One hundred and seven years before stodgy ol’ librarians were banning 50 Shades of Grey from public bookshelves, they were banning the great Mark Twain stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. So, naturally, the bondage and wild sex adventures penned by E L James are well on their way to the top of the American literary canon, no?
Well, I don’t know about that.
But I do know that one my favorite websites, Letters of Note, which digs up and publishes letters from notable individuals living and dead, has found a letter that brings us back to that earlier controversy – and ties in a Sheepshead Bay connection, too.
In 1905, Asa Don Dickinson, a librarian at the Sheepshead Bay branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (who established the first blind services in a public library, and later became Brooklyn College’s first chief librarian), wrote to Twain, alerting him to plans underway that would have his books removed from the system’s children’s departments. Dickinson, himself more than a little facetious in his letter, received a few sarcastic words in reply.
Both letters are below:
SHEEPSHEAD BAY BRANCH
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY
1657 SHORE ROAD
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.)
21 FIFTH AVENUE,
November 21, 1905
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses 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, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable 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 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 those of Solomon, David, Satan, and 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 Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?
(Signed, ‘S. L. Clemens’)
I shall not show your letter to anyone—it is safe with me.