Literary daybook, Dec. 4

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published December 4, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On December 4, Nicholas visits Simon at the St. Pol household in Edinburgh.
-- "The Unicorn Hunt"
by Dorothy Dunnett

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1884, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" was published in England. The prank which caused this most American of novels to be first published in England is one that Twain would have relished, had he not been its victim. Twain owned his own publishing company, and his plan was to get the book out in the U.S. in the fall of 1884, in time for Christmas. There was a delay when he rejected some of the illustrations, finding them "powerful good" but too realistic for popular taste; still, there was time to redo them. Then, out of mischief, or revenge for the rejected drawings -- the culprit was never discovered, despite a $500 reward -- an engraver added a penis to one of the plates. By the time someone discovered the picture of an exposed Uncle Silas saying "Who do you reckon it is?" to a small boy while a beaming Aunt Sally looks on, thousands of advance copies of the novel had been printed. They are prized collector's items today, but their recall in 1884 meant that the American edition did not come out until February 18, l885 -- months after the Christmas trade, and the British edition. The book sold poorly and went almost unnoticed until the Library Committee of Concord, Mass., supported by a letter from Louisa May Alcott tsk-tsking not at the illustrations but the language, banned it.

That Twain was duped by a penis joke was in the spirit of his book, or that part of it belonging to the enlargements of the King and Duke. Their playbill promised "Hamlet's Immortal Soliloquy!! By The Illustrious Kean! Done by him 300 consecutive nights in Paris! For One Night Only, On account of imperative European engagements!" and delivered every bit of it:

"To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin That makes calamity of so long life; For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane, But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep, Great nature's second course, And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune Than fly to others that we know not of. There's the respect must give us pause: Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The law's delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take, In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn In customary suits of solemn black, But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns, Breathes forth contagion on the world, And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i' the adage, Is sicklied o'er with care, And all the clouds that lowered o'er our housetops, With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But soft you, the fair Ophelia: Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws, But get thee to a nunnery -- go!"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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