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The Books We Got For Christmas
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
It is not surprising that genteel librarians and fearful parents tried to keep Mark Twain’s books on shelves too high for boys and girls to reach. Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, but few youngsters knew anything about him for several years. When Huckleberry Finn came out in 1885, more than gentility was outraged. Not only Huck’s colorful language, his smoking, his unconventional ideas on church and property, and his “borrowing” shocked people; his ideas on slavery offended the moral principles of the victorious abolitionists everywhere, particularly in New England. To be sure, Huck bent all his efforts toward freeing Jim, but for friendship’s sake and not because of principle. To Huck, helping a slave to escape was anything but the right thing to do. It was a “low-down thing.” It was plain wicked, and he would surely go to hell for it. Upright New Englanders could not swallow this kind of thinking. Huck was banned from the Concord Library in Massachusetts and from other libraries. Later, when he reached the West, Huck was boycotted because of his morals in such places as Denver and Omaha.
But no one could banish Tom and Huck for long. Once it was accepted that they were products of their own place and time, it was easy to recognize that they belonged to all places and times.
Mark Twain once wrote in a letter: “I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys but will also strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy.” In this he succeeded as few others ever have.
Girls read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but no boy would be caught with a copy of Elsie Dinsmore in his hand. Poor Elsie! Her tears first spilled over in 1868 and made a torrent that swept countless girl readers along with her as they spattered the pages of the Elsie books with their own sympathetic tears. Elsie, according to Martha Finley, the author, was “gentle, sweet-tempered, patient and forgiving to a remarkable degree.” To a remarkable degree, also, she lacked gumption. She always turned her other cheek—a damp cheek. She had, of course, many a cross to bear—her severe governess, her unsympathetic relatives, and the impatience of her adored and handsome father. Papa, who was a sensible sort, said, “You cry quite too easily; it is entirely too babyish for a girl of your age. You must quit it.”
“‘I will try, Papa,’ said Elsie, wiping her eyes and making a great effort to control her feelings.”
On the rare occasions when Papa smiled at her, “alas! it was but a transient gleam of sunshine that darted across her path to be lost again almost instantly behind the gathering clouds.”
Readers of Elsie who have long ago forgotten everything else about her remember the piano-bench scene, when on Sunday Elsie refused to play for her father’s guests and sat stubbornly until she fell off the bench in a dead faint. On the last page of this book, the first of the endless series, Papa goes to her room to reassure her that he is not going to fall into the clutches of the brittle and fashionable woman who wants to marry him. He finds Elsie asleep. “‘Poor darling,’ he murmured as he stooped over her and kissed away a tear that still trembled on her eyelash.”
The tears trembled on her eyelashes throughout Elsie’s childhood, her adolescence, her marriage, her widowhood, and her grandmotherhood. It is a good thing that in those days a lady was never caught without a fine linen handkerchief.
Now Jo was quite another matter. Jo had gumption. Little Women was published the same year as Elsie Dinsmore, 1868. The opening sentence of the book introduces Jo. “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” (Elsie never grumbled and she never lay on the rug.) Jo wasn’t pretty in the accepted way and girl readers took her to their hearts, for she was like so many of them. Jo was always in the thick of things, making up theatricals, selling her hair to get money for her mother’s trip to her sick father, running races with Laurie, the boy next door, and writing stories. She called her stories “rubbish,” and they were, at first.
Of course the story that she finally wrote was the classic, Little Women, for Louisa May Alcott herself was Jo. The only part of the book that ever disappointed her readers was Jo’s marrying Professor Bhaer. But Miss Alcott said staunchly, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”
The air of goodness that pervades Little Women is quite different from the priggish atmosphere in Elsie Dinsmore. The March family were truly good but they had to work at it—all except Beth, who was naturally good and who died young.