“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Ernest Hemingway’s bold proclamation in Green Hills of Africa has withstood the tests of time. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in American history, is also a definitive work of Southern literature and a pillar of high school required-reading lists. The joyful, marauding protagonist, who makes frequent appearances in Twain’s other works, gained inspiration from a real-life personality in the tale of Twain’s own childhood.
Growing up along the banks of the Mississippi in Hannibal, Missouri, young Samuel Clemens—who would not take up his sobriquet “Mark Twain” until much later in life—was exposed to a variety of influential characters who later reappeared under pseudonyms in his fiction. One such person was Clemens’s neighbor and friend, Tom Blankenship. Blankenship lived with his father and six sisters in a dilapidated shack behind Clemens’s clapboard home. Blankenship and Clemens established a brotherly bond from a young age, and because Clemens fled from Hannibal at a young age, his memories of Blankenship were forever cloaked in the forgiving folds of youth. His recollections of Blankenship, both in his fiction and biographies, were perpetually tinged with the innocence and sweet naivety of childhood.
Like his fictional depiction Huck Finn, Blankenship grew up without the governing influence of a mother, his own having died when he was very young. None of his sisters championed the motherly role in the household, leaving Blankenship free to roam the streets of Hannibal. Since there was not yet a public school in the region and without the means to pay tuition at the private school, his family notoriously impoverished, Blankenship had not even the distraction of school to while away his days. Instead, he filled his time as he pleased. Blankenship’s loose way of living was a threat to the normalcy of Hannibal, and parents of local children openly discouraged spending time with the young boy. Of course, the very suggestion of avoiding Blankenship set forth by the town’s elders was the encouragement their children needed to idolize him. His subtly rebellious and openly free attitude drew in the admiration of his peers.
Blankenship’s laissez-faire lifestyle proved instrumental not just in the daily life of the young Clemens but in the penning pursuits of his adulthood. Twain’s Huck Finn became an iconic, historical representation of the original vagabond. Dressed in the tattered hand-me-downs of the town and reliant on the donations of townspeople for sustenance, living more often under porch eaves and in hog pens than under his own roof, Huck Finn epitomized the peripatetic, carefree life of a youthful bum, somehow making the term one of endearment rather than disdain.
Though Blankenship’s portrayal in the form of Finn was mostly accurate and stemming from fact, the representation of his father, Woodson Blankenship, was perhaps skewed for storytelling. In Huckleberry Finn, Pap Finn is the town drunkard and an infamously terrible father figure. Twain’s depiction of Pap Finn and his openness about Huck Finn’s derivation from the family Blankenship led many to believe that Woodson Blankenship was also given to hitting the bottle. But it is much more likely that Pap Finn was instead drawn from the figure of Jimmy Finn, Hannibal’s real drunk, and Woodson falsely portrayed as such.
Although confusion may still exist regarding the inspiration for Pap Finn, Huck Finn is unquestionably rooted in Tom Blankenship. As Twain wrote in his autobiography, “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” Like Huck Finn, Tom Blankenship wasn’t just any boy—he was iconic, admired, and influential for decades to come. Even with his stumbling manners and tendency to incite reproach, Tom Blankenship still stole the heart of Samuel Clemens and, through Huck Finn, the hearts of generations of readers to come.
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