Dark midnight was my cry, dark midnight was my cry
I would be remiss, in a book subtitled " Mark Twain and African- American Voices," if I failed to devote some attention to the speech with which Twain endows Jim, the main black character in his opus. 1 If a Frenchman's a man, Jim complains in his famous argument with Huck, "Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan he talk like a man?" 2 Does Jim "talk like a man?" The question is more significant than it may seem.
While there is not space here to present a fully detailed history of the presence of African-American dialect in American fiction, a cursory overview is necessary to set Twain's achievement in perspective. 3 How did Twain's efforts to represent African-American speech compare with those of novelists who preceded him? 4 Some of the earliest efforts by white novelists to render the speech of African Americans entirely ignored the question of accuracy. As Tremaine McDowell observed,
in The Power of Sympathy ( 1789), the first novel written and published in America, the sentimental hero made a tour of the South; there he met a female negro servant; for her he solved the problem of slavery. The anonymous author [ William Hill Brown] was so faithful to the decorum of sensibility that no indelicate touches of realism are introduced in describing this comely negress; and it is even more significant that the novelist forced the slave, although a laborer in the fields of South Carolina, to speak impeccable English. 5