PARIS, ILL. —
The block offers no hints of its place in American literary history.
Customers dodge raindrops, walking in and out of an auto parts store. Down the street is an insurance agency, a couple of taverns, an antiques shop and a pizza parlor. The sidewalk leads to the Paris town square. East Court Street functions quietly on a dreary afternoon last week.
Yet, this was the site of a transformative moment in the life of Mark Twain, whose 1876 novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” will be the focus of “The Big Read” next month, an annual effort by Wabash Valley libraries to encourage reading of classic literature. It was here, in this section of Paris, that Twain chatted with a young boy named William Evans, who brought the touring writer his dinner in the Paris House Hotel on a similarly drizzly weekend in late December 1871.
The African-American youngster’s speaking style captivated Twain and inspired the voice of Huckleberry Finn, the mischievous sidekick in the “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and the protagonist and child-narrator of Twain’s subsequent 1884 epic the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Twain famously explained that he based the lifestyle of Huck — the unwashed, unscholarly yet good-hearted son of the town drunk — on the writer’s own boyhood acquaintance in Hannibal, Mo., Tom Blankenship.
Huck’s speech and storytelling skills have been traced to another real-life Twain experience decades later.
Twain came to Paris for a Dec. 30, 1871, lecture during a nationwide tour, telling humorous tales of his wild exploits in the American West. That weekend, William — a loquacious hotel servant — delivered a prairie chicken dinner to Twain. And they talked. Mostly, Twain listened. Their discussion altered the novelist’s future work, said Twain researcher and author Shelley Fisher Fishkin.
“I think Paris can lay claim to being the site of one of the most important conversations in literary history,” Fishkin, director of American studies at Stanford University, said by telephone from California. She researched the connection for her 1993 book “Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices,” and afterward, along with Twain biographer and Indiana State University professor Michael Shelden, and former ISU grad student Nicole Kaczorek.
Uncovering the link
Paris’ niche isn’t widely known.
Nancy Land, a board member of the Edgar County Historical Museum, remembers first hearing the story from late historian Patsy Berry. “Before that, I didn’t know Mark Twain had even ever been to Paris,” Land said while cleaning the museum Monday.
Twain was 36 years old when he checked into the Paris House Hotel, which no longer exists. In 1871, his growing popularity stemmed from humorous short stories such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and the witty chronicle of his travels through Europe and the Holy Land, “The Innocents Abroad,” but his career’s most acclaimed works were yet to come.
William Evans was 6 or 7 years old then, according to Census records Kaczorek located, though Twain thought the boy was around 10. William, the son of railroad engineer Zebedee Evans and Nancy Evans, lived next door to Paris House Hotel keeper Josiah Athon’s residence at 316 Central Ave. William’s parents married in Indiana, where he was born in 1865, and were living in Paris by 1870, Fishkin explained. The boy likely worked for Athon, running errands or toting food trays to guests’ rooms.
William delivered an entree of prairie chicken to Twain. The writer struck up a conversation with “this wide-eyed, observant little chap,” as Twain later wrote in an 1874 New York Times essay entitled, “Sociable Jimmy” — the literary name he gave the youngster. For nearly a century, that Times essay went largely ignored by Twain scholars, except for one obscure notice in 1943. Fishkin’s book highlighted its relevance.
Aside from the introduction, the essay consists entirely of their dialogue. Twain documented their chat “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.”
“Jimmy” sat in a big arm chair in Twain’s room, flopped his legs over one of the arms, and began telling this globetrotting writer about life in Paris — Illinois, that is.
At one point, Jimmy recounts a cow dying a gruesome death after being skewered by a fallen steeple that blew off a church near the hotel where he and Twain were talking. “It mus’ be awful to stand in dat steeple when de clock is strikin’ — dey say it is. Booms and jars so’s you think the world’s comin’ to an end,” Jimmy says in the Twain sketch.
The impact of the kid’s words is clear in a January 1872 letter Twain wrote to his wife, Olivia, in the midst of his travels.
