A BLACK HUCK?
From its music to its dialects to the compelling nature of its storytellers, African American culture fascinated young Samuel Clemens growing up in Hannibal. Later, as he embarked on his literary career and grew in fame, Mark Twain drew heavily from the African American influences of his youth. Modern readers can see the effect of these influences in Twain’s portrayal of Huck Finn. Though Twain himself claimed that a local white boy named Tom Blankenship had inspired much of his characterization of Huck, one literary scholar argues that it was, in fact, the voice of a black boy that provided the basis for Huck.
Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, of Stanford University, claims that William Evans, an African American child Twain met while on a lecture tour of the Midwest, enchanted Twain with his innocent manner of storytelling. Twain met him in Paris, Illinois on December 30th or 31st, 1871, according to Fishkin. Recent research by Fishkin reveals that William Evans was the child of Nancy and Zebedee Evans. Zebedee, an employee on the railroad, was born in North Carolina and lived in Hamilton, Indiana in 1860. Zebedee died in Indianapolis in 1883. Nancy was born in Kentucky. They married in Indiana. William was born in 1865 in Indiana, and was living in Paris by 1870. He was probably 6 or close to 7 at the end of 1871 when Twain met him. Twain thought he was about ten years old, but he may have been big for his age.
When Twain wrote about Evans a few years later in an article in The New York Times, Twain referred to him as “Jimmy.” Jimmy had been sent to attend Twain as he had dinner in his room at the inn. Twain recorded his meeting with Jimmy in a letter home, stating that he
wished to preserve the memory of the most artless, sociable, and exhaustless talker I ever came across. He did not tell me a single remarkable thing, or one that was worth remembering; and yet he was himself so interested in his small marvels, and they flowed so naturally and comfortably from his lips, that his talk go the upper hand of my interest, too, and I listened as one who receives a revelation. (from “Sociable Jimmy”)
Two years later, Jimmy became Twain’s first child narrator in an article written for the New York Times entitled “Sociable Jimmy.” Twain may be correct in claiming that Tom Blankenship provided the model for Huck in many regards, but Huck’s speech is more likely modeled on the words of the African American boy who charmed the attentive writer.
Like Jimmy, Huck has held generations of readers spellbound with his ability to tell simple tales that nonetheless captivate us. In shaping Huck’s words and the writing of one of the great American novels, African American voices have, to quote Fishkin, “shaped our sense of what is distinctly ‘American’ about American literature.”
(For more information, see Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s book Was Huck Black: Mark Twain and African-American Voices, the main source of this article, in addition to personal communication from Professor Fishkin. See also Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 5: 1872-1873>, edited by Lin Salamo and Harriet E. Smith. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997, pp. 18-21, and Mark Bennett, “Voice of a Storyteller: Chance Meeting of Twain, Paris youngster, inspired narrative voice of Huck Finn.” Tribune-Star. 24 February 2013.)