Everyone has a limit. That’s the fun of watching intellectuals, writers, speakers, and thinkers who advocate extreme positions. You listen to them and you listen to them and you wonder just how far to their beliefs go?
There’s H.L. Mencken, an advocate for free speech if ever there was one, objecting to the way Theodore Dreiser portrayed a child molester in his play “The Hand of the Potter.” Dreiser defended himself on the basis that an artist should let his art, not censors, determine how to handle a subject. “It is all very well enough to talk of artistic freedom, but it must be plain that there must be a limit in the theater, as in books,” Mencken shouted in a letter. When Dreiser suffered at the hands of the censors, Mencken organized a campaign against them, but also shrugged and said, “What did you expect?” Free speech, in Mencken’s mind, had its limits.
Now I read that Mark Twain, whose “Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Board of Education, called for New York City newspapers to stop reporting crime news for fear that it would inspire men to attack and rape women. Mark Twain, censor.
It happened during the summer of 1907, when the newspapers were full of accounts of attacks on women and girls. There were so many that some called it “a wave of crime.” A judge objected, saying the crime rate was the same as the previous year, only that newspapers were reporting them in more salacious details (including mutterings about immigrant Italians causing them. Meanwhile, the police commissioner asked for money to hire another 500 police officers.
As Twain, then in his 70s, read the newspaper accounts and took up his pen to suggest that what we write has consequences. In his unpublished essay “The Power of ‘Suggestion’,” he proposes that when a newspaper writes about a starving family, they will receive offers of food. If they write about a homeless child, they will be flooded with adoption offers.
By that same logic, ruffians will read about a woman being blackjacked on a path, or a gang dragging a man’s girlfriend into the bushes, and “the inflaming particulars excite a thousand ruffian readers, and they frenziedly hunt for opportunities to duplicate that crime.”
Getting warmer under his collar, he writes, “if the published case be very liberally spiced with salacious particulars, the 2,000 daily journals of the United States will print it, and some hundreds of thousands of ruffians will be set on fire by it, driven temporarily insane by it, rendered practically irresponsible by it; and while this frenzy lasts they will take the most desperate chances to duplicate that crime.”
Inflamed by the thought of “hundreds of thousands” of men roaming the nation’s streets hunting for girls, Twain blamed the “wave of crime” on “the open court and the newspaper.” He proposed holding secret tribunals and censoring newspapers for several months, “by way of experiment, in hopes that the ruffian mind would cool off, and crimes against women and girls would become practically infrequent.”
Twain never published this essay. When he cooled down, he might have recognized the logical fallacy behind his argument. One hopes that he saw the hypocrisy behind censoring the news, on a par with, say, banning “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” because it used the “N-word.”
The essay stayed buried more than a century until it was published with other unpublished pieces in “Who Is Mark Twain?” It reminds us that we are all fallible. Eruptions of passion can lead us into error. Great thinkers are not great thinkers all the time; they just know when to shut up.
I’ve been a lifelong reader of Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes, so it made since to put them together and see what happens.