"Illustrating Huckleberry Finn"
By E.W. Kemble
I was a budding cartoonist on the Daily Graphic
in 1881 when that paper was the only illustrated daily in
New York. Newspapers had not begun to publish pictures,
and Thomas Nast reigned supreme as the master cartoonist
of the country.
Harper's Weekly turned up its dignified nose at
this little upstart of a paper, and Leslie's
Weekly sneered at its impudence. The idea of an
illustrated daily! At all events, it did very nicely for
a spell, but when the daily newspapers began to use
pictures it gave a few convulsive gasps and died.
Then along came Life. Its appearance caused the
know-it-alls to stick their tongues in their cheeks and,
holding the small publication at arm's length, exclaim,
"Ten cents for that? What gall!"
I remember my first visit to the editorial department
of this unique publication. John Ames Mitchell was the
founder and editor in chief and Henry Guy Carleton was
associate editor. Mitchell's studio was used as the
office. Between towering rows of returned copies a narrow
trail had been cleared, and through this I timidly made
my way. Carleton was sitting nearest the door, so I made
my entrance speech to him. "Are you the art editor?"
Unfortunately he stammered badly, and while he was
gathering a reply I sidled in the direction he pointed
and repeated my inquiry to the only other visible
individual. This was Mitchell, and he also had a slight
hesitancy in his delivery, accompanied by a nervous
movement of the hands.
I thought they were playing a joke on me and was about
to retreat when I was asked to sit down. Then and there
began a most pleasant friendship with both men which
lasted for years.
"The Thompson Street Poker Club" by Carleton ran in
Life for many weeks, and I made the pictures for
it. Cyanide Whiffles, Tootles Williams and the other
members of the club were types I delighted in
While contributing to Life I made a small
picture of a little boy being stung by a bee. Mark Twain
had completed the manuscript of "Huckleberry Finn" and
had set up a relative, Charles L. Webster, in the
Casting about for an illustrator, Mark Twain happened
to see this picture. It had action and expression, and
bore a strong resemblance to his mental conception of
Huck Finn. I was sent for and immediately got in touch
with Webster. The manuscript was handed me and the fee
asked for--two thousand dollars--was graciously allowed.
I had begun drawing professionally two years before this
date, and was now at the ripe old age of twenty-three.
Homeward I trod with nimble feet--they had really been
made nimble by a season's training for the one-hundred
and two-twenty yard dashes at the Mott Haven track of the
NewYork Athletic Club. My home was not far from this
place and the Harlem River but a short distance beyond,
and what a blessing it was to my physical well-being that
on my off days I could don running trunks and spiked
shoes for an hour of practise sprints, or go to the boat
house, array myself in a pair of gorgeous red running
trunks and a sleeveless jersey with Mercury's winged foot
spread o'er my youthful chest, and get into a racing gig
for a pull up the mud-colored waterway.
Now began the important job of getting a model. The
story called for a variety of characters, old and young,
male and female. In the neighborhood I came across a
youngster, Cort Morris by name, who tallied with my idea
of Huck. He was a bit tall for the ideal boy, but I could
jam him down a few pegs in my drawing and use him for the
From the beginning I never depended upon models but
preferred to pick my types out of the ether, training my
mind to visualize them. So I engaged my youthful model,
and I remember that from the very start he became
immensely popular among his feminine schoolmates as all
of his income went for sweetmeats which were duly
distributed on his homeward journeys from the seat of
I had a large room in the top of our house which I
used as a studio. Here I collected my props for the work.
I spent the forenoon completing the drawing, using "Huck"
as soon as he was released from school. He was always
grinning, and one side of his cheek was usually well
padded with a "sour ball" or a huge wad of molasses
taffy. Throwing his wool cap and muslin-covered
schoolbooks on a lounge, he would ask what was wanted at
this session. I would designate the character. "We will
do the old woman who spots Huck as he is trying to pass
for a girl." Donning an old sunbonnet and slipping
awkwardly into a faded skirt, Cort would squat on a low
splint-bottomed chair and become the most woebegone
female imaginable. Forthwith he would relieve his
extended cheek of its burden of taffy with a mighty gulp.
I would make a simple outline sketch on yellow toned
paper and then take a rest, during which Cort would pop a
"cocoanut strip" into his grinning mouth.
