Southern Cultures 9.2 (2003) 1-5
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For me, the funniest part of Huckleberry Finn is an example of what our author Ralph Luker calls "sampling." Twain's bogus King and his equally fraudulent Duke of Bilgewater are planning to present an evening of theater, and the Duke is casting about for a suitable finale. He seizes on the immortal soliloquy from Hamlet, and, after a struggle, he "call[s] it back from recollection's vaults."
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature's second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of. [End Page 1]
The grandiloquent Duke sweeps on for eighteen more glorious lines, and Huck declares that he "just knocked the spots out of any acting ever I see before."
In Luker's terms, the Duke was "sampling," or mixing and matching material from a variety of literary sources—in this case, from several over-quoted passages in Hamlet and Macbeth—to create a rhetorical effect that gains power from the words' familiarity, if not their combination. In the hands of the great African American preachers that Luker writes about, sampling can move an audience profoundly by touching their common memories and carrying the speaker's words beyond his own powers of creation to evoke a much larger and longer sacred tradition. From Twain, however, it's simply hilarious, with deadly satirical effect on frontier ignorance, the genteel cult of Shakespeare, and even the Bard himself.
What does it mean to be an author? Is the writer an isolated mastermind who radiates a single-handed brilliance from the peaks of genius? Is each real author the exclusive source of everything he or she gets credit for? Or are even the greatest a bit like Twain's Duke, turning out collages from a half-remembered cultural grab bag? You know: take a little Shakespeare here, add a little Scripture there, rework a bad joke, and voilà, another masterpiece. The first version paints the author as a transcendental hero, the second as a product of the oral folk tradition.
Needless to say, honor courts and the plagiarism police are supposed to uphold the first definition of honest authorship, and professionally I have to agree with them. When the microphones are turned off, however, many of us would have to admit that southern authors (Mark Twain, for example) can be brilliant examples of the second. The essays in this issue take up this matter in different ways, but they all come to a common agreement. Authorship is not always a clear-cut matter. Who is the "real" author of something? Where does "influence" turn into something else? Who owns a speaker's words? Who owns a tradition, like the tradition of oral singing from a printed book entitled The Sacred Harp? If we have to footnote Shakespeare, must we do the same for a now-forgotten preacher whose words we want to pass on? If that's illegal, what happens to folk wisdom and the authority of what your momma used to say? If it's not, who's safe? There are no simple answers.
Bryan Giemza starts us off with a rollicking speculation on the authorship of A Confederacy of Dunces, the New Orleans comic masterpiece credited to John Kennedy Toole, and published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980 at the instigation of Walker Percy. Like the indirect and elusive authors he writes about, Giemza won't say exactly what he's up to, but he tries to suggest (and then to joke about his absurd suggestion) that Percy the well-known trickster, not Toole, wrote A Confederacy, and covered his tracks as a joke on all the rest of us. Giemza's idea is so intriguing that my colleague John Shelton Reed came up with another theory. Maybe Toole was the trickster and put clues...