Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices
Published in 1884, Huck Finn has become one of the most widely taught novels in American curricula. But where did Huckleberry Finn come from, and what made it so distinctive? Shelley Fisher Fishkin suggests that in Huckleberry Finn, more than in any other work, Mark Twain let African-American voices, language, and rhetorical traditions play a major role in the creation of his art. In Was Huck Black?, Fishkin combines close readings of published and unpublished writing by Twain with intensive biographical and historical research and insights gleaned from linguistics, literary theory, and folklore to shed new light on the role African-American speech played in the genesis of Huckleberry Finn. Given that book's importance in American culture, her analysis illuminates, as well, how the voices of African-Americans have shaped our sense of what is distinctively "American" about American literature.
Fishkin shows that Mark Twain was surrounded, throughout his life, by richly talented African-American speakers whose rhetorical gifts Twain admired candidly and profusely. A black child named Jimmy whom Twain called "the most artless, sociable and exhaustless talker I ever came across" helped Twain understand the potential of a vernacular narrator in the years before he began writing Huckleberry Finn, and served as a model for the voice with which Twain would transform American literature. A slave named Jerry whom Twain referred to as an "impudent and satirical and delightful young black man" taught Twain about "signifying"--satire in an African-American vein--when Twain was a teenager (later Twain would recall that he thought him "the greatest man in the United States" at the time). Other African-American voices left their mark on Twain's imagination as well--but their role in the creation of his art has never been recognized. Was Huck Black? adds a new dimension to current debates over multiculturalism and the canon.
American literary historians have told a largely segregated story: white writers come from white literary ancestors, black writers from black ones. The truth is more complicated and more interesting. While African-American culture shaped Huckleberry Finn, that novel, in turn, helped shape African-American writing in the twentieth century. As Ralph Ellison commented in an interview with Fishkin, Twain "made it possible for many of us to find our own voices." Was Huck Black? dramatizes the crucial role of black voices in Twain's art, and takes the first steps beyond traditional cultural boundaries to unveil an American literary heritage that is infinitely richer and more complex than we had thought.
About the Author
Shelley Fisher Fishkin's principal concern throughout her career has been literature and social justice. Much of her work has focused on issues of race and racism in America, and on recovering and interpreting voices that were silenced, marginalized, or ignored in America's past.
Her broad, interdisciplinary research interests have led her to focus on topics including the challenge of doing transnational American Studies; the place of humor and satire in movements for social change; the role literature can play in the fight against racism; the influence of African American voices on canonical American literature; the need to desegregate American literary studies; the relationship between public history and literary history; literature and animal welfare; the ways in which American writers' apprenticeships in journalism shaped their poetry and fiction; American theatre history; and the development of feminist criticism. Although many of her publications have centered on Mark Twain, she has also published on writers including Gloria Anzaldúa, John Dos Passos, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Dreiser, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Erica Jong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Malkiel, Tillie Olsen, Tino Villanueva, and Walt Whitman.
After receiving her B.A.from Yale College (summa cum laude, phi beta kappa), she stayed on at Yale for a masters degree in English and a Ph.D. in American Studies, and was Director of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism there. She taught American Studies and English at the University of Texas at Austin from 1985 to 2003, and was Chair of the Department of American Studies. She is a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University, England, where she was a Visiting Fellow, has twice been a Visiting Scholar at Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender and has been a Faculty Research Fellow at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and at Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She has been awarded an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, was a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in Japan, and was the winner of a Harry H. Ransom Teaching Excellence Award at the University of Texas.
Dr. Fishkin is the author, editor, co-author, or co-editor of forty-eight books and has published over one hundred fifty articles, essays, columns, and reviews. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Georgian, and Italian, and has been published in English-language journals in China, Turkey, Japan, and Korea.
