BOOK REVIEW / With just a few stretchers: 'Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices' - Shelley Fisher Fishkin: OUP, 17.50 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WAS Huck black? Well no, he wasn't. Huckleberry Finn - narrator-hero of Mark Twain's finest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), called by Hemingway the book all modern American literature comes from - is a ragged, poor white boy from the ante bellum Mississippi Valley, the heartland of Twain's imagination.

He was based, Twain tells us, on Tom Blankenship, a free-running, neglected white kid from Hannibal, Missouri, the slave-holding town on the river where Twain grew up, who was the admiration of more respectable children. It's Jim, the slave who shares Huck's journey downriver on the raft, toward the deeper slavery of the South, who is black - one of several remarkable black characters in Twain's fiction, another being Roxana, the mulatto slave of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and another, the most remarkable of all, being Tom Driscoll, Roxana's son, who for many years passes as white.

But Hemingway was right. Huckleberry Finn is the breakthrough book in American fiction - giving it its own non-European, non-Eastern voice. British critics in love with the American vernacular owe all this to Twain. Where did it come from? There had been powerful dialect tales before, especially from Southwestern humorists ('Petroleum V Nasby', Artemus Ward and so on). But here was the first major American novel where a strong innocent child's voice, deliberately kept unframed, controls the whole story. Twain, in a brief prefatory note, tells us that 'a number of dialects' (he mentions seven) are used in the book, so we should not suppose 'all the characters are trying to talk alike and not succeeding'. But in the end they all depend, or seem to, on one voice, one discourse: Huck's.

With such an influential, monumental text, it would be useful to many these days if that voice could be shifted toward 'multiculturalism'. Such a shift is what Shelly Fisher Fishkin seeks to achieve. What she would like us to see is that the famous Huck vernacular is heavily based on 'African-American voices', and she assembles some interesting evidence. Twain's boyhood runaway friendships included not just Tom Blankenship but a black slave, Jerry, whose tall tales and characters - above all the figure of the trickster - he loved. Through him he became familiar with the black tradition of tale-telling and of

what is now called 'signifying', which Fishkin calls 'African-American satirical discourse', otherwise known as 'laughing against the man'.

By the 1870s, when Twain started his novel, he was taking down narratives from black speech ('Sociable Jimmy' (1874), etc), and turning his mind to black traditions of oral storytelling. In any case, Ms Fishkin observes, southern white speech and the whole southern storytelling tradition was linguistically deeply influenced by close contact with slave speech. Twain was also reading the slave narratives of the time, like Frederick Douglass's; he loved black singing, and he felt an increasing identification with black experience. Much of this, Ms Fishkin suggests, was then blanked out - whited out - by a modern criticism concerned to establish Twain as a 'serious' literary author.

So there is a valuable revisionist book here, giving Twain studies, not least through some good linguistic research, a viewpoint that, if it has not gone completely unnoticed, has been scanted. It shows Twain's vigorous response to a multiple heritage which provided him not only with a radical vernacular language but the deeply sympathetic vision of at least two of his late works - Huckleberry Finn, but also the troubled, anxious, self-doubting Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), the book where he observed the absurdity of the arbitrary division that separated black from white, slave from free, the individual as self from the individual as property. The vision was increasingly a pessimistic one; Twain came to see all human beings as slaves to something: genetic inheritance, environment, history and moral decay.

The case is important, but Ms Fishkin has pushed it a little too far. There is no reason not to take Twain at his own word. Huckleberry Finn is a book born of extraordinary cultural complexity. It is made of many registers, including those of white European literature. Huck is multi-speaker, and in the end the language is not his but Twain's - multivalent, comic, based on a very literary irony. For the myth of the book is about a wrong (protecting a runaway slave) that, for its modern audience, is no longer wrong, the tall tale of a crime in which Huck is in every sense innocent.

This book is a good challenge to notions that white writers have white ancestors and successors, and black writers have black ones. Taking testimony from writers like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, she constructs an admirable case for the cultural complexity not just of Twain but American literature. But the revisionism is also part of an 'agenda', a taking of Twain into the paradigms of the politically correct, which theoretically favours black sources over white, European ones. Well, no one knew better than Twain that people believe what it suits them to believe. As Huck says of Tom Sawyer, this is 'mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before'.

(Photograph omitted)