Huck Finn Redux

updated 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 01:00AM

SOME WOMEN DREAM OF MEL GIBSON or Kevin Costner, or Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner. But Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, was awakened last fall at 3 A.M. by thoughts of two other males.

Over and over, voices kept murmuring in her head, voices that had been haunting her sleep for weeks. The first was that of Huckleberry Finn, the pipe-smoking, redheaded, freckle-faced hero of what many consider the greatest American novel ever written. But the more persistent voice was that of Jimmy, a 10-year-old black boy who had ferried trays at a Midwestern hotel where author Mark Twain had once spent the night. Twain was so captivated by Jimmy that in 1874 he wrote a short newspaper article called "Sociable Jimmy," in which he described the young boy as "the most artless, sociable and exhaustless talker I ever came across."

Weeks later, after another sleepless night, Fishkin had what academics like herself call an epiphany: She believed that Jimmy was a real-life inspiration for Huck Finn. Fishkin's evidence? Huck's and Jimmy's cadences and vocabulary were remarkably similar, and Twain had written about his encounter with Jimmy two years before he began work on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The connection between the two boys serves as the central thesis in Fish-kin's book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, due next spring from Oxford University Press.

The Brooklyn-born Fishkin, 42, happened upon the "Sociable Jimmy" article, published in The New York Times, in the course of researching a book on Twain's views on race relations. Scholars had unearthed it before, but no one had compared Jimmy with Huck Finn. Side by side, the Jimmy piece resembles a preliminary sketch for Huck. Both boys are decidedly motor-mouths. Both are unfazed by dead cats and are taken with a loud clock. Both say "drowneded." Jimmy describes someone as "powerful sick"; Huck says he is "powerful thirsty." And both seem mighty wise for boys so young, having to make their way in the world with alcoholic fathers.

"Twain clearly heard Jimmy's voice echoing as he wrote Huck," says Fishkin.

Her conclusion could rattle the literary and academic worlds. If Huck was black, even in spirit, it could be muddlesome news to the book's critics, many of whom are African-Americans. They have lobbied to have Huck hauled off library shelves—and, in some cases, banned from schools—because of what they say are its insensitivities toward blacks and the repeated use of the word "nigger." At the same time, if Huck's soul is racially mixed, it bolsters those who argue for multiculturalism in education and for acknowledging the wide range of influences on American writing. "It's not news that Twain had a global imagination," says David Bradley, a black novelist and professor of English at Temple University. "What's news about this is that in American literature it has been thought we had a sort of racial purity, that whites were influenced by whites and blacks were influenced by blacks. Writers and musicians have understood cross-cultural influences for a long time."

No one has dismissed Fishkin's claims outright, but many scholars remain unconvinced. Justin Kaplan, who won a 1967 Pulitzer Prize for his book Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, said, "I wish she'd been able to find one or two other evidential bases for her argument." Other critics point to Twain's insistence that childhood friend Tom Blankenship, a poor white boy he knew in Missouri, was the model for Huck.

When the book draws crossfire next year, as it's bound to do, Fishkin, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from Yale, will have put some distance between herself and the naysayers. This month she and husband, James, 44, chairman of the University of Texas's government department, are moving from their four-bedroom Austin home—with their sons, Joey, 14, and Bobby, 9—to England, where both will be one-year fellows at Cambridge University. Fishkin doesn't think of herself as rewriting history. "We tend to think of the past as fixed," she says, "but in fact it's very fluid."

KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH
ANNE MAIER in Houston

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