Happy Birthday Huck! A look behind the illustrations.

On December 10 in 1884, Samuel Langhorne Clemens —much better known by his pen-name of “Mark Twain”— published perhaps his most famous, and certainly his most controversial,  novel — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Download or Read Online).

Everyone knows who Mark Twain was but not as many people are familiar with the illustrator, E.W. Kemble. Young Kemble, as he is described in The Christian Recorder, was only 23 when Twain spotted an illustration of a boy being stung by a bee that Kemble had drawn for Life. At about that time, Twain finished the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and was looking for the illustrator that could bring the book’s colorful characters to life and in Kemble, he thought he had found his man.

Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" was published on February 18, 1885.

Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published on February 18, 1885.

In an article written for The Colophon: A Book Collectors’ Quarterly almost fifty years after Finn was published, E.W. Kemble remembers getting the job: “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.

Kemble was born in Sacramento, California and his family moved to New York when he was quite young; it was a testament to his talent that many assumed it was a Southern artist who captured Twain’s vision.

Despite his work on 1898, “A Coon Alphabet“,  an alphabet book with rhymes written in imitation of southern Black English of the 19th century and illustrations that portray blacks in negative stereotypical roles, Kemble is best remembered for his sympathetic and real-life drawings of African-Americans.

An original E.W. Kemble illustration from the first edition.

An original E.W. Kemble illustration from the first edition.

Twain pushed Kemble hard. He disliked the first batch of drawings, complaining that Huck was “a trifle more Irishy than necessary” and that the style was sloppy saying: “The pictures will do–they will just barely do–& that is the best I can say for them.

They went back and forth on the drawings through Twain’s publisher and Twain eventually got the results he wanted.

After a later batch, Twain wrote to his publisher: “I knew Kemble had it in him, if he would only modify his violences & come down to careful, pains-taking work.

This batch of pictures is most rattling good. They please me exceedingly.”

Drawing Huck

Unlike most of Kemble’s work, he used a human model for Huck.  In his 1930 Colophon article, he describes the boy he picked and a little of the process.

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.

E.W. Kemble’s success in drawing Jim caused the publishers of Joel Chandler Harris’s “Uncle Remus” stories to illustrate some of them as well.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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