It has long been taken for granted that Mark Twain’s model for Huck Finn was Tom Blankenship, the poor white outcast boy named as such by Twain himself. Twain, however, never revealed any particular interest in the way this boy talked—yet it is Huck’s voice, along with his good-hearted innocence, which makes him distinctive and which is responsible, to a large degree, for the status of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN as not merely a classic but the most influential work of American fiction ever written. In this book Fishkin has identified, and documented beyond any reasonable doubt, two major black sources: one for Huck’s voice, the other for Twain’s satire.
Both have long been available to a literary establishment too unthinkingly committed to the conventional view of Twain’smasterpiece—as a white novel with some black characters in it—to take any notice. In “Sociable Jimmy,” an essay published in the NEW YORK TIMES in 1874, Twain recorded the speech of a young black boy whom he had met on a lecture tour and whose artless talk had enthralled him. In his speech patterns and diction, his character and typical topics of conversation, Jimmy so closely resembles Huck that, with some trivial changes in dialect, whole passages from the essay could be dropped into the novel without seeming out of place.
The source for Twain’s satire, a young slave named Jerry, was admired by Twain (as revealed in his 1901 essay...
Published by an elite scholarly press, Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices contains a hundred pages of notes and bibliography. The author’s decision to write primarily for her academic colleagues is regrettable insofar as it limits her total readership. The desirable audience for Was Huck Black? consists of everyone who has read or attempted to read Mark Twain’s novel as more than a boys’ adventure story; everyone interested in American literary culture; and everyone interested in American society as a whole. This is to say that Was Huck Black? is an extraordinarily important book, potentially a catalyst for profound change. If enough English teachers at all levels read it and strove to meet the author’s challenge, American literature would never be taught-and thus the history of this country would never be seen-in quite the same way again.
The forthright question that makes up the title is in itself a strong challenge to a literary establishment desperately in need of one. “No one would attempt to write a segregated history of American music,” Shelley Fisher Fishkin suggests, “but the history of American literature has, for the most part, been a segregated enterprise:
white writers come from white literary ancestors, black writers from black ones.” She goes on to quote David Bradley, a respected black writer and critic as saying (in 1989) that “American criticism today remains both segregationist and racist.” A glance at the hiring policies and the course offerings of almost any college English department bears him out. Despite the surge of intetest at many universities in multiculturalism, English-department positions are typically reserved for blacks not out of any deeply felt need but to meet affirmative action reqm.rements. Such positions tend to call for a background in African American literature, which is then taught in a separate course; meanwhile, the department as a whole goes on teaching its mainstream courses: white authors from the traditional canon, with an occasional token novel by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison thrown in.
It is in its view of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) as a white novel containing some black characters, however, that the white literary establishment most clearly condemns itself. That the book is the most influential in all of American literature-gospel promulgated by such famous writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner-is simply received truth. In particular, critics admire Twain’s telling the story in Huck’s own words, a stunningly original narrative approach that “validated the authority of vernacular culture” and “staked out a vast new territory of American experience as the stuff from which one could fashion ‘art.’” That vernacular voice, along with Twain’s use of its innocence as a devastating vehicle for satire, has been the subject of thousands of critical and scholarly studies. Yet when the famous black writer Ralph Ellison wrote in 1970 that “‘the black man [was] a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence,’ his comment sank like a stone, leaving barely a ripple on the placid surface of American literary criticism.” “Sociable Jimmy,” the 1874 essay by Twain which Fishkin uses to demonstrate conclusively the black source of Huck Finn’s voice, was reprinted in 1943 and again in 1974; presumably because of the blinding effect of “the reigning assumption that mainstream literary culture in America is certifiably ‘white,’ “ nobody noticed.
Twain himself may not have been fully aware of the debt he owed to his black sources. At any rate, he never publicly acknowledged them, perhaps because to do so would have laid him open to painful criticism: Huckleberry Finn itself, as Fishkin points out, received a mostly negative response due largely to Twain’s audacity in telling it in Huck’s words. Among the many salutary features of Was Huck Black ?/—an important one-is its author’s honesty: Never, in pursuit of her thesis, does she present Twain as more or other than he was. In his racial attitudes he was clearly of his time as well as far beyond it, and he was intensely concerned with his reputation as a man of letters. Thus it was Tom Blankenship, “a poor-white outcast child Twain remembered” from his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, whom he named as the model for Huck.
For Huck as he appears in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a boys’ book with conventional authorial language providing distance and respectability, Tom Blankenship seems a sufficient and plausible source. Yet what makes Huck remarkable in his own book, as many critics have remarked, is not his position in society so much as his voice-and Twain, as Fishkin remarks, “never suggested that there was anything memorable about the nature of [Tom Blankenship’s] ’talk.’ “ It was another child, of a different race, whose talk...