For the King, Cort wore an old frock coat and padded
his waist line with towels until he assumed the proper
rotundity. Then he would mimic the sordid old reprobate
and twist his boyish face into the most outlandish
expressions. If I could have drawn the grimaces as they
were I would have had a convulsing collection of comics,
but these would not have jibed
with the text, and I was forced to forego them.
I used my young model for every character in the
story--man, woman and child. Jim the Negro seemed to
please him the most. He would jam his little black wool
cap over his head, shoot out his lips and mumble coon
talk all the while he was posing. Grown to manhood,
"Huck" is now a sturdy citizen of Philadelphia, connected
with an established business house.
This Negro Jim, drawn from a white schoolboy, with
face unblackened, started something in my artistic
career. Several advance chapters of "Huckleberry Finn"
were published in the Century Magazine, then under
the able editorship of Richard Watson Gilder and a select
staff of assistants. My picture caught the fancy of Mr.
Gilder and W. Lewis Frazer, the art director. I was asked
to call and exhibit my wares. I went to Life and
borrowed a few originals, but not one picture contained a
"We want to see some of your Negro drawings," Mr.
"I have none," I replied. "I've never made any until
this one in Huck Finn."
The art editor looked dubious. "I have several stories
I would like to have you illustrate, but they are all of
"Let me try," I urged, "and if they do not suit the
text you need not use or pay for them."
I made the drawings. Mr. Frazer nodded his head as he
looked at them.
"I guess they'll go. We'll strike off some proofs and
send them to the authors and see what they say."
The proofs were sent and soon came back with the stamp
of approval. One author went so far as to declare: "At
last you have an artist who knows the South." I had, up
to that time, never been further south than Sandy Hook.
My coons caught the public fancy. The Century then
engaged me to work exclusively for their magazine. This
continued for several years, and all the stories from
those charming writers of the South, Thomas Nelson Page,
James Lane Allen, Harry Stilwell Edwards, Richard Malcom
Johnson and George W. Cable, were placed in my hands for
picture work. I was established as a delineator of the
South, the Negro being my specialty, and, as I have
mentioned, I had never been South at all. I didn't go for
two years more. Then I told Mr. Gilder that it was high
time for me to go and see what the real article looked
like. He agreed with me. After visiting several
plantations and noting the local color, a thing I had
missed but had not attempted to carry out to any extent
in my pictures, I found that my types were, in most
cases, the counterparts of those surrounding me. I had
seen the Negro of the city but he was a different bird
from the plantation product, both in carriage and dress.
It all seems so strange to me now, that a single subject,
a Negro, drawn from a pose given me by a lanky white
schoolboy, should have started me on a career that has
lasted for forty-five years, especially as I had no more
desire to specialize in that subject than I had in the
Chinaman or the Malay pirate.
Years later I sat beside Mark Twain at a luncheon in
the home of Mrs. Clarence Mackay. I had not seen him in
all the intervening years. His face bore no trace of the
siege he had been through when the firm of Charles L.
Webster went bankrupt and he began his lecture tour,
paying back every dollar of the indebtedness. We fell to
talking of the past--its writers and illustrators. Abbey
had never been equaled, he contended. His delightful
drawings for Herrick's " Poems," for "She Stoops to
Conquer" and "The Quiet Life" stamped him as a master of
his craft. Frost stood alone in his humor. There were
Smedley, Reinhart and Remington, a little group of
shining lights undimmed by time. We spoke of Huck Finn
and I told him of my model and of the various uses to
which I had put him. He seemed greatly amused and wanted
me to enlighten him about my beginnings as an
From early childhood I had kept a pencil busy night
and day when freed from the irksome task of home study,
which I thoroughly abhorred, drawing anything that
tickled my fancy--soldiers, Indians, long processions of
circus parades. These I would cut out with scissors and
place on a seam in the carpet, where they would stretch
from wall to wall, and woe betide any one who disarranged
this imposing aggregation. My mother was the principal
offender, for the long skirts of that day swept my
creations into discordant combinations. Then came
boarding-school, where I indulged in caricatures of the
teachers. School days over, I had several small positions
at office work, capped with an all-important job in the
Western Union Telegraph Company. In the auditor's
department I toyed with long rows of figures until I
could see them at night crawling over the bedspread.
