September 29, 2011

Mark Twain on banning Huck Finn

Should The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be off-limits to children? I didn't dream that Mark Twain himself had answered a resounding "Yes" to this question which has been dividing America for years. 

Well, I'm cheating a little for the sake of the story. The reason some Americans today think that children should not read Huckleberry Finn is that the book will expose their impressionistic minds to racism. Yes, Huckleberry Finn indubitably depicts an era when slavery existed in half the states of America, and rampant racism in all of them. But how?

The anti-censorship camp points out how the book actually satirises the attitudes of its time, and note that the escaped slave Jim was made out by Mark Twain to be much more admirable than the white people pursuing him.

The censorship camp thinks that all that doesn't matter. Jim is called "Nigger Jim" in the book, so the book has to be banned, or, for the milder component, rewritten so that he is called instead "Slave Jim". Whom are we kidding, you might ask. Even worse, why are we kidding them? What about their right to know about the historical injustices whose repercussions still affect the society they live in?

So much for the present and so much for seriousness. Now I'm going to tell you something I just learned during Banned Books Week about Mark Twain, who is never serious, and an attempt over 100 years ago by a crusading young librarian, presumably serious although you do need to suspend your disbelief when you hear what she had to say -- to ban Huckleberry Finn from the Children's Room of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The story is contained in an exchange of letters which Mark Twain included in his Autobiography of Mark Twain, between the librarian Asa Dickinson who also worked at the Brooklyn Public Library (and by the way had studied with the great Melvil Dewey, the father of modern librarianship), and himself.

The crusading young librarian, who was Superintendent of the Children's Dept., had found out that there were copies of Huckleberry Finn in the Children's Room (gasp!) and had given orders for them to be removed because Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer were "bad examples for disingenious youth". Mr Dickinson, who counted Huckleberry Finn his best reading experience ever, thereupon wrote to Mark Twain asking him if he could intercede on behalf of this book he so loved:

Dear Sir:
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 my life. My warm defense elicited some further discussion and criticism, from which I gathered what the prevailing opinion of Huck was and that he was a deceitful boy who said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration."
The upshot of this 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 (you knows 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.)

Here is the reply:

21 Fifth Avenue,
November 21, 1905
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

On the website www.twainquotes.com (which if you visit it you can also read features such as "MARK TWAIN AND THE INFERNAL COUNTESS MASSIGLIA - the lowest-down woman on the planet" and "MARK TWAIN'S QUARREL WITH UNDERTAKERS: It All Begins with Jennie") you can read the original story from The New York Times when Asa Dickinson (no longer at Brooklyn Public Library but Head Librarian at Brooklyn College, I couldn't help noting) first made the letters public, in 1935.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is at our library And so is the Autobiography of Mark Twain


















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