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  • The Multiple Voices of Mark Twain
  • Roberta Seelinger Trites (bio)
Shelley Fisher Fishkin . Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

In the summer of 1992 when the press releases publicizing Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices began circulating in the national media, Fishkin's claims seemed a bit sensationalistic. But surprisingly enough, the book does avoid the extreme statements that made it at first seem controversial. Fishkin maintains not that Huck's voice is black (as the title implies she will argue); instead she argues that African-American voices contributed greatly to the uniqueness of the character's voice.

Fishkin names three specific African Americans whose voices seem to have inspired Samuel Clemens: Jerry, a slave Clemens knew in his childhood in Hannibal; Mary Ann Cord, a servant who worked for him at Quarry Farm; and "sociable Jimmy," a child Clemens once met. In 1874, Clemens published a piece in the New York Times entitled "Sociable Jimmy" that described the writer's meeting with the talkative 10-year-old servant. Fishkin notes that the piece is Clemens's first to be dominated by a child narrator; then she traces the number of similarities between Jimmy's monologue and the narration of Clemens's greatest work dominated by a child narrator: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Including tendencies to repeat words, to imbue words with new meanings, to rely on participial phrases, to prefix "a-" to participles, to use adjectives in place of adverbs, and to elide syllables—the similarities between the two narrators' speech patterns recur too frequently to seem entirely coincidental. Moreover, both boys interrupt themselves, fail to understand jokes they have unwittingly made, and share a number of common interests (including an obsession with dead cats). Fishkin even includes the article on sociable Jimmy in an appendix so that readers can evaluate for themselves the striking similarities. [End Page 224]

Fishkin also explores the impact that a slave named Jerry had on Clemen's literary style. Fishkin credits Jerry with teaching Clemens the African-American art of "signifying" as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., defines it in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism: using double meanings to satirize or to communicate indirectly. Fishkin asserts that Clemens's satire was shaped by what he learned from Jerry about signifying and the African-American trickster. Fishkin's speculations about Jerry, however, are less convincing than her evaluation of sociable Jimmy's effect on Clemens. While the ground-breaking point that Clemens's satire bears strong resemblance to African-American traditions is convincing, Fishkin's attempts to pin it to one person about whom so little is known seem a bit strained. Moreover, Clemens learned the art of satire from a broad range of sources—including Jonathan Swift and such literary comedians as Artemus Ward—which Fishkin conveniently ignores.

The third African American whom Fishkin cites as influencing Clemens is the one she most neglects. Fishkin describes the powerful effect Mary Ann Cord's storytelling had on Clemens—he later transcribed one of her autobiographical tales in "A True Story"—but Fishkin fails to follow her own thesis through to trace parallels between the voices of the narrators in "A True Story" and Huck Finn. Like sociable Jimmy, Aunt Rachel—the narrator of "A True Story"—relies heavily on coordination, and she displays a variety of the African-American linguistic traits that Fishkin cites Huck using, including adding "a-" to participial constructions and using "monstrous" to mean "very." Moreover, Aunt Rachel employs some of the exact linguistic coinages of Huck ("hain't" for "ain't") and of Pap ("o'" for "of"). Incidentally, both are coinages that Jim employs in Huck Finn; this supports Fishkin's thesis that no clear line can be drawn to distinguish black voices from white voices in American literature. Unfortunately, Fishkin has not thoroughly explored these connections, which support her own thesis.

The strength of Fishkin's book lies in the first, well-argued section. The rest of the book, treating Clemens's use of satire and his subversive racial ideology, is relatively flat in comparison with the innovativeness of Fishkin...


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pp. 224-226
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