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America bans its most celebrated author


Nov. 19th, ’05


I happened to be present the other day at a meeting of the children’s librarians of the Brooklyn Public Library. In the course of the meeting it was stated that copies of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” were to be found in some of the children’s rooms of the system. The Sup’t of the Children’s Dep’t — a conscientious and enthusiastic young woman — was greatly shocked to hear this, and at once ordered that they be transferred to the adults’ department. Upon this I shamefacedly confessed to having read “Huckleberry Finn” aloud to my defenseless blind people, without regard to their age, color, or previous condition of servitude. I also reminded them of Brander Matthews’s opinion of the book, and stated the fact that I knew it almost at heart, having got more pleasure from it than from any book I have ever read, and reading is the greatest pleasure I have in life. My warm defense elicited some further discussion and criticism, from which I gathered that the prevailing opinion of Huck was that he was a deceitful boy who said “sweat” when he should have said “perspiration.” The upshot of the matter was that there is to be further consideration of these books at a meeting early in January which I am especially invited to attend. Seeing you the other night at the performance of “Peter Pan” the thought came to me that you (who know Huck as well as I—you can’t know him better or love him more—) might be willing to give me a word or two to say in witness of his good character though he “warn’t no more quality than a mud cat.”

I would ask as a favor that you regard this communication as confidential, whether you find time to reply to it or not; for I am loath for obvious reasons to bring the institution from which I draw my salary into ridicule, contempt or reproach.

Yours very respectfully,

Asa Don Dickinson.

(In charge Department for the Blind and Sheepshead Bay Branch, Brooklyn Public Library.)

And — the response:

Mark Twain in the raw.

Mark Twain in the raw.

21 5th Avenue
Nov. 21, [19]05.

Dear Sir:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady – she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck’s character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than God’s (in the Ahab & 97 others), & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

If there is an Unexpurgated [Bible] in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,
S. L. Clemens

I shall not show your letter to any one – it is safe with me.

Banning Mark Twain

In 2011, NewSouth Books released an edition of Twain's classic titles -- with a few changes.

In 2011, NewSouth Books released an edition of Twain’s classic titles — with a few changes.

Samuel Clemens, pen-name Mark Twain, is one of America’s most beloved and banned authors. Apart from being tremendously funny, Twain had a knack for depicting American society as it was rather than how it considered itself to be. (In every country there’s a gap between these two, but in those with long names — such as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or The United States of America or The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — the gap is wider.) He wrote books that people wanted to read.

When the Concord, Massachusetts Library banned his book Huckleberry Finn in 1885, it made national news. The New York Herald reported:

The sage censors of the Concord public library have unanimously reached the conclusion that “Huckleberry Finn” is not the sort of reading matter for the knowledge seekers of a town which boasts the only “summer school of philosophy” in the universe. They have accordingly banished it from the shelves of that institution.

Huckleberry Finn book coverThe book was, said one of the Library Committee, “absolutely immoral in its tone.” It was also poorly written. “All through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” There was, another said, very little humor in it. And some characters spoke a not very pleasant dialect. All told, Huck Finn dealt with “a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating.”

Other newspapers supported the ban. The Boston Literary World wrote, “We are glad to see that the commendation given to this sort of literature by its publication in the Century has received a check by this action at Concord.” Another paper claimed that there was “something very suggestive in the eagerness and unanimity with which library committees and newspapers throughout the country have followed the precedent established by the Concord library in condemning Mark Twain’s last book.” When the nation’s morals seem to be flapping in the wind, you can trust the good people of Concord to set them straight. (Except for one particular troublemaker.)

Meanwhile, the Concord Free Trade Club elected Mark Twain an honorary member. When he got the news the author wrote a letter which, one suspects, was intended for publication. In it, Twain remarks that “a committee of the public library of your town have condemned and excommunicated my last book and doubled its sale.”

