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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXIV. The Whittier Birthday Speech
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|It was the night of December 17, 1877, that Mark Twain made his
unfortunate speech at the dinner given by the Atlantic staff to John G.
Whittier on his seventieth birthday. Clemens had attended a number of
the dinners which the Atlantic gave on one occasion or another, and had
provided a part of the entertainment. It is only fair to say that his
after-dinner speeches at such times had been regarded as very special
events, genuine triumphs of humor and delivery. But on this particular
occasion he determined to outdo himself, to prepare something unusual,
startling, something altogether unheard of.
When Mark Twain had an impulse like that it was possible for it to result
in something dangerous, especially in those earlier days. This time it
produced a bombshell; not just an ordinary bombshell, or even a twelve-
inch projectile, but a shell of planetary size. It was a sort of hoax-
always a doubtful plaything--and in this case it brought even quicker and
more terrible retribution than usual. It was an imaginary presentation
of three disreputable frontier tramps who at some time had imposed
themselves on a lonely miner as Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes, quoting
apposite selections from their verses to the accompaniment of cards and
drink, and altogether conducting themselves in a most unsavory fashion.
At the end came the enlightenment that these were not what they pretended
to be, but only impostors--disgusting frauds. A feature like that would
be a doubtful thing to try in any cultured atmosphere. The thought of
associating, ever so remotely, those three old bummers which he had
conjured up with the venerable and venerated Emerson, Longfellow, and
Holmes, the Olympian trinity, seems ghastly enough to-day, and must have
seemed even more so then. But Clemens, dazzled by the rainbow splendor
of his conception, saw in it only a rare colossal humor, which would
fairly lift and bear his hearers along on a tide of mirth. He did not
show his effort to any one beforehand. He wanted its full beauty to
burst upon the entire company as a surprise.
It did that. Howells was toastmaster, and when he came to present
Clemens he took particular pains to introduce him as one of his foremost
contributors and dearest friends. Here, he said, was "a humorist who
never left you hanging you head for having enjoyed his joke."
Thirty years later Clemens himself wrote of his impressions as he rose to
deliver his speech.
I vaguely remember some of the details of that gathering: dimly I
can see a hundred people--no, perhaps fifty--shadowy figures,
sitting at tables feeding, ghosts now to me, and nameless
forevermore. I don't know who they were, but I can very distinctly
see, seated at the grand table and facing the rest of us, Mr.
Emerson, supernaturally grave, unsmiling; Mr. Whittier, grave,
lovely, his beautiful spirit shining out of his face; Mr.
Longfellow, with his silken-white hair and his benignant face; Dr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, flashing smiles and affection and all good-
fellowship everywhere, like a rose-diamond whose facets are being
turned toward the light, first one way and then another--a charming
man, and always fascinating, whether he was talking or whether he
was sitting still (what he would call still, but what would be more
or less motion to other people). I can see those figures with
entire distinctiness across this abyss of time.
William Winter, the poet, had just preceded him, and it seemed a moment
aptly chosen for his so-different theme. "And then," to quote Howells,
"the amazing mistake, the bewildering blunder, the cruel catastrophe was
After the first two or three hundred words, when the general plan and
purpose of the burlesque had developed, when the names of Longfellow,
Emerson, and Holmes began to be flung about by those bleary outcasts, and
their verses given that sorry association, those Atlantic diners became
petrified with amazement and horror. Too late, then, the speaker
realized his mistake. He could not stop, he must go on to the ghastly
end. And somehow he did it, while "there fell a silence weighing many
tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment, and was
broken only by the hysterical and blood-curdling laughter of a single
guest, whose name shall not be handed down to infamy."
Howells can remember little more than that, but Clemens recalls that one
speaker made an effort to follow him--Bishop, the novelist, and that
Bishop didn't last long.
It was not many sentences after his first before he began to
hesitate and break, and lose his grip, and totter and wobble, and at
last he slumped down in a limp and mushy pile.
