Southern Brooklyn

Mark Twain “Troubled” By 1905 Letter From Sheepshead Bay Librarian

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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:


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.)

Twain’s Reply:

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?

Sincerely yours,

(Signed, ‘S. L. Clemens’)

I shall not show your letter to anyone—it is safe with me.

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Comment policy


  1. Typical Liberal Sarcasm showing hatred for our children…I mean…

    …1657 Shore Road? That address today puts the branch way west of Sheepshead Bay. I assume the numbers have shifted over the years? I wonder where the branch used to be physically located? Anyone know?

  2. Shore Road was the previous name for Sheepshead Bay Road, so it was located around the corner from its present location on East 14th Street right around Sheepshead Bay Road and Jerome Avenue right in the heart of Sheepshead Bay.

  3. 1657 would be closer to Voorhies Avenue. I do know that there was a location near the Brighton Line station at one time. The library made numerous moves over the years. For a short time it was in the building where the post office is now, and in the 50s it was on the second floor of the building where the CVS is now.

  4. Wait a minute. Since when libraries ban books? I’m talking about 50 Shades here. I thought you can order any book at the library and they have to get it for you. Is this no longer true?

    “Book censorship of all kinds – even book-burning – continues today. Challenges may come from parents, teachers, clergy members, elected officials, or organized groups, and arise due to objections to language, violence, sexual or racial themes, or religious viewpoint, to name just a few. In 2010, the ALA counted 348 challenges. Many other cases go unreported.
    In West Bend, WI several books were challenged at the Community Memorial Public Library and the Library Board was accused of “promoting the overt indoctrination of the gay-agenda.” In addition, the Christian Civil Liberties Union’s Milwaukee branch filed a legal claim arguing its elderly plaintiffs suffered mental and emotional damage due to the book’s presence in the public library’s Young Adult section.”

    The Stories Behind Some Past Book Bans and Challenges

  6. […] Mark Twain “Troubled” By 1905 Letter From Sheepshead Bay LibrarianSheepshead BitesIn 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 … […]

  7. Of course to be unbiased, I’m sure your next post is to cite the example of the constant attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn itself because it is deemed not politically correct in certain circles.

  8. It’s a pity that it is being judged for content, rather than context.

    But Twain was never surprised when he was misunderstood. It’s the inate nature of people to rely more upon their reflex sensitivities than allow themselves to be truly sensitive to the totality of what they are judging.


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