This generous action of theirs must necessarily benefit me in one or two additional ways. For instance, it will deter other libraries from buying the book; and you are doubtless aware that one book in a public library prevents the sale of a sure ten and a possible hundred of its mates. And, secondly, it will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so, after the usual way of the world and library committees; and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book after all.

And finally, the Free Trade Club of Concord comes forward and adds to the splendid burden of obligations already conferred upon me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, an honorary membership which is worth more than all the rest, just at this juncture, since it indorses me as worthy to associate with certain gentlemen whom even the moral icebergs of the Concord library committee are bound to respect.

Snide. Heroic. Oh, where are the men like Twain anymore?

Censored Book Titles

Still being censored

Nowadays the book is censored not for its immorality or use of dialect (indeed, these are considered part of its literary value) but for containing one taboo word. Some Americans wish we could purge the word from our collective memory, as well as the brutalising, horrible system recalled by it. If only we could — if only our children could — forget about the system America retained far longer than other nations and whose terrible social consequences it still hasn’t managed to put right. So from 2011 you may read an edition of Huckleberry Finn without encountering the author’s very deliberate and ironical use of the word, ‘nigger’ — for all 219 instances have been replaced with the word ‘slave’.

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Mark Twain: Great American Moustaches

To honour the great month that is Mo’vember, we’re highlighting — wait for it — the all-time greatest American moustaches. (Our choices may be found rather more historical than contemporary, due to copyright restrictions on images.) So until the month is out we’ll be introducing you to bewhiskered Americans worth knowing.

The First Mo’vember Man

The great Mark Twain, in all his crumb-collecting glory.

We’re starting off with Mark Twain, a man who would appreciate enterprises such as this one. Mark Twain (30 November[!] 1835 – 21 April 21) is sometimes considered the greatest American humourist. ‘Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any,’ he said. He hasn’t got any. His books are classics, a status he defined as ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ Hemingway (another good ‘stache) said of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn … There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

The best way to meet Twain is to read him. (Am I, the librarian, at all biased?) Here’s our moustachioed hero on a variety of subjects:

evolution: ‘The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.’ Autobiographical Dictation (1906).

natural phenomena: ‘Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.’ Letter to an Unidentified Person (1908).

respect: ‘Virtue never has been as respectable as money.’

government: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ quoted by Albert Bigelow Paine in Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)

pedal revolution: ‘Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.’ Taming the Bicycle (1917)

So once you stitch your sides back together, read more of the original American comic genius. Here are a few gems from the Memorial Library’s collection:

Autobiography of Mark Twain, volume 1 (University of California Press, 2010), edited by Harriet Elinor Smith

Twain’s life-force was uncontainable. Or so he thought: “What a little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words!” A man’s real life, he believed, was “in his head.” But Twain’s internal monologue would fill, he supposed, a book each day, 365 books a year. His solution to this problem, I quote here a Guardian review, “was to have a secretary follow him around and take down his every passing thought.”

In this much-anticipated and well-received volume, the autobiographical text consumes 467 pages, followed by almost 200 pages of explanatory notes. Also available in audiobook.

Mark Twain: the adventures of Samuel L. Clemens (University of California Press, 2010), by Jerome Loving

Fifty-two short chapters “that seem perfectly designed for bedtime reading.” The author is a professor of English at Texas A&M University.

The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography (Doubleday, 2003), by Fred Kaplan

Reviews point out the biographer’s dilemma: there is so much on Twain by Twain that is well-written that who needs the secondhand account? By no means is this an easy book but Christopher Hitchens appreciates Kaplan’s angle on Twain the businessman. “Contemptuous as he may have been of the Gilded Age and the acquisitive society,” says Hitchens, “Twain was ever ravenous for money, and his acumen was almost inversely proportionate to his ambition.”

Mark Twain: Lives and Legacies Series (Oxford UP, 2004), by Larzer Ziff

A good short biography from an academic press. Ziff, to quote one review, “is an excellent choice for the Twain biography because he brings a deep knowledge of American literature, broadly, and the period of Twain’s life and career, especially, to bear on the insights his book contains.”

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