WAS HUCK BLACK? by Shelley Fisher Fishkin


Mark Twain and African-American Voices
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 Direct, brief, well-informed, and polemical (``How will Americans respond to the news that Huck...was part black?''), Fishkin (American Studies/University of Texas, Austin) provides a questionable but dramatic genealogy of Huckleberry Finn's African- American ancestors as a gesture toward ``desegregating'' American literary history. Inspired by David Bradley's 1985 lecture, ``The First `Nigger' Novel,'' Fishkin argues that the prototypical American literary hero in what major writers have considered the archetypal American novel was based on a black child named Sociable Jimmy; that Twain's language (``raised to a level of literary eloquence,'' as Ralph Ellison said in 1970) is derived from African-American voices; and that his satirical social style was inspired by a black boy named Jerry whom he knew while still a child. But although Twain enjoyed black culture enough to appropriate it for his writings, he repressed the sources because, Fishkin says, he wanted to be respectable--and in the age of p.c. (of which this study is a monumental example), that makes Twain a hypocrite, a character-type that he himself found particularly contemptuous. To prove that an imaginary hero in a work of art (or even a popular commercial novel, as Huckleberry Finn was originally conceived) is multiracial, multicultural, even androgynous, would be to explain his perennial appeal. But Fishkin treats the novel and its lead character as a social commentary or textbook, referring often to its presentation in the classroom and shaping her argument for literary critics. Isolating Huck's African-American traits--some based on stereotypes, others uncovered through sophisticated linguistic analysis--seems to create its own form of segregation, to oversimplify a complex literary character, and to compromise the universality to which a wide range of authors (whom Fishkin quotes) have paid tribute--authors such as Ellison, Faulkner, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others, who claim to have learned their language and acquired their voices from Twain. In spite of the confused motives: an exhaustive and provocative work, already creating a stir. (Eighteen halftones)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-19-508214-1
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1993