Her most recent monograph is Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (named runner-up for the best book award in the general nonfiction category, London Book Festival, 2015) (Rutgers University Press, 2015; paperback, 2017), a book that Junot Díaz called "a triumph of scholarship and passion, a profound exploration of the many worlds which comprise our national canon....a book that redraws the literary map of the United States." She is also the author of: From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America (winner of a Frank Luther Mott/Kappa Tau Alpha Award for outstanding research in journalism history) (Johns Hopkins, 1985); Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices (selected as an "Outstanding Academic Book " by Choice) (Oxford, 1993); Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford, 1997); and Feminist Engagements: Forays Into American Literature and Culture (selected as an "Outstanding Academic Title" by Choice) (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009). She is the editor of the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain (Oxford, 1996; Paperback reprint edition, 2009) - an edition that Modern Language Review called "an act of genius." She is also editor of the Oxford Historical Guide to Mark Twain (Oxford, 2002), "Is He Dead? " A New Comedy by Mark Twain (University of California, 2003), Mark Twain's Book of Animals (University of California Press, 2009), and The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on his LIfe and Work (Library of America, 2010).
She helped guide Is He Dead?, a neglected play by Mark Twain that she uncovered in the archives, to Broadway. She was a producer of Is He Dead?, adapted by David Ives, which had its world debut on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre in 2007, and was nominated for a Tony Award. Since it closed on Broadway, it has had 451 productions in 48 states and Australia, Canada, China, Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom.
She is the co-editor, most recently, of The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (Stanford University Press, 2019), as well as Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism (Oxford, 1994); People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity (Wisconsin, 1996); The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America (3 vols., M.E. Sharpe, 1997); 'Sport of the Gods' and Other Essential Writing by Paul Laurence Dunbar (Random House, 2005), Anthology of American Literature, ninth edition (Prentice-Hall, 2006), Concise Anthology of American Literature, seventh edition (Prentice-Hall, 2011), a special issue of Arizona Quarterly on Mark Twain at the Turn of the Century, 1890-1910 (2005);and a special issue of African American Review devoted to the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar (autumn 2007). From 1993 to 2003 she co-edited Oxford University Press's "Race and American Culture " book series with Arnold Rampersad.
She has served as President of the American Studies Association and of the Mark Twain Circle of America. She was co-founder of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman society, and was chair of the MLA Nonfiction Prose Division. She has given keynote talks at conferences in Basel, Beijing, Cambridge, Coimbra, Copenhagen, Dublin, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Hyderabad, Jiangmen, Kolkata, Kunming, Kyoto, La Coruña, Lisbon, Mainz, Nanjing, Regensburg, Seoul, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, and across the U.S. Her research has been featured twice on the front page of the New York Times, and twice on the front page of the New York Times Arts section.
In June 2019, the American Studies Association created a new prize, the "Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies." The prize honors publications by scholars outside the United States that present original research in transnational American Studies. In its announcement of the new award, the ASA said, "Shelley Fisher Fishkin's leadership in creating a crossoads for international scholarly collaboration and exchange has transformed the field of American Studies in both theory and practice. This award honors Professor Fishkin's outstanding dedication to the field by promoting exceptional scholarship that seeks multiple perspectives that enable comprehensive and complex approaches to American Studies, and which produce culturally, socially, and politically significant insights and interpretations relevant to Americanists around the world."
In 2017 she was awarded the John S. Tuckey lifetime achievement award by the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the first woman to receive this award, which was established in 1991, and is given every four years). The award announcement recognized her efforts "to assure that a rigorous, dynamic account of Twain stays in the public consciousness," and stated that "Nobody has done more to recruit, challenge, and inspire new generations and new genres of Mark Twain studies." In 2009 she was awarded the Mark Twain Circle's Certificate of Merit "for long and distinguished service in the elucidation of the work, thought, life and art of Mark Twain."
The Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and Professor of English at Stanford, she is Director of Stanford's American Studies Program. She served as a member of the Board of Governors of the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California, and was a member of the international jury for the 2013 Francqui Prize (awarded to an outstanding young scholar in Belgium). In 2009 she co-founded the online, open-access, peer-reviewed Journal of Transnational American Studies.
