Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices.
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Pp. xiv + 270. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/2". ISBN 0-19-508214-1.
Paper, 5-1/4" x 8". $10.95. ISBN 0-19-508914-6.

The following review appeared 8 June 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Laura J. Downing <>
Department of Linguistics
University of Pennsylvania

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As the dual title of Fishkin's book announces, this work has two related goals. The first, more provocative one, is to argue that Huck Finn has an African-American voice and is modeled on an actual African-American boy whose story Mark Twain featured in an essay written shortly before he began writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book argues further that Twain's satirical style, which informs Huck's narrative voice, owes much to another actual African-American youth whose "signifying" entertained Twain in his youth. The second, less provocative, goal is to argue that Huck Finn, as an authentic vernacular American character, necessarily speaks in a voice that incorporates African-American elements. And since his adventures are driven by his decision to join his own quest for freedom with the quest for freedom of Jim, a runaway slave, the African-American view of polite white society necessarily informs Huck's narrative.

Since the claim that "Huck is black" is the most original part of the book, as well as the most provocative, the overall contribution of the work must ride on how well Fishkin argues this point. Unfortunately, I found Fishkin's arguments to be full of holes that undermined the initial plausibility of the author's thesis. These arguments also seemed to sit poorly with the less provocative final chapters of the book because, confusingly, they seemed to contradict, at least in spirit, the inclusionist theme of those chapters. As a result, the book is an unsatisfying whole, in spite of the importance and appeal of its larger argument that African-American culture significantly influenced Twain's style and work.

Fishkin organizes the book around three African-American characters, two real and one fictional, which she argues are central to understanding Huck Finn. The first and most important of these characters is "Sociable Jimmy," a young boy Twain encountered on a lecture tour and whose story Twain related in an essay of that name (published in the 29 November 1874 New York Times). As Fishkin points out, this story represents Twain's first use of a child narrator and is also one of his first experiments in narration in the vernacular. Since it was written not long (a couple of years) before Twain began Huck Finn, this piece--and the character who inspired it--can be plausibly argued to have played a role in the development of Huck's character. Fishkin, however, wants to argue more than that, claiming that Huck is, in fact, more closely modeled on Jimmy than any other individual, and that Huck is, consequently, an essentially African-American character.

Fishkin's proposal is certainly a daring one. Huck is identified as a white person by Twain, and Twain himself only acknowledged white children as models for Huck. Further, other critics of the book have found Huck's voice and character to be consistent with that of a rural Southern white child. What evidence is there, then, that Huck's character is modeled on Jimmy's, and that Huck's voice is black?

Fishkin lists a number of character traits that Huck and Jimmy have in common, according to her analysis of their characters as portrayed by Twain, arguing that these shared character traits point conclusively to Jimmy as the model for Huck. Both boys she describes as gullible, because both are mystified at times by adult behavior. Both like bizarre, grisly accidents and "are at home with dead animals" (p. 25). Both dislike violence and cruelty. Both have alcoholic fathers but tell stories featuring long lists of family members.

One's immediate reaction to this argument is that personality is more than a sum of its parts. So it is inherently difficult to try to argue that two characters have identical personalities based on a comparison of a few isolated character traits, unless those traits are so unusual and striking that they truly set the person apart. But the few traits Fishkin discusses are so vaguely defined and randomly selected that they do not strike one as distinctive or as uniquely defining any particular complete personality. Most young boys I know like grisly stories and dead animals. Most young boys are relatively naive and gullible, especially if, like Huck and Jimmy, they are uneducated and untravelled and come from small towns. What Fishkin would need to show to convince us that Huck's character is based on that of "Sociable Jimmy" is that both share some surprising trait that is not predictable from their similar ages and backgrounds, instead of the generic young boy character traits she considers.

The same sort of problem arises when one evaluates Fishkin's arguments that Huck speaks with an African-American voice--in an African-American dialect, using an African-American style--as a consequence of being modeled on Sociable Jimmy. Fishkin bases the argument on a list of characteristics of African-American speech she claims are also found in Huck's speech. These features, she concludes, define Huck's voice as African-American. There are a number of problems inherent in this technique for identifying Huck's dialect, some of which Fishkin herself notes.

First of all, dialects, like personalities, are more than the sum of their parts. As J. L. Dillard points out in Black English (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), most Americans can identify, from listening to a tape, whether a speaker is a poor black or a poor white--the two dialects are truly distinctive--but when one lists the non-standard features of Black English (or BE; I follow Dillard in adopting this term), almost every individual feature is also found in some non-standard white dialect. And, as Fishkin points out--citing Dillard--rural Southern white dialects in particular share many features of BE due to extensive contact and mutual borrowing between these dialects over centuries. It would take thorough research into colloquial American dialects to pick which distinctive characteristics of Huck's speech might truly define him as African-American and not poor white Southern.

Unfortunately, all of the characteristics Fishkin discusses are also found in most non-standard white dialects. Further, some of the linguistic features she selects as typical of BE are in fact general features distinguishing colloquial oral language from formal writing. For example, according to Fishkin the following features of Jimmy's speech and of BE are also characteristic of Huck's speech: repetition of words and phrases, connecting phrases using coordination rather than subordination, shifting tense within the same sequence, repeating subjects, using the participial verb form and, most vaguely and subjectively, using vivid, poetic language.

