TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 8 Jun 1996 13:10:33 EDT
text/plain (342 lines)
[N.B.: The following book review was authored by Laura Downing, on whose
behalf I am merely posting it.  This review and previous Forum reviews
are available on the Forum's web page at URL
<> --T.R.]


     Fishkin, Shelley Fisher.  _Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-
     American Voices_.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press,
     1993.  Pp. xiv + 270.  Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
     Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/2".  ISBN 0-19-508214-1.  Paper, 5-1/4" x 8".
     $10.95.  ISBN 0-19-508914-6.

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

          Laura J. Downing <[log in to unmask]>
          Department of Linguistics
          University of Pennsylvania

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

As the dual title of Fishkin's book announces, this work has two related
goals.  The first, more provocative one, is to argue that Huck Finn has
an African-American voice and is modeled on an actual African-American
boy whose story Mark Twain featured in an essay written shortly before
he began writing _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_.  The book argues
further that Twain's satirical style, which informs Huck's narrative
voice, owes much to another actual African-American youth whose
"signifying" entertained Twain in his youth.  The second, less
provocative, goal is to argue that Huck Finn, as an authentic vernacular
American character, necessarily speaks in a voice that incorporates
African-American elements.  And since his adventures are driven by his
decision to join his own quest for freedom with the quest for freedom of
Jim, a runaway slave, the African-American view of polite white society
necessarily informs Huck's narrative.

Since the claim that "Huck is black" is the most original part of the
book, as well as the most provocative, the overall contribution of the
work must ride on how well Fishkin argues this point.  Unfortunately, I
found Fishkin's arguments to be full of holes that undermined the
initial plausibility of the author's thesis.  These arguments also
seemed to sit poorly with the less provocative final chapters of the
book because, confusingly, they seemed to contradict, at least in
spirit, the inclusionist theme of those chapters.  As a result, the book
is an unsatisfying whole, in spite of the importance and appeal of its
larger argument that African-American culture significantly influenced
Twain's style and work.

Fishkin organizes the book around three African-American characters, two
real and one fictional, which she argues are central to understanding
_Huck Finn_.  The first and most important of these characters is
"Sociable Jimmy," a young boy Twain encountered on a lecture tour and
whose story Twain related in an essay of that name (published in the 29
November 1874 _New York Times_).  As Fishkin points out, this story
represents Twain's first use of a child narrator and is also one of his
first experiments in narration in the vernacular.  Since it was written
not long (a couple of years) before Twain began _Huck Finn_, this
piece--and the character who inspired it--can be plausibly argued to
have played a role in the development of Huck's character.  Fishkin,
however, wants to argue more than that, claiming that Huck is, in fact,
more closely modeled on Jimmy than any other individual, and that Huck
is, consequently, an essentially African-American character.

Fishkin's proposal is certainly a daring one.  Huck is identified as a
white person by Twain, and Twain himself only acknowledged white
children as models for Huck.  Further, other critics of the book have
found Huck's voice and character to be consistent with that of a rural
Southern white child.  What evidence is there, then, that Huck's
character is modeled on Jimmy's, and that Huck's voice is black?

Fishkin lists a number of character traits that Huck and Jimmy have in
common, according to her analysis of their characters as portrayed by
Twain, arguing that these shared character traits point conclusively to
Jimmy as the model for Huck.  Both boys she describes as gullible,
because both are mystified at times by adult behavior.  Both like
bizarre, grisly accidents and "are at home with dead animals" (p. 25).
Both dislike violence and cruelty.  Both have alcoholic fathers but tell
stories featuring long lists of family members.

One's immediate reaction to this argument is that personality is more
than a sum of its parts.  So it is inherently difficult to try to argue
that two characters have identical personalities based on a comparison
of a few isolated character traits, unless those traits are so unusual
and striking that they truly set the person apart.  But the few traits
Fishkin discusses are so vaguely defined and randomly selected that they
do not strike one as distinctive or as uniquely defining any particular
complete personality.  Most young boys I know like grisly stories and
dead animals.  Most young boys are relatively naive and gullible,
especially if, like Huck and Jimmy, they are uneducated and untravelled
and come from small towns.  What Fishkin would need to show to convince
us that Huck's character is based on that of "Sociable Jimmy" is that
both share some surprising trait that is not predictable from their
similar ages and backgrounds, instead of the generic young boy character
traits she considers.