She is co-founder and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project with Gordon H. Chang, the Olive H. Palmer Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at Stanford. The Project is a collaborative transnational, bilingual research project dealing with the Chinese Railroad Workers whose labor helped establish the wealth that allowed Leland Stanford to build Stanford University. Its goal is to try to recover their experience and their world more fully than ever before, and to understand how these workers have figured in cultural memory in the U.S. and China. Her recent publications related to this project include “Seeing Absence, Evoking Presence: History and the Art of Zhi Lin” in Rock Hushka, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Shawn Wong, Zhi LIN: In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads. Tacoma, Washington: Tacoma Art Museum, (2017); 從天使城到長島：美洲橫貫鐵路竣工後在美國的鐵路華工[“From Los Angeles to Long Island: Chinese Railroad Workers in America after the Transcontinental”] in 北美鐵路華工：歷史、文學與視覺再現 [Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Recovery and Representation], edited by Hsinya Huang [黃心雅] Taipei: Bookman [台北：書林出版社] (2017); and "The Chinese as Railroad Workers after Promontory" in The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental, edited by Fishkin and Chang (Stanford University Press, 2019). Her edition of Why and How the Chinese Emigrate, and the means they adopt for the purpose of reaching America by Russell Conwell (1871), was published in China in 2019 as 《为何与如何：中国人为何出国与如何进入美国》 (1871) edited, with original introduction, notes and appendices, by Fishkin, and translated by YAO Ting [姚婷] (Beijing: China Overseas Chinese Publishing House). It is the first Chinese translation of this important but neglected nineteenth-century text which is a surprising precursor to the New Journalism of the 1960s.
The Chinese Railroad Workers Project has received support from the President of Stanford, the UPS Fund at Stanford, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2019, a jury of top professionals in architecture, engineering, planning and history awarded a 60-panel bilingual Chinese Workers and the Railroad Traveling Exhibit organized by the Project a Preservation Design Award and a Trustees' Award for Excellence from the California Preservation Foundation. (The exhibit, which debuted at Stanford, has traveled to venues around the US including Boston City Hall and the Utah State Capital; public libraries in California, Ohio, Michigan, and Utah; San Diego State University and Menlo College; the California State Railroad Museum and the Stanford Mansion in Sacramento; the Niles Canyon Railway Museum (Fremont, CA), and Blackhawk Museum (Danville, CA); community centers and Asian festivals around the country; and Wuyi University (Jiangmen, China).
Two other current projects involve collaborations with colleagues in translation studies and computer science at the Université de Lille in France (Ronald Jenn and Amel Fraisse). One is a transnational print and digital project that tracks the global circulation of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the cultural work the novel performs in a wide range contexts, a project supported by Maison Européenne des Science de l’Homme et de la Société (MESHS). A Special Forum entiitled "Global Huck: Mapping the Cultural Work of Translations of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is forthcoming in the Journal of Transnatonal American Studies, co-edited by Fishkin and Jenn with Tsuyoshi Ishihara (Uniiversty of Tokyo), Holger Kersten (University of Halle-Wittenberg), and Selina Lai-Henderson (Duke Kunshan University). The second is the ROSETTA Project - Resources for Endangered Languages Through Translated Texts, a project designed to develop resources for digitally under-resourced languages through translations of Huckleberry Finn, a project supported by the France-Stanford Center. The ROSETTA Project recently organized a workshop at Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) on Digital Humanities to Preserve Knowledge and Cultural Heritage that will become a special issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities and Data Mining. The ROSETTA Project and Global Huck are also supported by Huma-Num (la TGIR des humanités numériques).
Her current book project is entitled Citizen Twain: Mark Twain and Hal Holbrook on Racism, Jingoism and Corruption.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin is interviewed by CGTN about the history of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.
New American Studies Prize named for Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Giving Voice to Chinese Railroad Workers
Chinese Railroad Workers on the Long Island Railroad
Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Website
Lifetime Achievement Award in Mark Twain Studies
Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee
Featured Interview in Inside Higher Education
The Journal of Transnational American Studies
American Studies Program at Stanford
Featured Interview in Americana