Scholar concludes that young black was model for Huck Finn's voice

July 07, 1992|By Anthony DePalma | Anthony DePalma,New York Times News Service

You don't know about this without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"; but that ain't no matter. Mr. Mark Twain wrote it and he got considerable praise for using a boy's voice to tell a tangled story about race and about America and nobody kin say for sure where that voice come from.

Now a Twain scholar has linked Huck's voice to a 10-year-old black servant Twain met just before starting work on the book. Twain described the boy in an article in the New York Times in 1874 as "the most artless, sociable and exhaust less talker I ever came across."

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Texas, shows that the speech patterns of the black boy, whom Twain calls Jimmy, and of Huck Finn are similar and in some ways identical.

But more important, given that the entire book is told by Huck, she shows how both voices mixed sassiness with satire, a point of view that helped make Twain's book an important American novel.

"For Professor Fishkin to come up with this," said T. Walter Herbert, a professor of English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and a specialist on 19th-century authors, "does not refute Hemingway's line that 'All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called "Huckleberry Finn.' " It simply complicates and enriches that claim."

Uncovering African-American roots of Twain's art could lead to a reconsideration of the author and his most important work, which has been banned in some places because of its attitudes and language.

Twain's defenders have always argued that Huck's language was satiric, meant to expose his late 19th-century audience to its own hypocrisy and intolerance.

Tracing Huck's voice to a black source could also change the way the book is taught and revise the debate over multiculturalism that often pits standard works by white authors like Twain against works from other cultures.

"This shows a real black root in a white consciousness," said David E. E. Sloane, a professor of English at the University of New Haven.

Ms. Fishkin lays out her theory in a book to be published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, "Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices."

Scholars who have read the manuscript, which the publisher has been circulating to independent scholars for review, see it as a major addition to the understanding of a central work of American letters.

"The significance is that it reveals that even for creators of high American culture, such as Mark Twain, black vernacular culture held a tremendous fascination and contained a wealth of artistic potential to be mined," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W. E. B. DuBois professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, and a scholar in the way 19th-century blacks, especially slaves, used words to convey multiple meanings.

The heart of her argument rests with "Sociable Jimmy," on page 7 of a 12-page issue of the New York Times on Sunday, Nov. 29, 1874.

In his introduction to the article, Twain's first published work dominated by the voice of a child, he said he had met Jimmy in "a certain little village," now believed to have been in Illinois or Indiana, and had been enthralled by the boy's unpretentious performance.

"He did not tell me a single remarkable thing, or one that was worth remembering," Twain wrote, "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."

That revelation, says Ms. Fishkin, helped reconnect Twain to the cadences of black speakers in his own childhood and his days on Mississippi steamboats.

"Jimmy allows him to liberate the language that lay buried in Twain's own linguistic repertoire," she said in an interview. "It suggests a very multiracial community that obviously shaped Twain's imagination."

After coming across it in her research for another book on Twain, Ms. Fishkin was struck by Jimmy's voice. She reread "Huckleberry Finn" 20 times and reread "Sociable Jimmy" more often, as well as examining much of Twain's writing for similar clues. She found passages in the article and "Huckleberry Finn" that shared the same linguistic roots.

For example, Huck and Jimmy constantly repeat the same words, make frequent use of present participles, and often make the same mistakes. The two boys often use the same adjectives in place of adverbs. Jimmy says "He's powerful sick." Huck says "I was most powerful thirsty."

"Clearly, Jimmy's speech was ringing in Twain's head as he was writing 'Huckleberry Finn'," she said.

The boys not only talk alike, but are similar in other ways, according to Ms. Fishkin. The only real family each has is "Pa," and both "Pa's" drink too much. The boys are entranced by a particular clock; both consider themselves judges of good taste, and they are comfortable around dead animals, especially dead cats.

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