These features are all common in oral narrative, no matter what the dialect of the speaker may be. Any student writer's handbook has whole chapters on using subordination and avoiding shifts in tense, for example, so these are obviously aspects of formal written style that speakers of many dialects have trouble mastering. In any case, for Fishkin to persuade us that Jimmy's talk in particular and BE in general is the main source of these features, she would need to compare Huck's talk not just with Jimmy's but with other oral storytellers speaking other dialects transcribed by other writers. Without such a comparison, we cannot judge how distinctively these features define a speaker as definitely African-American.

Fishkin is similarly careless in identifying non-standard vocabulary and grammatical features of Huck's speech as African-American simply because they are also found in Jimmy's speech or occur in some list of BE linguistic features without verifying whether these non-standard features would also be typical of the rural white Southern dialect Huck is expected to be speaking. So, for example, Huck is claimed to be based on Jimmy because the speech of both is filled with made-up words like "skreeky, smouch, soothering, slosh, snake (as in, "Dey snake him into de cistern")" (p. 19). While these words are certainly unfamiliar to a modern reader, all are listed in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as dialect or slang words used in the U.S. in the early to mid nineteenth century. As such, it is completely unsurprising for them to occur in both Jimmy's and Huck's speech if these words are typical of both their dialects.

Fishkin also lists some "specimen Negroisms" compiled by James Harrison in the 1870s and argues that since all these words occur in Huck's speech, his voice is most likely African-American. However, most of these words still are current in colloquial speech and no longer would be considered typical of BE (e.g., disremember (forget), to let on (pretend), to tell on (to disclose something against)). It would be interesting to know exactly when these words were borrowed from BE into other dialects. In any case, since Huck is supposed to be speaking a rural Southern dialect that historically has been influenced by extensive borrowing from BE, his use of these words does not definitively identify his speech as African-American.

The grammatical features of Huck's speech that Fishkin picks out as typical of BE likewise are commonly found in rural Southern dialects or could be borrowed from BE into that dialect. For example, Huck uses common non-standard verb forms and double negatives, features that are ubiquitous in non-standard dialects.

What Fishkin does not address at any length, in cataloguing the BE features of Huck's speech, is why Huck does not sound like Jim or any of the other African-American characters in the book. It would certainly be more convincing that Twain was consciously (or even unconsciously) giving Huck an African-American voice if Fishkin could show explicitly that Huck's voice had more in common with the avowedly African-American voices in the book or that the non-standard features of Huck's speech were more consistent with BE than with the rural white Southern dialect that he is supposed to be speaking.

The other important non-fictional African-American who Fishkin argues influenced Huck's voice is Jerry, a young man sketched at the beginning of Twain's essay, "Corn-Pone Opinions." The description of Jerry in this essay occupies only a couple of paragraphs that tell us little about Jerry except that he entertained Twain with impudent, satirical "sermons" parodying the style of the local preachers. Fishkin probably is right in suggesting that Jerry was showing off to Twain a particular African-American style of satirical performance called "signifying," which may be described as the use of sarcasm and irony to criticize or outwit someone or to comment on social ills in a bitingly humorous way. Even though this is the only reference either to Jerry or African-American satirical rhetoric that Fishkin can cite from Twain's writings, she argues that Twain recalls Jerry so vividly in this essay that one can plausibly conclude that this African-American style of satire made a strong enough impression on TwaIn to have influenced his own tongue-in-cheek satirical style. In particular, Fishkin argues that Huck's narrative voice directly reflects Jerry's influence on Twain, reinforcing her thesis that Huck's character is essentially African-American.

It seems to be an original observation of Fishkin's, to have noticed Twain's familiarity with African-American rhetorical styles. Since Twain was, by his own admission, an avid listener, unconsciously absorbing voices and styles in his surroundings, her contention that "signifying" is at least a thread informing Twain's own style in general and Huck's voice in particular is certainly plausible. However, as usual, Fishkin argues this point by citing a list of features--in this case, those defining "signifying" as a distinctive style--and then contends that if any passage of Huck Finn contains some or all of these features, the passage illustrates "signifying." Unfortunately, the list of features Fishkin uses to define "signifying" do not distinguish it from other forms of satire, since a reliance on irony, metaphorical imagery and an appeal to knowledge shared by speaker and audience are necessary features of any effective satire. Further, Fishkin omits from her list of features the requirement that "signifying," like other forms of satire, use humor to make a point.

