UVa Library Press Releases 1996 - 1997
IMPORTANT MARK TWAIN LETTER ACQUIRED BY U.VA. LIBRARY
Contact: George Riser at (804) 924-7556 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., April 1 -- Was Mark Twain a racist? This question still draws heated debate from many quarters more than 100 years since the publication of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Twain's famous novel has been removed from the curriculum in several school districts in the past decade, with many readers offended by the book's frequent use of the word "nigger." Defenders say the book, the product of another era, vividly and realistically portrays important aspects of 19th-century American life. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jane Smiley added fire to the controversy in an article in Harper's Magazine last year when she suggested that Twain's feelings about slavery and race were ambiguous at best, as depicted in the relationship between Huck and the runaway slave Jim.
The University of Virginia Library's Special Collections Department has acquired a letter that won't resolve the controversy, but it does add another dimension to the ongoing debate. The four-page letter, dated Jan. 12, 1881, known to scholars but previously held in private collections, is addressed to Gen. James Garfield, who had recently been elected president of the United States. Twain wrote to express his hope that Garfield would retain Frederick Douglass, the noted African American abolitionist and ex-slave writer, in his present position of marshal of the District of Columbia.
Twain wrote: "I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure and strong desire, because I so honor this man's high and blemishless character and so admire his brave, long crusade for the liberties and elevation of his race. He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point -- his history would move me to say these things without that and feel them too."
Stephen Railton, professor of English at U.Va. and an authority on Twain, says the letter represents "a very affirmative" step by Twain in behalf of racial equality. But, more important, he said, is that the complex Twain debate itself helps keep a national focus on dealing with racism.
"The letter plays an important role in the conversation that's currently going on about Twain and racism," says Railton. "And since, just as Frederick Douglass apparently didn't get the job Twain was recommending him for, we've yet to finish the task of coming to terms with racism in America, past and present, that conversation itself has an important role to play in our cultural life."
The letter was purchased by U.Va. for $11,250, with endowed funds, from the 19th Century Shop in Baltimore. It had previously been in private hands.
"It's a very important document and a great addition to the library's fine Twain collection," part of U.Va.'s renowned collection of primary documents in American literature, adds Railton.
There is a good deal of evidence to support the claim of friendship between Twain and Douglass, notes George Riser of U.Va. Library Special Collections staff. On Jan. 22, 1881, Douglass wrote to Twain thanking him for writing President Garfield on his behalf: "Mr. Charles J. Langdon has sent me your kind and characteristic note to Genl. Garfield on my behalf. Please accept my sincere thanks for your good word." Charles Langdon was Twain's father-in-law, and it was through his in-laws that Twain came to know Douglass. The Langdons had been active in the Underground Railroad and first became acquainted with Douglass, when in September 1838, while living in Millport, N.Y., they had been instrumental in securing Douglass's escape from slavery in Maryland. Douglass became a guest many times in the Langdon home, and 30 years later, Douglass wrote a moving letter to Mrs. Langdon expressing his personal sorrow at learning of the death of her husband.
Twain met with Douglass in the summer of 1869, discussing among other things, the expulsion of Douglass's daughter from an all-white private school as a result of the objection of one of the families. Twain wrote to his wife Olivia: "Had a talk with Fred Douglass, to-day, who seemed exceedingly glad to see me -- & I certainly was glad to see him for I do so admire his 'spunk.'" The two men met again in December 1869, in Boston, where their active speaking engagements brought them together.
Twain's letter to President Garfield will be described and referenced on the World Wide Web not only through the U.Va. Library catalogue of its holdings but as part of American Heritage Virtual Archive Project, sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley. One of the first goals of the project has been to identify, gather together and make available all guides and finding aids relating to Mark Twain, providing access to an enormous quantity of primary research materials about Twain in one location. The project is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is a cooperative venture with Stanford University and Duke University, as well as UC-Berkeley, and U.Va.
March 31, 1997
For additional information, contact George Riser at U.Va.'s Library at (804) 924-7556, or professor Stephen Railton at (804) 924-6612. Television reporters should call our TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
Source: U.Va. News Services