The next man had not strength to rise, and somehow the company broke up.
Howells's next recollection is of being in a room of the hotel, and of
hearing Charles Dudley Warner saying in the gloom:
"Well, Mark, you're a funny fellow."
He remembers how, after a sleepless night, Clemens went out to buy some
bric-a-brac, with a soul far from bric-a-brac, and returned to Hartford
in a writhing agony of spirit. He believed that he was ruined forever,
so far as his Boston associations were concerned; and when he confessed
all the tragedy to Mrs. Clemens it seemed to her also that the mistake
could never be wholly repaired. The fact that certain papers quoted the
speech and spoke well of it, and certain readers who had not listened to
it thought it enormously funny, gave very little comfort. But perhaps
his chief concern was the ruin which he believed he had brought upon
Howells. He put his heart into a brief letter:
MY DEAR HOWELLS,--My sense of disgrace does not abate. It grows.
I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies, a
list of humiliations that extends back to when I was seven years
old, and which keep on persecuting me regardless of my repentances.
I feel that my misfortune has injured me all over the country;
therefore it will be best that I retire from before the public at
present. It will hurt the Atlantic for me to appear in its pages
now. So it is my opinion, and my wife's, that the telephone story
had better be suppressed. Will you return those proofs or revises
to me, so that I can use the same on some future occasion?
It seems as if I must have been insane when I wrote that speech and
saw no harm in it, no disrespect toward those men whom I reverenced
so much. And what shame I brought upon you, after what you said in
introducing me! It burns me like fire to think of it.
The whole matter is a dreadful subject. Let me drop it here--at
least on paper.
So, all in a moment, his world had come to an end--as it seemed. But
Howells's letter, which came rushing back by first mail, brought hope.
"It was a fatality," Howells said. "One of those sorrows into which a
man walks with his eyes wide open, no one knows why."
Howells assured him that Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes would so
consider it, beyond doubt; that Charles Eliot Norton had already
expressed himself exactly in the right spirit concerning it. Howells
declared that there was no intention of dropping Mark Twain's work from
You are not going to be floored by it; there is more justice than
that even in this world. Especially as regards me, just call the
sore spot well. I can say more, and with better heart, in praise of
your good feeling (which was what I always liked in you), since this
thing happened than I could before.
It was agreed that he should at once write a letter to Longfellow,
Emerson, and Holmes, and he did write, laying his heart bare to them.
Longfellow and Holmes answered in a fine spirit of kindliness, and Miss
Emerson wrote for her father in the same tone. Emerson had not been
offended, for he had not heard the speech, having arrived even then at
that stage of semi-oblivion as to immediate things which eventually so
completely shut him away. Longfellow's letter made light of the whole
matter. The newspapers, he said, had caused all the mischief.
A bit of humor at a dinner-table talk is one thing; a report of it
in the morning papers is another. One needs the lamplight and the
scenery. These failing, what was meant in jest assumes a serious
I do not believe that anybody was much hurt. Certainly I was not,
and Holmes tells me that he was not. So I think you may dismiss the
matter from your mind, without further remorse.
It was a very pleasant dinner, and I think Whittier enjoyed it very
Holmes likewise referred to it as a trifle.
It never occurred to me for a moment to take offense, or to feel
wounded by your playful use of my name. I have heard some mild
questioning as to whether, even in fun, it was good taste to
associate the names of the authors with the absurdly unlike
personalities attributed to them, but it seems to be an open
question. Two of my friends, gentlemen of education and the highest
social standing, were infinitely amused by your speech, and stoutly
defended it against the charge of impropriety. More than this, one
of the cleverest and best-known ladies we have among us was highly
delighted with it.
Miss Emerson's letter was to Mrs. Clemens and its homelike New England
fashion did much to lift the gloom.
