Tuesday, December 13, 2011
December 13, 2011: Cross-Culture 2: A Striking Voice
[To follow up and complement last week’s posts on how our understanding of historical periods and communities looks very different through a cross-cultural lens, this week I’ll focus on five seminal moments in American popular culture for which the same is true. This is the second in that series.]
[Also: In response to a couple of reader comments, I’m going to be trying out a new style for this week’s posts, one with mostly shorter paragraphs for potentially less difficult online reading. If it works—and feel free to weigh in!—I’ll try to utilize it for at least some of my posts going forward.]
The most famous voice in American literature, that of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, was quite possibly inspired by, and at the very least is cross-culturally connected to, African American voices.
Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, in Green Hills of Africa (1935; a character expresses the sentiment in dialogue on page 23 of that Google book), that “all modern American literature comes from” Twain’s novel, that “all American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” While public and critical responses to the novel’s themes and representations of (and of course words for) race and identity have of course varied dramatically, both over the years and in contemporary debates, it’s fair to say that perspectives on Twain’s style in the novel have been much more consistent: that the novel’s narration, and more exactly Twain’s creation of the vernacular narrating voice of its title character, is a watershed moment in American literary and cultural history.
While it’s important to reiterate clearly that the most famous single word included (frequently) in Huck’s narration is “nigger,” one prominent Twain scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, has nonetheless made an extended and provocative case that Huck’s identity, and especially his voice, is strikingly connected to African Americans in both Twain’s life and in American culture more generally. Fishkin’s book, Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices (1994), marshals a range of evidence, both from the novel and from biographical, rhetorical, and historical contexts for Twain’s work and period, in support of that perspective. Many other scholars have pushed back on Fishkin’s arguments, including (I note both for full disclosure and to be able to link this great website) a certain AmericanStudier’s Dad, but the fact remains that a core value of literary interpretation is its ability to balance multiple convincing (or at least sophisticated) readings of a work, and Fishkin’s book has to my mind added the possibility of African American influences for Huck’s voice and identity as one such reading to the roster.
In any case, I don’t think we need to go as far as Fishkin to note one strikingly cross-cultural attribute of Huck’s voice (as Twain creates it). Twain’s novel, like much of his early writing, rests comfortably in the post-Civil War sensation that was local color writing (now usually known as regionalism), and thus it might seem no surprise that he works to create authentic dialect voices for his local characters (even though he also makes fun of that practice in the “Explanatory” note that precedes his novel). Yet in my pretty extensive reading of local color literature, I have very rarely encountered another Southern white character who speaks in an uneducated dialect voice; perhaps in order to contrast Southern whites with African Americans, local color writers who focused on this region (most of them in the genre known as the plantation tradition; but I would likewise say this of those like Albion Tourgée and Charles Chesnutt who certainly rejected that genre’s nostalgia) tended to represent the speech of their white characters in standard English and that of black characters with dialect. While Huck’s dialect is of course not identical to Jim’s, its presence at all signals a cross-cultural connection between the two characters and their worlds that is itself striking and (especially for readers of the time) provocative.
None of this of course is a substitute for what Fishkin, Railton Pére, and me would all agree you should do: read the book! But it’s pretty neat to think that one of the voices with which all modern American literature originated was cross-cultural in core and crucial ways. Another moment tomorrow,
PS. Any cross-cultural literary characters or works you’d highlight?