Was Huck Black?

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 429 words.)