[In Was Huck Black? Shelley Fisher Fishkin proposes that the following sketch,
written by MT in the early 1870s, should be considered as a crucial part of the imaginative
process that led him to Huck Finn. As she notes, it is not only among his first
representations of an African American voice; it is also his first extended transcription of a
From The New York Times,|
29 November 1874
[I sent the following home in a private letter some time ago from a certain little village. It was in the days when I was a public lecturer. I did it because I wished to preserve the memory of the most artless, sociable, and exhaustless talker I ever came across. He did not tell me a single remarkable thing, or one that was worth remembering; and yet he was himself so interested in his small marvels, and they flowed so naturally and comfortably from his lips that his talk got the upper hand of my interest, too, and I listened as one who receives a revelation. I took down what he had to say, just as he said it -- without altering a word or adding one.]
I had my supper in my room this evening (as usual), and they sent up a bright, simple, guileless little darky boy to wait on me -- ten years old -- a wide-eyed, observant little chap. I said:
"What is your name, my boy?"
"Dey calls me Jimmy, sah, but my right name's James, sah."
I said, "Sit down there, Jimmy -- I'll not want you just yet."
He sat down in a big arm chair, hung both his legs over one of the arms, and looked comfortable and conversational. I said:
"Did you have a pleasant Christmas, Jimmy?"
"No, sah -- not zackly. I was kind o' sick den. But de res' o' de people dey had a good time -- mos' all uv 'em had a good time. Dey all got drunk. Dey all gits drunk heah, every Christmas, and carries on and has awful good times."
"So you were sick and lost it all. But unless you were very sick I should think that if you had asked the doctor he might have let you get -- get -- a little drunk -- and -- "
"Oh, no, sah -- I don' never git drunk -- it's de white folks -- dem's de ones I mean. Pa used to git drunk, but dat was befo' I was big -- but he's done quit. He don' git drunk no mo' now. Jis' takes one sip in de mawnin', now, cuz his stomach riles up, he sleeps so soun'. Jis' one sip - over to de s'loon -- every mawnin'. He's powerful sickly -- powerful -- sometimes he can't hardly git aroun', he can't. He goes to de doctor every week -- over to Ragtown. An' one time he tuck some stuff, you know, an' it mighty near fetched him. Ain't it dish yer blue vittles dat's pison? -- ain't dat it? -- truck what you pisons cats wid?"
"Yes, blue vittles [vitriol] is a very convincing article with a cat."
"Well, den, dat was it. De ole man, he tuck de bottle and shuck it, and shuck it -- he seed it was blue, and he didn't know but it was blue mass, which he tuck mos always -- blue mass pills -- but den he 'spected maybe dish yer truck might be some other kin' o' blue stuff; and so he sot de bottle down, and drat it if it wa'n't blue vittles, sho' nuf when de doctor come. An' de doctor he say if he'd a tuck dat blue vittles it would a highsted him, sho. People can't be too particlar 'bout sich things. Yes, indeedy!
"We ain't got no cats heah, 'bout dis hotel. Bill he don't like 'em. He can't stan' a cat no way. Ef he was to ketch one he'd slam it outen de winder in a minute. Yes he would. Bill's down on cats. So is de gals -- waiter gals. When dey ketches a cat bummin' aroun' heah, dey jis' scoops him -- 'deed dey do. Dey snake him into de cistern -- dey's been cats drownded in dat water dat's in yo' pitcher. I seed a cat in dere yistiddy -- all swelled up like a pudd'n. I bet you dem gals done dat. Ma says if dey was to drownd a cat for her, de fust one of 'em she ketched she'd jam her into de cistern 'long wid de cat. Ma wouldn't do dat, I don't reckon, but 'deed an' double, she said she would. I can't kill a chicken -- well, I kin wring its neck off, cuz dat don't make 'em no sufferin' scacely; but I can't take and chop dey heads off, like some people kin. It makes me feel so -- so -- well, I kin see dat chicken nights so's I can't sleep. Mr. Dunlap, he's de richest man in dis town. Some people says dey's fo' thousan' people in dis town -- dis city. But Bill says dey ain't but 'bout thirty-three hund'd. And Bill he knows, cuz he's lived heah all his life, do' dey do say he won't never set de river on fire. I don't know how dey fin' out -- I wouldn't like to count all dem people. Some folks says dis town would be considerable bigger if it wa'n't on accounts of so much lan' all roun' it dat ain't got no houses on it." [This in perfect seriousness -- dense simplicity -- no idea of a joke.] "I reckon you seed dat church as you come along up street. Dat's an awful big church -- awful high steeple. An' it's all solid stone, excep' jes de top part -- de steeple, I means -- dat's wood. It falls off when de win' blows pooty hard, an' one time it stuck in a cow's back and busted de cow all to de mischief. It's gwine to kill somebody yit, dat steeple is. A man -- big man, he was -- bigger'n what Bill is -- he tuck it up dere and fixed it again -- an' he didn't look no bigger'n a boy, he was so high up. Dat steeple's awful high. If you look out de winder you kin see it." [I looked out, and was speechless with awe and admiration -- which gratified Jimmy beyond expression. The wonderful steeple was some sixty or seventy feet high, and had a clock-face on it.] "You see dat arrer on top o' dat steeple? Well, sah, dat arrer is pooty nigh as big as dis do' [door]. I seed it when dey pulled it outen de cow. It mus' be awful to stan' in dat steeple when de clock is strikin' -- dey say it is. Booms and jars so's you think the world's a comin' to an end. I wouldn't like to be up dere when de clock's a strikin'. Dat clock ain't just a striker, like dese common clocks. It's a bell -- jist a reglar bell -- and it's a buster. You can hear dat bell all over dis city. You ought to hear it boom, boom, boom, when dey's a fire. My sakes! Dey ain't got no bell like dat in Ragtown. I ben to Ragtown, and I ben mos' halfway to Dockery [thirty miles]. De bell in Ragtown's got so old now she don't make no soun' scacely."
