"Nothing Only Everything Was Cooked By Itself"


A reader writes:

Great series of posts on Buchanan and how black America really is. If I can recommend a book to put the literary angle into the mix (along with the music and pop culture):

Was Huck Black?  Mark Twain and African-American Voices by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. (OUP 1993).

This book examines the personal and cultural roots of the one literary character most often held up as essentially American, and the Great American Novel that somehow simultaneously describes and creates a sense of our national identity.

Fishkin shows how the personal and linguistic origin of Huck as a character could be found in a piece Twain wrote for the New York Times called "Sociable Jimmy," about a servant in a hotel where Twain was staying. This was the first child narrator Twain used, and the character sounds like Huck not in terms of dialect, but in structural ways (use of verbs, coining new words, characteristic discursive practices--voice v. dialect). Furthermore, African-American oral and linguistic traditions of "signifying" and the figure of the trickster come into play throughout the novel.

Money quote, her conclusion:

How will Americans respond to the news that the voice of Huck Finn, the beloved national symbol and cultural icon, was part black?

... Will the forces of reaction demote Huck form his place of honor in the culture and relegate him to a lesser role in the national consciousness--the equivalent of selling him down the river... ?  Or will Huck become an emblem of a society that is now, and has always been, as multiracial and multicultural as the sources of the novel that we have embraced as most expressive of who we really are? 

Early in Huckleberry Finn, Huck complains about the food at the Widow Douglas's:

"When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them.  That is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself.  In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better."

Twain's imagination was closer to Huck's barrel than to the Widow Douglas's separate pots.  As he "mixed up" black voices with white ones, the flavors "swapped around" deliciously.  America's taste in literature would never be the same.

This book changed the way I teach that novel, understand my nation, and myself. 

To be American is to be, in some way, African-American.