Mark Twain versus the Bible
It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
– Letters from the Earth
But an account of an amusing confrontation between Twain and a librarian over the Bible has only just come to light – thanks to Twain’s soon-to-be-published autobiography 100 years after his death in 1910.
According to this blog, the altercation took place in a library that had just banned Huckleberry Finn.
About once a year some pious public library banishes Huck Finn from its children’s department, and on the same plea always – that Huck, the neglected and untaught son of a town drunkard, is given to lying, when in difficulty and hard pressed, and is therefore a bad example for young people, and a damager of their morals.
Two or three years ago I was near by when one of these banishments was decreed and advertised, and I went over and asked the librarian about it, and he said yes, Huck was banished for lying. I asked,
â€˜Is there nothing else against him?’
â€˜No, I think not’.
â€˜Do you banish all books that are likely to defile young morals, or do you stop with Huck?’
â€˜We do not discriminate; we banish all that are hurtful to young morals’.
I picked up a book, and said:
I see several copies of this book lying around. Are the young forbidden to read it?
â€˜The Bible? Of course not’.
â€˜That is a strange question to ask’.
â€˜Very well, then I withdraw it. Are you acquainted with the passages in Huck which are held to be objectionable?’
He said he was; and at my request he took pen and paper and proceeded to write them down for me. Meantime I stepped to a desk and wrote down some extracts from the Bible. I showed them to him and said I would take it as a favor if he would attach his extracts to mine and post them on the wall, so that the people could examine them and see which of the two sets they would prefer to have their young boys and girls read.
He replied coldly that he was willing to post the extracts which he had made, but not those which I had made.
â€˜He replied – still coldly – that he did not wish to discuss the matter’.
According to Time magazine,Â in 1885, the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned the book a year after its publication for its “coarse language”
In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York followed Concord’s lead, banishing the book from the building’s juvenile section with this explanation:
Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.
Twain enthusiastically fired back, and once said of his detractors:
Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.
Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most challenged books in the US. In an attempt to avoid controversy, CBS produced a made-for-TV adaptation of the book in 1955 that lacked a single mention of slavery and did not have an African-American portray the character of Jim. In 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz., sued the local high school over the book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.
Here’s another, rather longer, Twain quotation from Bible Teaching and Religious Practice, Europe and Elsewhere:
The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes …The world has corrected the Bible. The church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession – and take the credit of the correction.
During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.
Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry â€¦ There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.