Oh by and by, by and by
Although there is good reason to believe that Huck's voice was inspired in good part by Jimmy's voice, the question of the extent to which Huck's speech -- or Jimmy's, for that matter -- would have been considered at the time, or would be recognized now, as characteristically "black" remains unanswered. 1
For obvious reasons, the question has never even been asked before: Huck's speech was not interpreted as "black" by readers in Twain's day or our own because both Huck as a character and Twain's stated model for him were white. Yet the question, "How 'black' is Huck's speech?" is an intriguing one.
During the 1870s and 1880s publications like Appleton's Journal of Literature, Science and Art and Anglia published articles about what made African-American speech (then called "Negro Patois" or "Negro English") distinctive. 2 A forty-seven page article entitled "Negro English" published by an American dialect scholar named James Harrison in Anglia in 1884 is particularly relevant. Harrison's study focused on "the area lying between the Atlantic Ocean on the East, the Mississippi River on the West, the Gulf of Mexico on the South, and the 39th parallel [the Mason-Dixon line] on the North." 3 "This area," Harrison writes,
now contains between 6,000,000 and 7,000,000 negroes, who speak, in large measure, the English to which attention is drawn in this paper. 4
His purpose was to provide "an outline of Negro language-usage," with the caveat that his study is "far from exhaustive or immaculate." 5