“I think I could swing my legs over the arms of a chair and that boy’s spirit would descend upon me and enter me,” he wrote.
Voice of a child
Though Twain’s “Sociable Jimmy” essay in the Times marked one of his earliest uses of an African-American dialect of that era and region, Fishkin concluded in her book that “Jimmy was mainly a charming and delightful child who captured [Twain’s] heart and captivated his imagination.” To the writer, the revelation was that a child narrator “could be a riveting vehicle to tell a story,” Fishkin said in the telephone interview earlier this month.
“I felt this conversation was an absolutely crucial step in the development of ‘Huck Finn,’” she said of Twain’s 1884 novel.
That book — published six years after Huckleberry Finn emerged as a scruffy, street-wise character in “Tom Sawyer” — has been regarded by some as America’s greatest novel and a scathing criticism of racism and slavery. Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1934 that, “All American writing comes from [‘Huck Finn’]. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Its legacy also includes continued literary debate over Twain’s use of racial slurs in the story of Huck, a white outcast child, and Jim, an escaping slave, delivered in Huck’s first-person narrative.
Nicole Kaczorek assisted in the research of “Sociable Jimmy” in the 1990s as an ISU graduate student, studying under Shelden. The professor later wrote the 2010 biography “Mark Twain — The Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years.” Shelden “had heard there was this historical fact in Edgar County and asked, ‘Does anybody want to research it?’” Kaczorek recalled. Intrigued, she said yes. With Shelden’s guidance, Kaczorek combed through Census records, Paris plat maps, library files and historical archives to verify that “Jimmy” was indeed a real kid named William Evans.
By the time Twain met William in Paris, he’d already written about the scourge of racial discrimination, said Fishkin, who revisited Paris last year with Shelden to further confirm the dates and places behind the historic episode. Another 1874 Twain essay, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” in Atlantic Monthly on the life of Mary Ann Cord — a former slave and the cook at his Elmira, N.Y., home — may have been equally important in the development of “Huck Finn,” Fishkin said. Twain used Cord’s first-person narrative to tell her story, too.
The encounter with “Sociable Jimmy” may have reminded Twain of how much he enjoyed listening to engaging African-Americans during his boyhood days. “He is reconnected with those speakers of his own past when he listens to Jimmy,” Fishkin said.
As “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” eventually led to its renowned sequel, Twain drew on that exchange with young William to craft his delivery of the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“And,” Fishkin concluded, “it happens in Paris, Illinois.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.
Voice of a Storyteller: Chance meeting of Twain, Paris youngster inspired narrative voice of Huck Finn
PARIS, ILL. —
The block offers no hints of its place in American literary history.
Telling stories in song
Pieces of Terre Haute’s infamous past gather dust in the town’s metaphorical attic. Closed-up, old baggage — forever linked, like it or not, to the historical record.
Real people lived through those times, but as generations pass, memories of those characters fade and disappear.
Effingham Center bringing ‘Home for Holidays’ show
“Home for the Holidays-American Big Band” is bringing all-time Christmas favorites from Bing to Buble to the Effingham Performance Center at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 19.
Chorus, Quartets offer their holiday concert Dec. 15
The Terre Haute Banks of the Wabash Chorus and Quartets will be presenting their annual Christmas show concert on Sunday at Harmony Hall.
The concert, titled “Home for Christmas,” is to start at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Harmony Hall is at 1257 Lafayette Ave., in Twelve Points on the near north side of Terre Haute.
Effort under way to restore Civil War monument to original grandeur; ‘Soldier of the West’ unique in state of Indiana
“How sleep the brave, who sink to rest with all their country’s wishes blest.”
A lone soldier sits atop Forest Hill Cemetery in Greencastle. He is seated with his foot on a cannon of long ago, looking westward, perhaps toward the future he fought for. “He” is a stone memorial, rising nearly 30 feet in the historic cemetery. He represents all the men, young and old, from Putnam County who fought and died in the Civil War, and he is aptly titled “Soldier of the West.”
Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.
Heightened Sense of Place: Educators’ efforts helped put geography back on map in schools
Geography transcends dots on a map.
