huck Black?, Fishkin combines close readings of published and unpublished writing by Twain with intensive biographical and historical research and insights gleaned from linguistics, literary theory, and folklore to shed new light on the role African-American speech played in the genesis of Huckleberry Finn. Given that book's importance in American culture, her analysis illuminates, as well, how the voices of African-Americans have shaped our sense of what is distinctively "American" about American literature. Fishkin shows that Mark Twain was surrounded, throughout his life, by richly talented African-American speakers whose rhetorical gifts Twain admired candidly and profusely. A black child named Jimmy whom Twain called "the most artless, sociable and exhaustless talker I ever came across" helped Twain understand the potential of a vernacular narrator in the years before he began writing Huckleberry Finn, and served as a model for the voice with which Twain would transform American literature. A slave named Jerry whom Twain referred to as an "impudent and satirical and delightful young black man" taught Twain about "signifying"--satire in an African-American vein--when Twain was a teenager (later Twain would recall that he thought him "the greatest man in the United States" at the time). Other African-American voices left their mark on Twain's imagination as well--but their role in the creation of his art has never been recognized. Was Huck Black? adds a new dimension to current debates over multiculturalism and the canon. American literary historians have told a largely segregated story: white writers come from white literary ancestors, black writers from black ones. The truth is more complicated and more interesting. While African-American culture shaped Huckleberry Finn, that novel, in turn, helped shape African-American writing in the twentieth century. As Ralph Ellison commented in an interview with Fishkin, Twain "made it possible for many of us to find our own voices." Was Huck Black? dramatizes the crucial role of black voices in Twain's art, and takes the first steps beyond traditional cultural boundaries to unveil an American literary heritage that is infinitely richer and more complex than we had thought.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Elaborating on a thesis that made news last summer, Fishkin, professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, convincingly argues that Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was influenced by African American voices. Mixing historical and literary research with close analysis of Twain's writings, Fishkin cites a newly discovered 1874 article by Twain that describes his encounter with a black child whose voice was later echoed by Huck; she also assesses the impact of his childhood friendship with a ``signifying'' slave named Jerry. Fishkin suggests Twain's blending of black and white voices was unconscious and maintains that his portrayal of ``nigger'' Jim was more subversive than racist. Though the book seems mainly aimed at academics, it also considers the question of whether Huckleberry Finn should be taught in high school. Black students might now more easily identify with Huck, Fishkin states, but the major African American figure remains the minstrel-voiced Jim. Therefore, she suggests that teachers also expose students to more powerful black voices, such as those of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Here is that rarity in criticism, a monograph almost sure to be definitive. Fishkin (American studies, Univ. of Texas, Austin) argues compellingly that an 1874 sketch by Mark Twain, about the black ten-year-old ``Sociable Jimmy,'' served as the model for Huck Finn's African American-rooted dialect--along with ``A True Story'' (1874), based on a tale by an ex-slave, Mary Ann Cord. There was also a slave Twain knew in boyhood, Jerry, who taught him the African American art of ``signifying'' satire. Twain's genius with vernacular has always been acknowledged, but Fishkin shows, with formidable scholarship, how black speech (and life) influenced white culture and how, in American literature, the Twain do indeed meet. Recommended for informed readers and scholars. For a perspective on Twain's humor, see Mark Twain's Critical Humor , reviewed below.--Ed.-- Kenneth Mintz, Hoboken P.L., N.J.
Martha Schoolman
The author's central claim, which received so much fanfare in the academic world and even in the popular press last summer, is that Twain's character Huck Finn was based in part on a black child. Fishkin bases her argument on the speech similarities between Huck and "Sociable Jimmy," whose conversation Twain recorded in a 1874 "New York Times" article. Her evidence is thoroughly and impressively presented; but what may make the book more truly revolutionary are the ways in which she proves the impact of African American culture on Twain and on mainstream American literature in general. In doing so, Fishkin explicitly takes up the challenge to critics to seek out such influences issued by novelist Toni Morrison in her 1992 book "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination". Fishkin takes discussion of what is commonly viewed as the first great American novel beyond debate over whether Twain was a "racist" to a more subtle and fruitful discussion of the interdependence of black and white artistic production.
Tony Tanner
Fishkin's claim is strong and simple…and, as far as I am concerned, she is right…She brings the material together with lucidity, elegance, and non-polemical judiciousness and poise.
London Review of Books
Eric J. Sundquist
Will force a real examination of the very premises on which critics base the origins and racial composition of American literature.
Newsday (New York)
Malcolm Bradbury
Constructs an admirable case for the cultural complexity, not just of Twain, but of American literature.
The Independent (London)

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What People are saying about this

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
A dazziling and highly persuasive bit of detective work.
Arnold Rampersad
Arnold Rampersad, Princeton University
A major step in the emerging interplay between black and white culture in the United States.
Louis J. Budd
Louis J. Budd, Duke University
Original and innovative, important, thoroughly researched, and engagingly written.
David Bradley
David Bradley, Temple University
She has done a Sampson thing on the whole damn church.

Meet the Author

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the award-winning book From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America. Her essays and reviews on American literature, American Studies, and issues of race and gender have appeared in publications including The New York Times, American Literature, American Literary History, and the Journal of American History. Professor Fishkin, who has lectured on her work in England, Israel, Europe, Mexico, and across the United States, was a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, 1992-1993.

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Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why is there a book for that