The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn upset some readers because they found it vulgar. But what they read was nothing compared to a vulgar illustration slipped in to the first edition by someone who presumably hated the book.
Samuel Clemens, known of course as Mark Twain, used the character of Huck to satirize attitudes about race and morality in America. Huck’s coarse vernacular offended some when it was published, while recently people have been offended by his racial stereotypes of Jim and his use of the N-word.
Clemens started writing Huck Finn in the summer of 1876 when he lived in the Nook Farm neighborhood of Hartford. He put it down for three years, picked it up again, and finally finished it.
He was anxious to get it to his publisher by the 1884 Christmas season. So he sent the book to Charles L. Webster & Co., which he owned with his nephew, Charles L. Webster.
Huckleberry Finn Sabotaged
Someone who worked for the publisher, or perhaps the photoengraver, didn’t care for the book. In the first edition, an engraving at the end of Chapter 32 showed Huck being greeted by Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. The picture included an erect penis sticking out of Uncle Silas’ pants. The defaced image appeared in the prospectus – salesmen’s samples for subscriptions – and in the first 30,000 copies. The publisher had to recall every copy of the book in order to replace the page. It wasn’t published until Feb. 18, 1885, well after the Christmas season.
One month after it appeared in print, a library in Concord, Mass., banned the book because of its “tawdry” subject and the “coarse” and “vulgar” narrator. Other libraries did the same.
Young readers loved the book. So did many critics.
Clemens himself called it a “book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision. And the conscience suffer defeat!”
Ernest Hemingway famously said ‘all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’
All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
With thanks to Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens by Jerome Loving. This story last updated in 2022.