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Mark, Huck, and Jimmy

IF I'd `a' knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't `a' tackled it. - Huck Finn

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" probably is the great American novel. Walker Percy said of its rival, Moby Dick, that since he couldn't imagine old boys from North Carolina saying "Let's go a-whaling!" that Moby was the great New England novel.

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Huck Finn emerges from the heartland, literally and figuratively. The journey of Huck and runaway slave Jim on a raft down the Mississippi River, where they muse on creation (so many stars the moon must've laid 'em, like a frog), escape murderers, meet lovable and pathetic frauds and hucksters, and get into scrapes, quarrels, and plots, is a window on the vast byways of human nature.

University of Texas scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin now theorizes that the voice of that window, Huck - who narrates the entire novel - comes from a 10-year old black boy named Jimmy that Twain met once in the Midwest. Dr. Fishkin says the patterns of Huck's speech match Jimmy's, based on an 1874 column Twain wrote on the boy: "He did not tell me a single remarkable thing ... yet he was himself so interested in his small marvels ... that his talk got the upper hand of my interest, too, and I listened as o ne who receives a revelation."

Some find Fishkin's theory terribly reductionist; others say it means US literature en toto derives from a black voice. What's welcome is the consensus that "Huckleberry Finn" is not racist, as often charged, but embodies American multiculturalism.

Huck Finn always did. How beautiful, for example, that the slave Jim becomes the loving father Huck never had. We demur a bit on Fishkin's theory because, as a friend notes, Twain responded to Jimmy because Jimmy was a lot like Twain. The importance of the great American novel is that it's written from the view of the outsider. White Huck and black Jim are outcasts, exiles. Yet their take on "sivilization" is more honest and redeeming.

Twain has seven dialects in "Finn." Even if Jimmy helped "liberate" Twain, as Fishkin says, racial propriety isn't the point. Rather, it is the capacity of hearts to reach past all divides.

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