New Mark Twain Letters Reveal He Poked Fun at Huck Finn Ban
Humorist Vigorously Defended His Boy Heroes When Huckleberry and Tom Sawyer Were Criticized at Brooklyn Library as No More 'Course' Than Unexpurgated Bible.
Two hitherto unpublished letters by Mark Twain which echo a national controversy waged thirty years ago over Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were made public yesterday for the first time by Asa Don Dickinson, head librarian at Brooklyn College. Twain's letters were sent to Professor Dickinson in response to the librarian's appeal for the author to defend his two beloved characters from the onslaughts of an official of Brooklyn Public Library, who charged that the two characters were "bad examples for ingenuous youth."
The controversy began in 1905 when a young woman, superintendent of children's department, insisted that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer be removed from the children's room because of their "coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices."
Professor Dickinson strongly disagreed and sent a letter to Twain acquainting him of the librarian's action.
Mark Twain's Defense.
The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn immediately sent back this reply:
21 5th Avenue
Nov. 21, '05.
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?
S. L. Clemens
I shall not show your letter to any one - it is safe with me.
Reporters on the Trail.
When read to the young librarian the letter caused a bitter discussion, but the librarians decided to drop the affair. The books, however, were removed from the children's shelves but placed on shelves accessible to both children and adults.
But after several months one of those present at the meeting inadvertently mentioned the letter in the company of a reporter, and the news was flashed throughout the newspaper offices that the Brooklyn Library had banned the two child heroes from the shelves. Rumors also spread of a choice Twain letter. Newspaper men eagerly sought out both Dr. Dickinson and Twain, but their efforts were unrewarded, for the two men maintained a complete silence. The newspaper men persisted, and Twain sent another letter to the librarian. The letter follows:
21 Fifth Avenue
March 26, '06.
Dear Mr. Dickinson:
Be wise as a serpent and wary as a dove! The newspaper boys want that letter - don't let them get hold of it. They say you refuse to allow them to see it without my consent. Keep on refusing, and I'll take care of this end of the line.
Was the January meeting held? You did not tell me.
S. L. Clemens
Newspapers Assail Prudery.
Newspapers throughout the nation rallied to the support of the two Twain children and the "literary prudery" of Brooklyn was assailed in editorials and newspaper articles.
The entire incident was dropped after several months and not mentioned again until 1924, when Albert Bigelow Paine published excerpts from the letters in his history of Twain. In this work, Paine also quoted Twain's remarks on similar incidents in Concord, Mass., after Huckleberry Finn had first made his appearance. Twain said that "When Huck appeared, the public library of Concord flung him out indignantly, partly because he was a liar, and partly because after deep meditation and careful deliberation he decided that if he'd got to betray Jim or go to hell, he would rather go to hell - which was profanity, and those Concord purists couldn't stand it."
Professor Dickinson is publishing these letters in The Wilson Journal.
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