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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 29 Jul 1992 14:05:00 EDT
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        Lawrence Howe, Mellon Postdoctoral Instructor, California Institute
Technology, published a letter in the New York Times (Sat. 7/25/92),
responding to Shelley Fisher Fishkin and her thesis that a young
African-American was the provenance for the voice of Huck Finn. The letter
touches upon a range of issues of continuing concern for us and
therefore, although I am aware most of you have read it already, I
thought putting his text before the group might lend another focus to our
discussion and enrich the L-TWAIN archive.  The Times published
Professor Howe's letter with a brief quotation from "Huckleberry Finn"
appended, here omitted.

To the Editor:

        As a Mark Twain scholar, I was pleased with the prominence you
gave to a piece that Twain published in The Times in 1874, "Sociable Jimmy."
The thesis of Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, drawn from her reading of the
piece, that a 10-year-old African-American boy was the source for the
voice of Huckleberry Finn, provokes interesting questions, only some of
which you touched on.
        While "Sociable Jimmy" has been known for some time, whether the boy
describes is actual or fictional has not to my knowledge been
determined, which may or may not have bearing on the issue.
        A number of us have already noted the influence of
African-American narrative techniques in Twain's work.  For example,
Twain appropriates the slave narrative's inversions of phrase and
emphasis as the structure of "Life on the Mississippi." The episode on
which Twain's Mississippi book pivots tells of his rebellion and escape
from an abusive Mississippi pilot to whom his "master" had lent him as
an apprentice. Describing his relief when exonerated for his
insubordination, Twain claims, "I know how an emancipated slave feels;
for I was an emancipated slave myself."
        "Huckleberry Finn," completed after "Life on the Mississippi,"
also adopts the device to make its ironic point about Huck's ostensible
escape from cultural values.  And in "Pudd'nhead Wilson," I have argued,
Twain has written a miscegenation and murder mystery that elaborately
parodies the detective genre and satirizes the racism of the genre's
creator, Edgar Allan Poe.  Such a parody not only makes a point of
racial prejudice but also draws on the African-American narrative
technique of signifying that Henry Louis Gates Jr. has highlighted in
his investigation of African-American literature.
        Neither the inversions nor signifying parody are exclusive to
black linguistic practice, but they are distinctive features of it. For
Twain to have deployed them in texts that either place American race
relations in the foreground or in which he identifies with the slave
consciousness suggests the linkage between Twain's and African-American
narrative techniques.
        None of this takes anything from Professor Fishkin's analysis.
Indeed, if the most representative American boy in our literature was
drawn from black identity, we have a new angle of vision, one with rich
ideological significance. Indeed, it's as if Pudd'nhead Wilson's
momentous discovery that the town aristocrat is a mulatto slave who was
exchanged with the master's child in the cradle were coming true for
        I mention this connection because how we read this discovery is
important, and the prospects call to mind the reaction of Wilson's
townspeople to his discovery of the erstwhile aristocrat's legal status
as a slave; they sell him down the river posthaste.
        The point of Professor Fishkin's discovery, in my view, is not
that people who have objected to Huck's use of the word "nigger" are now
effectively refuted, as Justin Kaplan suggests at the close of your
article. I feel, as most Twain scholars do, that those who are sensitive
to Huck's epithet for Jim have misinterpreted Twain's irony. But just as
Huck's speech and views are not to be confused with Twain's, neither are
they to be confused with those of an African-American boy on whom Twain
may or nay [sic] not have based Huck's narrative voice.
        No, the point of this discovery is not for those of us who are
sensitive about racism, but for those of us who are not. For Huck Finn
is not only the most representative American boy in our liteature, he is
also the character with whom American readers--American white
readers--have most deeply identified. If we learn something new about
Twain's model for Huck, will Americans still identify with him, or, like
the townspeople in "Pudd'nhead Wilson," will they find new reasons to
object to him and his book?

Lawrence Howe
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, Calif., July 8, 1992

Michael Joseph
Rutgers University Libraries