University of Virginia Library Special Collections
University of Virginia Library Special Collections

A Crudely Drawn Penis Almost Derailed Huck Finn

University of Virginia Library Special Collections
University of Virginia Library Special Collections

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about as American as it gets. Funny, then, that the book was released in England well before it hit shelves in the U.S. Funny, except to author Mark Twain, whose greatest work was almost derailed by a strange prank.

Twain was unhappy with the way he and his previous books had been handled by publishers. Royalties went unpaid. Release dates were pushed back. The books weren’t sufficiently promoted. He decided that for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he’d start his own publishing house and put the book out himself.

In 1884, he founded Charles L. Webster and Company, named for his business agent, who was made the company’s director. Twain borrowed an idea from an old publisher for his venture: subscription-based sales. Instead of selling copies of the book to stores and letting them sell them to the public, a small army of salesmen employed by Webster and Company would sell the book door-to-door. Armed with a sales prospectus and an advance copy of the book containing sample pages, the sales agents would show off the book to consumers and then get them to “subscribe,” or sign an agreement to pay for a copy of the book when it was later delivered to their home.

The illustrated first edition of Huck Finn was supposed to be released in late 1884, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. Twain had hand-picked E.W. Kemble to do the illustrations, and looked at the drawings several times during the book’s production. There was a delay after the illustrations for the first twelve chapters were done, when Twain reviewed them and rejected a few. He complained to Webster that some of “the people in these pictures are forbidding and repulsive…An artist shouldn’t follow the book too literally, perhaps - if this is the necessary result.”

The next set of illustrations Twain saw, for chapters 13-30, were more well-received. “This batch of pictures is most rattling good,” he admitted. “They please me exceedingly.”

Again, though, there was a hitch. Twain asked that one of the drawings, which depicted “the King” kissing a girl at the camp meeting in Chapter 20, be removed.

“It is powerful good, but it musn’t go in,” he explained to Webster. “Let’s not make any pictures of the camp meeting. The subject wouldn’t bear illustrating. It is a disgusting thing and the pictures are sure to tell the truth about it too plainly.”

Finally, Twain was happy with all the drawings and the book went to press. The first run was being printed, and advance copies were already out being shown to potential customers, when Webster got a panicked letter from a salesman in Chicago. When the salesman cracked open his sample of the book, he found that someone - maybe a mischievous printer, or one frustrated with delays; maybe Kemble taking revenge for the rejected drawings - had made a last-minute addition to one of the illustration printing plates.

In a picture of Uncle Silas speaking to a young boy while Aunt Sally looks on with a smile, Silas sports a crudely drawn penis, or at least a shadowy bulge in his pants.

Draw Again

There are various versions of the events that followed. One says that only 3,000 advance copies were already made, and only 250 had been sent out. Another says that some 30,000 copies had been printed and were awaiting shipment when Uncle Silas’ exposure was discovered.

Either way, Twain and Webster had a fit, and printed copies with the Silas illustration were ruthlessly hunted down and either destroyed or sent back to the company to be fixed. Meanwhile, Webster had to stop the printing operation, take out the offending plate, have a new one made and put in, and then restart printing to fix the existing books and finish the run, causing weeks of delay in publication. The recall and overhaul meant that the American edition of the book wasn’t released until well after Christmas, in February 1885.

Missing out on Christmas shopping didn’t dent the book’s sales too badly, though. Twain had spent the summer and fall running a publicity campaign that included a lecture tour where he read excerpts from the novel, and news reports about the obscene illustration helped publicize the book in the U.S. and fuel interest in it.

Only a few copies of the complete first edition with the picture of an exposed Uncle Silas are reported to exist, and can command tens of thousands of dollars on the rare book market. That Twain was set back by a prank that would later go on to become a valued collector’s item seems in the spirit of his work, something you’d like to think he came to appreciate, or wish he'd thought of himself.

Book image credit: Hulton Archive

Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]


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