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

15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

[h/t Newsweek]


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