United States v. Mark Twain
No such case as my title implies was ever brought, of course. The United States has no banning—that is, no centralized prohibition of books. Here, a ban has come to mean any decision to eliminate a book from a library or a school reading list.
It’s true that, until fairly recently, the Postal Service exercised a censoring function by enforcing laws against sending obscene matter through the mail. But Supreme Court decisions of the ’60s and ’70s have rendered obscenity pretty ungainly to work with as a criminal charge.
Huckleberry Finn was “banned” several times in Mark Twain’s lifetime—always by librarians. In 1885, when the book was new, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, withdrew it, citing the characters’ “low grade of morality” and “irreverence.” Huck lies, talks dialect, is friends with a black man, steals and fails to return stolen property (the black man).
Mark Twain’s response to the ban was immediate. He told his publisher: “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” The commercial blessings of banning, in this country, are well known. Howard Hughes campaigned to ban his own film, The Outlaw, in order to get it released.
The early twentieth century saw some more Huck bans. They were short-lived; but Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary, published in 1906 and banned by the Charlton, Massachusetts, public library, was restored to the shelves just two years ago. It was the illustrations (by Lester Ralph) that offended: They depicted Eve as a naked woman—stylized, but naked.
Today, Huckleberry Finn gets challenged, not in the name of public morals, but to protect something (the student, or the classroom atmosphere, or the school) against the unpredictable effects of the word “nigger,” which makes some students—I'm quoting from a report by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom—“uncomfortable.”
Back in 1885, the book’s detractors feared that children would become too comfortable with Huck: with his “low” company—and, I suspect, with Jim’s. Mark Twain’s response to this criticism, in his Autobiography, was that children were already routinely damaged by a book the library kept on open shelves—the Bible:
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.It was only right, he said, for librarians to escort Huck and Tom out of that book’s “questionable company.”
In my opinion, at the core of our contemporary debate over Huckleberry Finn in schools is a confusion between, on the school’s side, encountering racism and legitimating racism; and a confusion, on the students’ side, between reading words—even heavily ironized ones—and being attacked by words.
This is certain: Mark Twain wouldn’t understand our solicitousness about “comfort level.” He might have wondered what comfort had to do with school, the discomforts of which had caused him to pack out at age twelve. No “Stay in school, kids” for Mark Twain!