Because the satirical purpose of "signifying" is forgotten at times in Fishkin's discussion, the passage from Huck Finn that she explicates as evidence for Twain's effective use of this satirical form falls completely flat. In this passage, a young slave is argued to be signifying because he tells Huck that they are going to look at water moccasins, while in fact he is leading Huck to a spot where Jim is hiding. The young slave's use of deception is supposed to be one of the characteristics of signifying that are exemplified in his speech in this passage--and Fishkin identifies a number of others. But since this passage is not only not humorous but makes no satirical point, illustrating no battle of wits between the young slave and another person, the passage fails to support Fishkin's point. It is extremely puzzling why Fishkin chose to highlight such an unhumorous passage to argue that Twain uses the "signifying" technique, devoting several pages to its explication, when she mentions in passing a number of truly satirical comments and incidents criticizing the hypocrisy of shareholders that might have lent themselves more straightforwardly to an argument about Jerry's influence on Huck's voice.

A further failing of this chapter is that Fishkin gives no examples of African-American stories illustrating the "signifying" style of satire. The argument that Twain had incorporated "signifying" in his own style would have been more convincing if Fishkin could have pointed to explicit parallels between the imagery and themes of African-American stories and the anti-slavery satire in Huck Finn. Since she argues that Jerry's signifying was Twain's earliest exposure to the use of satire to comment on society, and the one that influenced him the most, this lack of detail only serves to highlight the gap between her claims for Jerry's importance and the actual evidence supporting the claims. As it stands, Fishkin's discussion of Jerry is too vague to convince us that we might find evidence of his influence on Huck's voice, in spite of the initial plausibility of this hypothesis.

Fishkin's arguments that Huck's voice is essentially African-American would be meaningless, of course, unless Huck Finn tells a story that reflects an African-American viewpoint and paints a sympathetic portrait of African-Americans. It is this point that Fishkin addresses in the last part of the book.

As Fishkin points out, there is abundant evidence that Twain was concerned by the oppression of people of African descent both in the U.S. and abroad. She argues that it is no coincidence that Twain wrote Huck Finn at a time when African-Americans were losing again rights temporarily granted them after the Civil War, so that Huck Finn could be seen as a comment on the distance between U.S. ideals of political freedom and practice in treatment of African-Americans. She points out that Booker T. Washington, for example, certainly recognized the anti-slavery import of Huck Finn. (While the anti-slavery message may be obvious to the sensitive reader of Huck Finn, especially one familiar with Twain's other political writings, Fishkin reminds us that some people have taken literally Twain's introductory admonition that the book is only a boy's adventure story with no moral to import.)

However, the characterization of Jim, the African-American hero of the book (and the third of the African-Americans who provide the theme for each of the three sections of Fishkin's work) has prevented many modern readers from recognizing Twain's satiric intent. Fishkin addresses head-on critics of Huck Finn who point out that Jim and most of the other African-American characters seldom rise above the status of minstrel show stereotypes. While Fishkin acknowledges these problems, she also points out that, in interpreting Jim's superstitions as evidence he is simple-minded, for example, modern readers might be revealing more about their ignorance of his culture (and arrogance towards folk culture in general) than about the inherent simple-mindedness of Jim's beliefs. And she argues that many of the stories in which a white person seems to get the better of Jim have a second reading in which Jim remains the hero of his version of the story, in spite of the white world's attempts to ridicule him.

Fishkin also argues, quoting an interview with Ralph Ellison, that since Jim is described through Huck's eyes, some of the stereotyping may be meant to tell us more about Huck's limitations than about Jim's. As most critics acknowledge, Jim is the only moral grown-up in Huck Finn. Even if his good qualities in some ways match those of the stereotypical "good slave," his right to run away to freedom and the bravery and pathos of his quest are never called into question. Fishkin does make a persuasive case, then, that in spite of the limitations of Jim's character and the stereotyped portrayal of other African-Americans in Huck Finn, the satire of slaveholding society, which is a major theme of the book, does sympathetically reflect an African-American point of view. The argument that Huck's voice is an African-American one is not incongruous with the story that voice is relating and the point of view that story is told from.

Fishkin closes the book by expressing the hope that future literary critics will continue to seek African-American influences in mainstream American literature. She notes that even though it is widely accepted that American culture evolved from the beginning out of a mixture of European and non-European (especially African) traditions, literary criticism has remained a relatively segregated field in the sense that only African-American influences are generally sought for African-American writers, and only white American or European influences are sought for European-American writers. This segregation is also noted in other fields by John Edward Philips ("The African Heritage of White America," in Joseph E. Holloway, ed., Africanisms in American Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), so that even if a cultural tradition is shared by African-Americans and European Americans, researchers tend to find purely African roots for the African-American tradition and purely European roots for European Americans. It is rare for researchers to explore how these diverse traditions have mutually influenced each other to create the American "stew."

Perhaps Fishkin felt that she had to exaggerate her claims for the African-American influences on Huck--arguing the main model for Huck's voice is African-American and Twain's first and most vivid model of satirical commentary is African-American--in order to counterbalance this general reluctance to admit any African-American influence on mainstream writers like Twain. But in doing so she weakens those arguments, making claims that go far beyond what the evidence presented can support. Since Fishkin could more easily have mounted a persuasive argument that Huck Finn, in speaking in an authentically American vernacular voice and telling an anti-slavery story, necessarily incorporates African-American influences, the book as a whole would have been more satisfying if Fishkin had emphasized the blend all the way through, instead of emphasizing one strand.