Teachers traveling abroad alongside Terre Haute geographer Dorothy Drummond have experienced the real-life cultures, atmosphere and people existing within those dots. An educator herself, Drummond has organized affordable geography tours of foreign lands for Wabash Valley schoolteachers for many years. The journeys involved more than sight-seeing.
Fade to Black: A few local theaters among last to part with century-old 35-mm film
The projectionist behind the first movie shown in the Indiana Theatre nearly 92 years ago would likely feel right at home in that same booth today.
HEALING WATERS: Team River Runner offers inspiration, opens doors for wounded veterans
Some people say the fun of boating on the Wabash is dealing with unexpected challenges such a big body of water can present on certain days; others delight in the wild beauty at Terre Haute’s doorstep, from bald eagles soaring above trees lining the banks of the Wabash to the panorama of the river itself as it curls through woodland in many places reminiscent of primeval splendor seen hundreds of years ago.
Leaving ‘footprints on the sands of time’
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Had I taken the time to read a street map, I would have been able to walk through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historic home four years ago. My daughter, Ellen, and I spent the better part of a day hiking over the grassy hillsides of historic Mount Auburn Cemetery, just a few blocks away from the great poet’s house, and never knew we were that close.
‘Abraham’s Family’: New musical illuminates common ground, value of respect the three Abrahamic faiths can share
At a table inside a Denny’s in Terre Haute on a July night in 2012, a trio of theatrical writers conjured a bold idea.
They considered creating a musical based on the story of Abraham, a religious figure to whom three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — trace their ancestries.
Musical explorer: Quest to see the world is a full-circle journey for Marshall native Chris Bennett
Marshall lies 5,553 miles away from the mountains of Tahiti, far too distant to see from the French Polynesian island paradise.
The small Illinois town can’t be spotted from Germany, either. Or Los Angeles. Or Croatia.
Chris Bennett has performed in all those far-away places, and many others, but her heart needs no GPS to locate her hometown.
Legends of the Valley: Region has its share of spooky stories and paranormal tales
“It’s creepy and it’s kooky, mysterious and spooky, it’s all together ooky,” the Wa-bash Va-al-ley!
Believe it or not — words similar to the old “Addams’ Family” TV show theme song are not far from truth in describing this region that seems to have a high concentration of the paranormal in its legends and modern-day stories — from documented bigfoot sightings, to a long-distance phone call made from inside a tomb, to a ghost at a cemetery you meet after climbing 100 steps — if you dare to count them!
‘Writing is an act of faith ...’ Visiting writer E.B. White, in Brooklin, Maine
BROOKLIN, MAINE — This town of 820 souls sits in the middle of a wonderful nowhere, its craggy toes dangling from rock ledges that hover above the blue Atlantic. For a place that doesn’t seem to have much going on, it has plenty to see, so one day this summer, my wife and I, a week or so into our New England journey, hoped to find the home of writer E.B. White, who lived nearby for over half a century.
Lessons of the Holy Land: New book explores geographic impact of small, but significant place
The appeal of a book based on the geography of a small stretch of land 4,000 years ago might seem limited.
The key is location, location, location, as a real-estate agent might say.
The focal point of a new release involving Terre Haute authors and editors is a place 50 miles wide and 145 miles long — about 10,000 square miles total, or the size of Vermont. The story of that state in 2000 B.C. might garner a niche audience.
River of inspiration: Adventurous spirit leads artist to paint sights up, down the Wabash
Nancy Nichols-Pethick slogged through knee-deep mud in the woods near New Harmony last month. Her quest was to find the ideal view of the Wabash River and sketch the scenery.
Practical knowledge: Retired Parke County resident dedicated career to values, educational bent Extension offers
Being a “guide on the side” with a desire to serve others recently garnered Parke County resident Mark Spelbring the Indiana Extension Educator’s Association’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Career Award.
