News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 24, 2013

Voice of a Storyteller: Chance meeting of Twain, Paris youngster inspired narrative voice of Huck Finn

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

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 mark.bennett@tribstar.com.