DEAR MRS. CLEMENS,-- At New Year's our family always meets, to spend
two days together. To-day my father came last, and brought with him
Mr. Clemens's letter, so that I read it to the assembled family, and
I have come right up-stairs to write to you about it. My sister
said, "Oh, let father write!" but my mother said, "No, don't wait
for him. Go now; don't stop to pick that up. Go this minute and
write. I think that is a noble letter. Tell them so." First let
me say that no shadow of indignation has ever been in any of our
minds. The night of the dinner, my father says, he did not hear Mr.
Clemens's speech. He was too far off, and my mother says that when
she read it to him the next day it amused him. But what you will
want is to know, without any softening, how we did feel. We were
disappointed. We have liked almost everything we have ever seen
over Mark Twain's signature. It has made us like the man, and we
have delighted in the fun. Father has often asked us to repeat
certain passages of The Innocents Abroad, and of a speech at a
London dinner in 1872, and we all expect both to approve and to
enjoy when we see his name. Therefore, when we read this speech it
was a real disappointment. I said to my brother that it didn't seem
good or funny, and he said, "No, it was unfortunate. Still some of
those quotations were very good"; and he gave them with relish and
my father laughed, though never having seen a card in his life, he
couldn't understand them like his children. My mother read it
lightly and had hardly any second thoughts about it. To my father
it is as if it had not been; he never quite heard, never quite
understood it, and he forgets easily and entirely. I think it
doubtful whether he writes to Mr. Clemens, for he is old and long
ago gave up answering letters, I think you can see just how bad, and
how little bad, it was as far as we are concerned, and this lovely
heartbreaking letter makes up for our disappointment in our much-
liked author, and restores our former feeling about him.
ELLEN T. EMERSON.
The sorrow dulled a little as the days passed. Just after Christmas
Clemens wrote to Howells:
I haven't done a stroke of work since the Atlantic dinner. But I'm
going to try to-morrow. How could I ever----
Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God's fool,
and all his work must be contemplated with respect.
So long as that unfortunate speech is remembered there will be
differences of opinion as to its merits and propriety. Clemens himself,
reading it for the first time in nearly thirty years, said:
"I find it gross, coarse--well, I needn't go on with particulars. I
don't like any part of it, from the beginning to the end. I find it
always offensive and detestable. How do I account for this change of
view? I don't know."
But almost immediately afterward he gave it another consideration and
reversed his opinion completely. All the spirit and delight of his old
first conception returned, and preparing it for publication, he wrote:
--[North American Review, December, 1907, now with comment included in
the volume of "Speeches." Also see Appendix O, at the end of last
volume.]-- I have read it twice, and unless I am an idiot it hasn't a
single defect in it, from the first word to the last. It is just as good
as good can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn't a
suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere.]
It was altogether like Mark Twain to have those two absolutely opposing
opinions in that brief time; for, after all, it was only a question of
the human point of view, and Mark Twain's points of view were likely to
be as extremely human as they were varied.
Of course the first of these impressions, the verdict of the fresh mind
uninfluenced by the old conception, was the more correct one. The speech
was decidedly out of place in that company. The skit was harmless
enough, but it was of the Comstock grain. It lacked refinement, and,
what was still worse, it lacked humor, at least the humor of a kind
suited to that long-ago company of listeners. It was another of those
grievous mistakes which genius (and not talent) can make, for genius is a
sort of possession. The individual is pervaded, dominated for a time by
an angel or an imp, and he seldom, of himself, is able to discriminate
between his controls. A literary imp was always lying in wait for Mark
Twain; the imp of the burlesque, tempting him to do the 'outre', the
outlandish, the shocking thing. It was this that Olivia Clemens had to
labor hardest against: the cheapening of his own high purpose with an
extravagant false note, at which sincerity, conviction, and artistic
harmony took wings and fled away. Notably he did a good burlesque now
and then, but his fame would not have suffered if he had been delivered
altogether from his besetting temptation.