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.
Community Theatre to bring Tony Award-winning play to stage
Some call it a comedy, while others call it a drama. “God of Carnage” was the 2009 Tony Award winner for Best Play, and Community Theatre of Terre Haute will present it this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as March 21-23.
New Leo Baxter Orchestra to entertain at Big Read Party
A Terre Haute tradition will be reborn when the New Leo Baxter Society Orchestra performs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Indiana Theatre as part of the Big Party for the Wabash Valley Big Read.
With new Americana album, Chicago artist to play Verve
For years, Kevin Presbrey toured the country as the front man of Painkiller Hotel, a modern rock group inspired by guitar-fueled bands like Pearl Jam and Live. Now, he’s dialing back the clock with his solo debut, an Americana album that takes its cues from Jim Croce’s folk music, the Eagles’ country-tinged rock and Fleetwood Mac’s 1970s pop.
Guiding Star: Inspired by family, Terre Haute native rallies famous names to fund cancer research
Famous people filled the Riviera Country Club, a scenic golf resort in affluent Pacific Palisades, Calif.
A city block away, Sunset Boulevard runs toward the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Monica Mountains overlook it all. Inside the Riviera, during a 2009 fundraising dinner, Terre Haute attorney Tony Tanoos found himself surrounded by a who’s who of celebrities — actors such as Ray Romano, Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle and others, and golfing greats like Gary Player, Johnny Miller and Rocco Mediate. Soon, the crowd of notables heard the words of main speaker Lisa Paulsen, the president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The long goodbye to winter
I have no idea what the weather is to bring to us on the morning this story runs, but on the day I write most of it, the sun is shining, and we have just come off a weekend of pleasant warmth and cloudless skies.
Making Waves: Woman devotes part of rural Vigo County home to museum on hairstyling
Some studies show that women spend more than $50,000 in a lifetime and more than one month of their entire life at a beauty salon, trying to get and keep their hair just the right style. How they have accomplished this through the ages has been a fascination for local hairstylist Brenda Ellis for more than 50 years.
Heaven on Earth: Writer gets lost — both figuratively and literally — at Acadia National Park
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day hiking the Atlantic shoreline and the trails of Maine’s Acadia National Park.
Rock of Ages: Hulman Center stage has been entertaining crowds since 1974
As the stage lights came on, Sam Wellington and his cohorts gazed out at an audience of 8,060 Midwesterners.
The scene was familiar for him. Wellington and his country music quartet, The Four Guys, opened shows night after night for fellow RCA Records artists Ronnie Millsap and headliner Charley Pride on tours across North America.
Wearing a Legacy: Inspired by Debs, a variety of places and things beyond Terre Haute — from a town to beers — bear his name
A town and a school. Two styles of beer. A radio station, a street, a township, and a house for college students. Even a parade.
Any of those places or things named in honor of legendary labor and social activist Eugene V. Debs could theoretically exist in Terre Haute. Alas, none do.
Flowing forward: As Riverscape leader retires, he sees great things ahead for the Wabash River
An iconic photo of Harry Truman hangs in John Mutchner’s office.
The walls of that room and others inside Mutchner’s scenic eastside home offer glimpses of his interests, from auto racing to basketball to political history. The famous picture of a triumphant Truman, hoisting an erroneous “Dewey Defeats Truman” Chicago Tribune headline, rests neatly framed alongside a 1952 campaign button and an autographed notecard from the former president.
Hope Awakened: On a floating hospital, Terre Haute nurse sees lives of needy transformed
The woman was 24 years old. She weighed 70 pounds.
She had young children and, for a long time, a heavy burden. A tumor, large as her head, engulfed her jaw. Eating and breathing became all but impossible for her. Undoubtedly, she’d been ostracized because of it, too. Such cases are rare in the Western world, but they occur frequently in the Republic of Congo. The coastal African nation has just one doctor for every 20,000 people.
Rock Collector: Indiana Coal Council president loves rocks, fossils and 4-H
You might say Bruce Stevens grew up with lots of pet rocks.
Scavenging for rocks and fossils as a boy near his home at Coalmont launched Stevens’ fascination with geology. His love of all things sedimentary led him to a successful career in hydrology, reclamation and the coal industry.
‘Afternoon on a Hill’: The formal poet who led an informal life — Edna St. Vincent Millay
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of an afternoon exploring the rural gardens and home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay near Austerlitz, N.Y. Join Lunsford in February for the sixth installment of this series as he wanders along the wooded shorelines of Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park.
No Intermission: Character meets demise on ‘Walking Dead,’ but lively acting career continues for Terre Haute’s Jose Pablo Cantillo
Characters often make dramatic exits from television shows.
Few could top Terre Haute-raised actor Jose Pablo Cantillo’s departure last month from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
The scene occurred in the fourth season of cable TV’s most popular drama series ever.
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.
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.
Country singer/songwriter from Illinois to perform at The Verve
Up-and-coming country singer/songwriter Troy Stone of Paris, Ill., will perform from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. March 14 in The Verve at 677 Wabash Ave.
Gallery presents ‘Halcyon Days’ exhibit
Halcyon Art Gallery is presenting the regional juried exhibition, “Halcyon Days 2014,” on view from Friday until March 28. The opening reception will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday. This is the ninth in a series of juried exhibitions showcasing the best of contemporary art in all media.
See dinosaurs, Dr. Seuss characters at Children's Museum
On Sunday, March 9, Terre Haute Children’s Museum guests will be in for a special treat. Prehistoric creatures from Erth’s “Dinosaur Zoo” will be roving the museum, and Dr. Seuss characters will come to life when the Children’s Theatre of Terre Haute presents “Seussical Jr.”
GRAPE SENSE: News from the world’s wine regions can affect future prices
News from the world’s wine regions can affect even the average wine drinker. There is a lot going on, particularly in California, which can affect future wine prices.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: The easiest ham loaf I’ve ever made
I have been asked for a good ham loaf recipe. This is really good. It comes from a friend of mine in Morton, Ill. Eileen Knapp makes this for her kids and grandkids — we all enjoyed it.
Party New Orleans-style at Swope Mardi Gras celebration
The Swope Art Museum’s fifth annual Mardi Gras celebration is this weekend. Enjoy a visit to the Big Easy on the museum’s third floor from 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday.
‘A complete meal of classical music’ at Central Presbyterian
Beethoven composed his masterpieces nearly two centuries ago. George Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” a few years after World War I.
Final Fridays: Lunes Domingo at Verve
Lunes Domingo returns to the Verve this Friday with special guests The Brown James.
The show starts at 10 p.m. Admission is $3.
TRIED ‘N’ TRUE: No need to knead dough much for these rolls
I know we all like homemade bread. These rolls are great.
When we used to have Christmas with Gene’s family, his uncle Bob Beard’s daughter made these Oatmeal Rolls.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: We can help save the manatees, right here in the heartland
The year 2013 was the deadliest on record for manatees with about 829 reported deaths. This was a major jump from the 392 in 2012 and the record of 766 in 2010. While the cold weather played a role, one major attributing factor has been toxic red tide events caused by algal blooms.
- More Features Headlines
- Community Theatre to bring Tony Award-winning play to stage