Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices

By Shelley Fisher Fishkin | Go to book overview

1

Been a listening all the night long,
Been a listening all the night long 1

Twentieth-century American criticism abounds in pronouncements about how Twain's choice of a vernacular narrator in Huckleberry Finn transformed modern American literature. Lionel Trilling, for example, felt that

The prose of Huckleberry Finn established for written prose the virtues of American colloquial speech. . . . It has something to do with ease and freedom in the use of language. Most of all it has to do with the structure of the sentence, which is simple, direct, and fluent, maintaining the rhythm of the word-groups of speech and the intonations of the speaking voice. . . . [ Twain] is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of theheard voice. . . . 2

"As for the style of the book," Trilling concluded, "it is not less than definitive in American literature." 3 As Louis Budd noted in 1985, "today it is standard academic wisdom that Twain's central, precedentsetting achievement is Huck's language." 4

Before Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, no American author had entrusted his narrative to the voice of a simple, untutored vernacular speaker -- or, for that matter, to a child. Albert Stone has noted that "the vernacular language . . . in Huckleberry Finn strikes the ear with the freshness of a real boy talking out loud." 5 Could the voice of an actual "real boy talking out loud" have helped Twain recognize the potential of such a voice to hold an audience's attention and to win its trust?

-13-

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Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents xi
  • Illustrations xiii
  • Introduction 3
  • Part One - Jimmy 11
  • 1 13
  • 2 41
  • Part Two - Jerry 51
  • 3 53
  • 4 68
  • Part Three - Jim 77
  • 5 79
  • 6 93
  • Part Four - Break Dancing in the Drawing Room 109
  • 7 111
  • 8 121
  • 9 128
  • Coda 145
  • Notes 147
  • Works Cited 219
  • Sociable Jimmy 249
  • Index 253
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