The same sort of problem arises when one evaluates Fishkin's arguments
that Huck speaks with an African-American voice--in an African-American
dialect, using an African-American style--as a consequence of being
modeled on Sociable Jimmy.  Fishkin bases the argument on a list of
characteristics of African-American speech she claims are also found in
Huck's speech.  These features, she concludes, define Huck's voice as
African-American.  There are a number of problems inherent in this
technique for identifying Huck's dialect, some of which Fishkin herself

First of all, dialects, like personalities, are more than the sum of
their parts.  As J. L. Dillard points out in _Black English_ (New York:
Vintage Books, 1972), most Americans can identify, from listening to a
tape, whether a speaker is a poor black or a poor white--the two
dialects are truly distinctive--but when one lists the non-standard
features of Black English (or BE; I follow Dillard in adopting this
term), almost every individual feature is also found in some non-
standard white dialect.  And, as Fishkin points out--citing Dillard--
rural Southern white dialects in particular share many features of BE
due to extensive contact and mutual borrowing between these dialects
over centuries.  It would take thorough research into colloquial
American dialects to pick which distinctive characteristics of Huck's
speech might truly define him as African-American and not poor white

Unfortunately, all of the characteristics Fishkin discusses are also
found in most non-standard white dialects.  Further, some of the
linguistic features she selects as typical of BE are in fact general
features distinguishing colloquial oral language from formal writing.
For example, according to Fishkin the following features of Jimmy's
speech and of BE are also characteristic of Huck's speech: repetition of
words and phrases, connecting phrases using coordination rather than
subordination, shifting tense within the same sequence, repeating
subjects, using the participial verb form and, most vaguely and
subjectively, using vivid, poetic language.

These features are all common in oral narrative, no matter what the
dialect of the speaker may be.  Any student writer's handbook has whole
chapters on using subordination and avoiding shifts in tense, for
example, so these are obviously aspects of formal written style that
speakers of many dialects have trouble mastering.  In any case, for
Fishkin to persuade us that Jimmy's talk in particular and BE in general
is the main source of these features, she would need to compare Huck's
talk not just with Jimmy's but with other oral storytellers speaking
other dialects transcribed by other writers.  Without such a comparison,
we cannot judge how distinctively these features define a speaker as
definitely African-American.

Fishkin is similarly careless in identifying non-standard vocabulary and
grammatical features of Huck's speech as African-American simply because
they are also found in Jimmy's speech or occur in some list of BE
linguistic features without verifying whether these non-standard
features would also be typical of the rural white Southern dialect Huck
is expected to be speaking.  So, for example, Huck is claimed to be
based on Jimmy because the speech of both is filled with made-up words
like "skreeky, smouch, soothering, slosh, snake (as in, "Dey snake him
into de cistern")" (p. 19).  While these words are certainly unfamiliar
to a modern reader, all are listed in the _Shorter Oxford English
Dictionary_ as dialect or slang words used in the U.S. in the early to
mid nineteenth century.  As such, it is completely unsurprising for them
to occur in both Jimmy's and Huck's speech if these words are typical of
both their dialects.

Fishkin also lists some "specimen Negroisms" compiled by James Harrison
in the 1870s and argues that since all these words occur in Huck's
speech, his voice is most likely African-American.  However, most of
these words still are current in colloquial speech and no longer would
be considered typical of BE (e.g., disremember (forget), to let on
(pretend), to tell on (to disclose something against)).  It would be
interesting to know exactly when these words were borrowed from BE into
other dialects.  In any case, since Huck is supposed to be speaking a
rural Southern dialect that historically has been influenced by
extensive borrowing from BE, his use of these words does not
definitively identify his speech as African-American.

The grammatical features of Huck's speech that Fishkin picks out as
typical of BE likewise are commonly found in rural Southern dialects or
could be borrowed from BE into that dialect.  For example, Huck uses
common non-standard verb forms and double negatives, features that are
ubiquitous in non-standard dialects.

