Mark Twain’s Thoughts On Turning Tom Sawyer Into a Play

Mark Twain was at the height of his popularity when he received a request to dramatize Tom Sawyer. The director of a theater company asked the author’s permission to use his name in association with the production. He concluded his letter by offering Twain a free ticket to see the performance.

Mark Twain

The famous writer was less than flattered by the request and wrote the following:


September 8, ’87

Dear Sir,

And so it has got around to you, at last; and you also have “taken the liberty.” You are No. 1365. When 1364 sweeter and better people, including the author, have tried to dramatize Tom Sawyer and did not arrive, what sort of show do you suppose you stand? That is a book, dear Sir, which cannot be dramatized. One might as well try to dramatize any other hymn. Tom Sawyer is simply a hymn, put into prose form to give it a worldly air.…

… I have seen Tom Sawyer’s remains in all the different kinds of dramatic shrouds there are. You cannot start anything fresh. Are you serious when you propose to pay my expence—if that is the Susquehannian way of spelling it? And can you be aware that I charge a hundred dollars a mile when I travel for pleasure. Do you realize that it is 432 miles to Susquehanna? Would it be handy for you to send me the $43,200 first, so I could be counting it as I come along; because railroading is pretty dreary to a sensitive nature when there’s nothing sordid to buck at for Zeitvertreib.

Now as I understand it, dear and magnanimous 1365, you are going to recreate Tom Sawyer dramatically, and then do me the compliment to put me in the bills as father of this shady offspring? Sir, do you know that this kind of compliment has destroyed people before now? Listen.

Twenty-four years ago, I was strangely handsome. The remains of it are still visible through the rifts of time. I was so handsome that human activities ceased as if spellbound when I came in view, and even inanimate objects stopped to look—like locomotives, and district messenger boys and so-on. In San Francisco, in rainy season I was often mistaken for fair weather. Upon one occasion I was traveling in the Sonora region, and stopped for an hour’s nooning, to rest my horse and myself. All the town came out for a look. A Piute squaw named her baby after me,—a voluntary compliment which pleased me greatly.

Other attentions were paid me. Last of all arrived the president and faculty of Sonora University and offered me the post of Professor of Moral Culture and Dogmatic Humanities; which I accepted gratefully, and entered at once upon my duties. But my name had pleased the Indians, and in the deadly kindness of their hearts they went on naming their babies after me. I tried to stop it, but the Indians could not understand why I should object to so manifest a compliment. The thing grew and grew and spread and spread and became exceedingly embarrassing. The University stood it a couple of years; but then for the sake of the college they felt obliged to call a halt, although I had the sympathy of the whole faculty.

The president himself said to me, “I am sorry as I can be for you, and would still hold out if there were any hope ahead; but you see how it is: there are a hundred and thirty-two of them already, and fourteen precincts to hear from. The circumstance has brought your name into most wide and unfortunate renown. It causes much comment—I believe that is not an overstatement. Some of this comment is palliative, but some of it—by patrons at a distance, who only know the statistics without the explanation,—is offensive, and in some cases even violent. Nine students have been called home. The trustees of the college have been growing more and more uneasy all these last months—steadily along with the implacable increase in your census—and I will not conceal from you that more than once they have touched upon the expediency of a change in the Professorship of Moral Culture. The coarsely sarcastic editorial in yesterday’s Alta,—headed Give the Moral Acrobat a Rest—has brought things to a crisis, and I am charged with the unpleasant duty of receiving your resignation.”

I know you only mean me a kindness, dear 1365, but it is a most deadly mistake. Please do not name your Injun for me.

Truly yours,

When Yes or No Aren’t Enough

The legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld was well known for his constant and frantic use of the telephone and telegram. He would often send his performers telegrams after watching their work from the back of the theater, offering criticisms or suggestions.

Groucho Marx and the Cover of Time

When Groucho Marx’s face appeared on the front cover of the December 31, 1951, issue of Time magazine, he sat down and composed the following letter to the magazine’s publisher.

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