‘The road less traveled’: The Indiana National Road Association encourages exploration, preservation of ‘the road that built America’
Its significance cannot be overstated. Its past is our past. Our future will be a product of the opportunities it provided. In a young, thriving nation, it loosened the dam on economic development and provided a route for the open floodgates of prosperity. It was the great migration route west. It holds 200 years of history to be uncovered and discovered.
“It” is the Historic National Road, the nation’s first “superhighway.”
Visiting Emily: 'New feet within my garden go...'
In an early stillness that belied the busy streets just outside the door, my wife and I stood in the cool back porch of poet Emily Dickinson’s imposing old house. It was a humid June morning, one that had turned warm after an overnight rain, and there were few visitors to the home of the strange woman who once said, “I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Small towns along southern stretch of river offer peaceful sights, historic stops
A drive along highways running parallel to the Wabash River’s southern miles offers peaceful sights.
Points of interest along the Wabash: A few public access points provide unique peeks at river communities
While giving a presentation on the Wabash to a gathering of Indiana State University’s Osher Lifelong Living Institute in June, river enthusiast Brendan Kearns asked how many people in the audience had been “on the river.”
Rock ‘piano pumper’ Terry Lee bringing his show to Boot City Opry Dec. 14
Rockin’ Terry Lee, “the Rock ’n’ Roll international piano pumper,” returns to the Boot City Opry stage on Saturday.
Terry Lee & The Rockaboogie Band is a show band built around the lightning fast rockaboogie piano playing.
Lee is backed by his long-time Rockaboogie Band with seasoned guitarist Jack E. Harden, who has played professionally for more than 20 years.
GRAPE SENSE: Riedel has been creating grape-specific glasses for nearly 50 years
Anyone serious about wine has probably learned the size of the glass can have an impact on the taste of the wine. You’ve probably seen all those different size and shaped Riedel crystal wine glasses in shops or advertisements and thought it was all silly.
TRIED 'N' TRUE: Tea party cookies, lemon and orange
When you get done with these cookies, you will have two different flavors. Our grandkids loved to make the balls and roll them in powered sugar. I can’t remember when I first got this recipe, but it has to have been at least 40 years ago.
Busy sidewalks … Dec. 6 ‘Miracle on 7th’ event brings crowds downtown
Christmas Music Schedule
Schedule of Events
‘Someday at Christmas’ with Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack coming to ISU Dec. 11
Sandy Hackett’s famous Rat Pack is coming to Terre Haute to ring in a swingin’ holiday season with its critically acclaimed show “Someday at Christmas.”
Hailed as “extremely strong and hugely entertaining,” “Someday at Christmas” blends the classic charisma of the golden age of Las Vegas with some of Ron Miller’s greatest Christmas hits.
Community Theatre offers up family show ‘Babes in Toyland’ in December
Community Theatre of Terre Haute celebrates the season with the holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” based on the operetta by Victor Herbert & Glen MacDonough. It opens this Friday and continues through the weekend.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Sustainability hubs will leave the world a better place
There is something powerful that happens when people ban together for greater good. In many cities throughout the United States there are sustainability hubs. While each one is uniquely different, they all have the common theme of leaving the world better than when they entered into it.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: You can’t tell there’s Velveeta in this fudge
At Christmastime we make sweets, candy, cookies, etc. When we were in State Soil and Water, we would bring cookies and candy for the last night at the meetings. A friend of mine, Marie Bunting, brought this fudge recipe and samples.
Usher in the holiday season with … ‘The Sound of Christmas’
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s Hatfield Hall will usher in the holiday season with “The Sound of Christmas,” featuring Elisabeth von Trapp and the Carolian Brass, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Community School of Arts open house features steel sculpture
Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts will host an open house from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Turman Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, 649 Chestnut St.
The open house will present an opportunity to meet the teachers, learn more about spring 2014 offerings and register for classes and private music lessons. On display in the Turman Gallery will be artwork created by adult students participating in “Metal Sculpture” and “Digital Photography” classes and children participating in “Saturday Art Day.” There will be a special performance by the “Terre Haute Guitar Club,” and guests can enter a drawing to win a free spring arts class.
- More Features Headlines
- Telling stories in song