The Colophon: A Book Collectors' Quarterly
    February 1930

"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 portraying.

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 publishing business.

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 other characters.

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 learning.

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 Negro type.

"We want to see some of your Negro drawings," Mr. Frazer said.

"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 the South."

"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 illustrator.

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 murmured "Kemble."

"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 artist.

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 December, 1929