What Fishkin does not address at any length, in cataloguing the BE
features of Huck's speech, is why Huck does not sound like Jim or any of
the other African-American characters in the book.  It would certainly
be more convincing that Twain was consciously (or even unconsciously)
giving Huck an African-American voice if Fishkin could show explicitly
that Huck's voice had more in common with the avowedly African-American
voices in the book or that the non-standard features of Huck's speech
were more consistent with BE than with the rural white Southern dialect
that he is supposed to be speaking.

The other important non-fictional African-American who Fishkin argues
influenced Huck's voice is Jerry, a young man sketched at the beginning
of Twain's essay, "Corn-Pone Opinions."  The description of Jerry in
this essay occupies only a couple of paragraphs that tell us little
about Jerry except that he entertained Twain with impudent, satirical
"sermons" parodying the style of the local preachers.  Fishkin probably
is right in suggesting that Jerry was showing off to Twain a particular
African-American style of satirical performance called "signifying,"
which may be described as the use of sarcasm and irony to criticize or
outwit someone or to comment on social ills in a bitingly humorous way.
Even though this is the only reference either to Jerry or African-
American satirical rhetoric that Fishkin can cite from Twain's writings,
she argues that Twain recalls Jerry so vividly in this essay that one
can plausibly conclude that this African-American style of satire made a
strong enough impression on TwaIn to have influenced his own tongue-in-
cheek satirical style.  In particular, Fishkin argues that Huck's
narrative voice directly reflects Jerry's influence on Twain,
reinforcing her thesis that Huck's character is essentially African-

It seems to be an original observation of Fishkin's, to have noticed
Twain's familiarity with African-American rhetorical styles.  Since
Twain was, by his own admission, an avid listener, unconsciously
absorbing voices and styles in his surroundings, her contention that
"signifying" is at least a thread informing Twain's own style in general
and Huck's voice in particular is certainly plausible.  However, as
usual, Fishkin argues this point by citing a list of features--in this
case, those defining "signifying" as a distinctive style--and then
contends that if any passage of _Huck Finn_ contains some or all of
these features, the passage illustrates "signifying."  Unfortunately,
the list of features Fishkin uses to define "signifying" do not
distinguish it from other forms of satire, since a reliance on irony,
metaphorical imagery and an appeal to knowledge shared by speaker and
audience are necessary features of any effective satire.  Further,
Fishkin omits from her list of features the requirement that
"signifying," like other forms of satire, use humor to make a point.

Because the satirical purpose of "signifying" is forgotten at times in
Fishkin's discussion, the passage from _Huck Finn_ that she explicates
as evidence for Twain's effective use of this satirical form falls
completely flat.  In this passage, a young slave is argued to be
signifying because he tells Huck that they are going to look at water
moccasins, while in fact he is leading Huck to a spot where Jim is
hiding.  The young slave's use of deception is supposed to be one of the
characteristics of signifying that are exemplified in his speech in this
passage--and Fishkin identifies a number of others.  But since this
passage is not only not humorous but makes no satirical point,
illustrating no battle of wits between the young slave and another
person, the passage fails to support Fishkin's point.  It is extremely
puzzling why Fishkin chose to highlight such an unhumorous passage to
argue that Twain uses the "signifying" technique, devoting several pages
to its explication, when she mentions in passing a number of truly
satirical comments and incidents criticizing the hypocrisy of
shareholders that might have lent themselves more straightforwardly to
an argument about Jerry's influence on Huck's voice.

A further failing of this chapter is that Fishkin gives no examples of
African-American stories illustrating the "signifying" style of satire.
The argument that Twain had incorporated "signifying" in his own style
would have been more convincing if Fishkin could have pointed to
explicit parallels between the imagery and themes of African-American
stories and the anti-slavery satire in _Huck Finn_.  Since she argues
that Jerry's signifying was Twain's earliest exposure to the use of
satire to comment on society, and the one that influenced him the most,
this lack of detail only serves to highlight the gap between her claims
for Jerry's importance and the actual evidence supporting the claims.
As it stands, Fishkin's discussion of Jerry is too vague to convince us
that we might find evidence of his influence on Huck's voice, in spite
of the initial plausibility of this hypothesis.