Whilst engaged in guarding the finances of this
important institution I spent my evenings drawing various
whims and fancies. My father suggested that I think up
some timely ideas, do them in ink and take them to some
periodical. I made four small comics, signed my name in a
conspicuous place on each sketch, and, on the following
day, sallied forth at the luncheon hour to the house of
Harper & Brothers in Franklin Square. Up the winding
iron stairway I climbed and sought the art department, a
small boxed-in enclosure presided over by Charles
Parsons. Standing with hat in one hand and my boyish
attempt at humor in the other, I waited patiently for the
elderly gentleman in charge to address me. He looked up
from a desk piled high with art and beckoned me. I gave
him the package and was told to call in a few days and he
would enlighten me as to their availability.
I went back to my desk and dismissed the sketches from
my mind. Several days later, while indulging in my
noonday feast--a plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes,
bread and butter, all for fifteen cents at Smith and
McNeel's Restaurant on Fulton Street--I remembered my
drawings. "A few days" had passed. The meal was rapidly
disposed of and I hastened to the publishing house to
learn the verdict. Maybe they would give me a dollar or
two for one of them. (My salary at the Western Union was
ten dollars a week.)
Up the spiral stairway I went with dubious
forebodings; in a mild and timid tone I half whispered my
request that I had come for my sketches.
"What name?" the director asked me. I gulped and
"Oh, yes," he replied. "You don't wish to take them
all home with you, do you?" He smiled, and going to his
desk, wrote something on a printed slip and handed it to
me. "If you will take that to the cashier on the main
floor he will give you the money. It is for seventy
dollars." How I got down the circular iron stairway I
have never been able to learn--whether I slid, tumbled or
jumped. The cashier, a beetle-browed individual, glared
at me, wrote something in a large book, came out from his
cage-like enclosure and directed me to sign on the dotted
line. Then he went back to his cage and through a tiny
window poked seventy dollars in gold at me.
I pocketed my treasure and went back to my work. Every
column I added up that afternoon seemed to have a seven
in the total. I was reprimanded by the auditor for my
carelessness. That evening, for fear that I would be
robbed I ignored 'bus and street car and walked the
entire distance from Vesey Street to Forty-third, where I
lived. The following week I resigned my mathematical
position and joined the Daily Graphic as a staff
The marvelous methods of an art department of that
period are worth recording. A spacious loft on the top
floor of the plant served as the studio. Some ten budding
geniuses were seated at tables where their shares in the
pictorial features were given them by the art director.
Each man was more or less a specialist in his particular
line. Gray Parker did horses and social events. Cusaks, a
Spaniard, did any old thing and sang snatches from
"Carmen" while doing it. Zenope, a Turk, did portraits
and delivered monologues of children reciting bits from
their Sunday-school lessons. C. V. Taylor, long and
lanky, with spreading side-whiskers, did cartoons and
street scenes. I was cartoonist and character artist.
George B. Lucks was a contributor and did wonderful song
and dance acts for us whenever he paid a visit to the
sanctum. If the West Point cadets were to parade on the
following day, a full page spread had to be done the day
before. The reviewing stand was put in by one man, the
cadets drawn by the military genius, the mayor and his
guests inserted by the portrait man, and then the whole
masterpiece was pieced together and made ready for the
photographer in an adjoining room. The thing that always
bothered us most was the weather forecast. We would wait
until the last minute and if a report came from the
weather bureau announcing "rain tomorrow," the rain
specialist, who was skilled at making an open umbrella
from a bird's-eye point of view, covered the whole opus
with his product. Completed, the plate was made and the
paper went to bed, and invariably the day of the parade
just reeked with sunshine.
"Huckleberry Finn" was filmed a few years ago, and the
director, the lamented William Desmond Taylor, who was
mysteriously murdered in Hollywood soon after the picture
was released, took a copy of the original edition and
made his characters fit my drawings. I had not seen the
book in years, and as my characters appeared on the
screen, resembling my types so faithfully, even as to
pose, my mind ran back to the lanky boy who posed for me
and the pride I had felt in doing my first book.
This first-hand narrative of the illustrating of
Huckleberry Finn was written for THE COLOPHON in