[Enter the landlord -- a kindly man, verging toward fifty. My small friend, without changing position, says]:
"Bill, didn't you say dat dey was only thirty-three hund'd people in dis city?"
"Yes, about thirty-three hundred is the population now."
"Well, some folks says dey's fo' thousan'."
"Yes, I know they do; but it isn't correct."
"Bill, I don't think this gen'lman kin eat a whole prairie chicken, but de tole me to fetch it all up."
"Yes, that's right -- he ordered it."
[Exit "Bill," leaving me comfortable; for I had been perishing to know who "Bill" was.]
"Bill, he's de oldest. And he's de bes', too. Dey's fo'teen in dis fam'ly -- all boys an' gals. Bill he suppo'ts 'em all -- an' he don' never complain -- he's real good, Bill is. All dem brothers an' sisters o' his'n ain't no 'count -- all ceptin' dat little teeny one dat fetched in dat milk. Dat's Kit, sah. She ain't only nine year ole. But she's de mos' lady-like one in de whole bilin'. You don't never see Kit a-rairin' an' a chargin' aroun' an' kickin' up her heels like de res' o' de gals in dis fam'ly does gen'ally. Dat was Nan dat you hearn a cuttin' dem shines on de pi-anah while ago. An' sometimes ef she don't rastle dat pi-anah when she gits started! Tab can't hole a candle to her, but Tab kin sing like de very nation. She's de only one in dis fam'ly dat can sing. You don't never hear a yelp outen Nan. Nan can't sing for shucks. I'd jes lieves hear a tom-cat dat's got scalded. Dey's fo'teen in dis fam'ly 'sides de ole man and de ole 'ooman -- all brothers an' sisters. But some of 'em don't live heah -- do' Bill he suppo'ts 'em -- lends 'em money, an' pays dey debts an' he'ps 'em along. I tell you Bill he's real good. Dey all gits drunk -- all 'cep Bill. De ole man he gits drunk, too, same as de res' uv 'em. Bob, he don't git drunk much -- jes' sloshes roun' de s'loons some, an' takes a dram sometimes. Bob he's next to Bill -- bout forty year old. Dey's all married -- all de fam'ly's married -- cep' some of de gals. Dere's fo'teen. It's de biggest fam'ly in dese parts, dey say. Dere's Bill -- Bill Nubbles -- Nubbles is de name; Bill, an' Grig, an' Duke, an' Bob, an' Nan, an' Tab, an' Kit, an' Sol, an' Si, an' Phil, an' Puss, an'Jake, an' Sal -- Sal she's married an' got chil'en as big as I is -- an' Hoss Nubbles, he's de las'. Hoss is what dey mos' always calls him, but he's got another name dat I somehow disremember, it's so kind o' hard to git de hang of it." [Then, observing that I had been taking down the extraordinary list of nicknames for adults, he said:] "But in de mawnin' I can ask Bill what's Hoss's other name, an' den I'll come up an' tell you when I fetches yo' breakfast. An' maybe I done got some o' dem names mixed up, but Bill, he kin tell me. Dey's fo'teen."
By this time he was starting off with the waiter (and a pecuniary consideration for his sociability), and, as he went out, he paused a moment and said:
"Dad fetch it, somehow dat other name don't come. But, anyways, you jes read dem names over and see if dey's fo'teen." [I read the list from the flyleaf of Longfellow's New England Tragedies.] "Dat's right, sah. Dey's all down. I'll fetch up Hoss's other name in the mawnin', sah. Don't you be oneasy."
[Exit whistling "Listen to the Mocking Bird."]