Fishkin's arguments that Huck's voice is essentially African-American
would be meaningless, of course, unless _Huck Finn_ tells a story that
reflects an African-American viewpoint and paints a sympathetic portrait
of African-Americans.  It is this point that Fishkin addresses in the
last part of the book.

As Fishkin points out, there is abundant evidence that Twain was
concerned by the oppression of people of African descent both in the
U.S. and abroad.  She argues that it is no coincidence that Twain wrote
_Huck Finn_ at a time when African-Americans were losing again rights
temporarily granted them after the Civil War, so that _Huck Finn_ could
be seen as a comment on the distance between U.S. ideals of political
freedom and practice in treatment of African-Americans.  She points out
that Booker T.  Washington, for example, certainly recognized the anti-
slavery import of _Huck Finn_.  (While the anti-slavery message may be
obvious to the sensitive reader of _Huck Finn_, especially one familiar
with Twain's other political writings, Fishkin reminds us that some
people have taken literally Twain's introductory admonition that the
book is only a boy's adventure story with no moral to import.)

However, the characterization of Jim, the African-American hero of the
book (and the third of the African-Americans who provide the theme for
each of the three sections of Fishkin's work) has prevented many modern
readers from recognizing Twain's satiric intent.  Fishkin addresses
head-on critics of _Huck Finn_ who point out that Jim and most of the
other African-American characters seldom rise above the status of
minstrel show stereotypes.  While Fishkin acknowledges these problems,
she also points out that, in interpreting Jim's superstitions as
evidence he is simple-minded, for example, modern readers might be
revealing more about their ignorance of his culture (and arrogance
towards folk culture in general) than about the inherent simple-
mindedness of Jim's beliefs.  And she argues that many of the stories in
which a white person seems to get the better of Jim have a second
reading in which Jim remains the hero of his version of the story, in
spite of the white world's attempts to ridicule him.

Fishkin also argues, quoting an interview with Ralph Ellison, that since
Jim is described through Huck's eyes, some of the stereotyping may be
meant to tell us more about Huck's limitations than about Jim's.  As
most critics acknowledge, Jim is the only moral grown-up in _Huck Finn_.
Even if his good qualities in some ways match those of the stereotypical
"good slave," his right to run away to freedom and the bravery and
pathos of his quest are never called into question.  Fishkin does make a
persuasive case, then, that in spite of the limitations of Jim's
character and the stereotyped portrayal of other African-Americans in
_Huck Finn_, the satire of slaveholding society, which is a major theme
of the book, does sympathetically reflect an African-American point of
view.  The argument that Huck's voice is an African-American one is not
incongruous with the story that voice is relating and the point of view
that story is told from.

Fishkin closes the book by expressing the hope that future literary
critics will continue to seek African-American influences in mainstream
American literature.  She notes that even though it is widely accepted
that American culture evolved from the beginning out of a mixture of
European and non-European (especially African) traditions, literary
criticism has remained a relatively segregated field in the sense that
only African-American influences are generally sought for African-
American writers, and only white American or European influences are
sought for European-American writers.  This segregation is also noted in
other fields by John Edward Philips ("The African Heritage of White
America," in Joseph E.  Holloway, ed., _Africanisms in American
Culture_, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), so that even if
a cultural tradition is shared by African-Americans and European
Americans, researchers tend to find purely African roots for the
African-American tradition and purely European roots for European
Americans.  It is rare for researchers to explore how these diverse
traditions have mutually influenced each other to create the American

Perhaps Fishkin felt that she had to exaggerate her claims for the
African-American influences on Huck--arguing the main model for Huck's
voice is African-American and Twain's first and most vivid model of
satirical commentary is African-American--in order to counterbalance
this general reluctance to admit any African-American influence on
mainstream writers like Twain.  But in doing so she weakens those
arguments, making claims that go far beyond what the evidence presented
can support.  Since Fishkin could more easily have mounted a persuasive
argument that _Huck Finn_, in speaking in an authentically American
vernacular voice and telling an anti-slavery story, necessarily
incorporates African-American influences, the book as a whole would have
been more satisfying if Fishkin had emphasized the blend all the way
through, instead of emphasizing one strand.