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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
LVIII. A New Book and a Lecture
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Webb, meantime, had pushed the Frog book along. The proofs had been read
and the volume was about ready for issue. Clemens wrote to his mother
My book will probably be in the bookseller's hands in about two
weeks. After that I shall lecture. Since I have been gone, the
boys have gotten up a "call" on me signed by two hundred
The lecture plan was the idea of Frank Fuller, who as acting Governor of
Utah had known Mark Twain on the Comstock, and prophesied favorably of
his future career. Clemens had hunted up Fuller on landing in New York
in January, and Fuller had encouraged the lecture then; but Clemens was
"I have no reputation with the general public here," he said. "We
couldn't get a baker's dozen to hear me."
But Fuller was a sanguine person, with an energy and enthusiasm that were
infectious. He insisted that the idea was sound. It would solidify Mark
Twain's reputation on the Atlantic coast, he declared, insisting that the
largest house in New York, Cooper Union, should be taken. Clemens had
partially consented, and Fuller had arranged with all the Pacific slope
people who had come East, headed by ex-Governor James W. Nye (by this
time Senator at Washington), to sign a call for the "Inimitable Mark
Twain" to appear before a New York audience. Fuller made Nye agree to be
there and introduce the lecturer, and he was burningly busy and happy in
But Mark Twain was not happy. He looked at that spacious hall and
imagined the little crowd of faithful Californian stragglers that might
gather in to hear him, and the ridicule of the papers next day. He
begged Fuller to take a smaller hall, the smallest he could get. But
only the biggest hall in New York would satisfy Fuller. He would have
taken a larger one if he could have found it. The lecture was announced
for May 6th. Its subject was "Kanakadom, or the Sandwich Islands"--
tickets fifty cents. Fuller timed it to follow a few days after Webb's
book should appear, so that one event might help the other.
Mark Twain's first book, 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveyas
County, and Other Sketches', was scheduled for May 1st, and did, in fact,
appear on that date; but to the author it was no longer an important
event. Jim Smiley's frog as standard-bearer of his literary procession
was not an interesting object, so far as he was concerned--not with that
vast, empty hall in the background and the insane undertaking of trying
to fill it. The San Francisco venture had been as nothing compared with
this. Fuller was working night and day with abounding joy, while the
subject of his labor felt as if he were on the brink of a fearful
precipice, preparing to try a pair of wings without first learning to
fly. At one instant he was cold with fright, the next glowing with an
infection of Fuller's faith. He devised a hundred schemes for the sale
of seats. Once he came rushing to Fuller, saying:
"Send a lot of tickets down to the Chickering Piano Company. I have
promised to put on my programme, 'The piano used at this entertainment is
manufactured by Chickering."'
"But you don't want a piano, Mark," said Fuller, "do you?"
"No, of course not; but they will distribute the tickets for the sake of
the advertisement, whether we have the piano or not."
Fuller got out a lot of handbills and hung bunches of them in the stages,
omnibuses, and horse-cars. Clemens at first haunted these vehicles to
see if anybody noticed the bills. The little dangling bunches seemed
untouched. Finally two men came in; one of them pulled off a bill and
glanced at it. His friend asked:
"Who's Mark Twain?"
"God knows; I don't!"
The lecturer could not ride any more. He was desperate.
"Fuller," he groaned, "there isn't a sign--a ripple of interest."
Fuller assured him that everything was working all right "working
underneath," Fuller said--but the lecturer was hopeless. He reported his
impressions to the folks at home:
Everything looks shady, at least, if not dark; I have a good agent;
but now, after we have hired the Cooper Institute, and gone to an
expense in one way or another of $500, it comes out that I have got
to play against Speaker Colfax at Irving Hall, Ristori, and also the
double troop of Japanese jugglers, the latter opening at the great
Academy of Music--and with all this against me I have taken the
largest house in New York and cannot back water.
He might have added that there were other rival entertainments: "The
Flying Scud" was at Wallack's, the "Black Crook" was at Niblo's, John
Brougham at the Olympic; and there were at least a dozen lesser
attractions. New York was not the inexhaustible city in those days;
these things could gather in the public to the last man. When the day
drew near, and only a few tickets had been sold, Clemens was desperate.
"Fuller," he said, "there'll be nobody in the Cooper Union that night but
you and me. I am on the verge of suicide. I would commit suicide if I
had the pluck and the outfit. You must paper the house, Fuller. You
must send out a flood of complementaries."
"Very well," said Fuller; "what we want this time is reputation anyway--
money is secondary. I'll put you before the choicest, most intelligent
audience that ever was gathered in New York City. I will bring in the
school-instructors--the finest body of men and women in the world."
Fuller immediately sent out a deluge of complimentary tickets, inviting
the school-teachers of New York and Brooklyn, and all the adjacent
country, to come free and hear Mark Twain's great lecture on Kanakadom.
This was within forty-eight hours of the time he was to appear.
Senator Nye was to have joined Clemens and Fuller at the Westminster,
where Clemens was stopping, and they waited for him there with a
carriage, fuming and swearing, until it was evident that he was not
coming. At last Clemens said:
"Fuller, you've got to introduce me."
"No," suggested Fuller; "I've got a better scheme than that. You get up
and begin by bemeaning Nye for not being there. That will be better
"Well, Fuller, I can do that. I feel that way. I'll try to think up
something fresh and happy to say about that horse-thief."
They drove to Cooper Union with trepidation. Suppose, after all, the
school-teachers had declined to come? They went half an hour before the
lecture was to begin. Forty years later Mark Twain said:
"I couldn't keep away. I wanted to see that vast Mammoth cave and die.
But when we got near the building I saw that all the streets were blocked
with people, and that traffic had stopped. I couldn't believe that these
people were trying to get into Cooper Institute; but they were, and when
I got to the stage at last the house was jammed full-packed; there wasn't
room enough left for a child.
"I was happy and I was excited beyond expression. I poured the Sandwich
Islands out on those people, and they laughed and shouted to my entire
content. For an hour and fifteen minutes I was in paradise."
And Fuller to-day, alive and young, when so many others of that ancient
time and event have vanished, has added:
"When Mark appeared the Californians gave a regular yell of welcome.
When that was over he walked to the edge of the platform, looked
carefully down in the pit, round the edges as if he were hunting for
something. Then he said: 'There was to have been a piano here, and a
senator to introduce me. I don't seem to discover them anywhere. The
piano was a good one, but we will have to get along with such music as I
can make with your help. As for the senator--Then Mark let himself go
and did as he promised about Senator Nye. He said things that made men
from the Pacific coast, who had known Nye, scream with delight. After
that came his lecture. The first sentence captured the audience. From
that moment to the end it was either in a roar of laughter or half
breathless by his beautiful descriptive passages. People were positively
ill for days, laughing at that lecture."
So it was a success: everybody was glad to have been there; the papers
were kind, congratulations numerous.
--[Kind but not extravagant; those were burning political times, and the
doings of mere literary people did not excite the press to the extent of
headlines. A jam around Cooper Union to-day, followed by such an
artistic triumph, would be a news event. On the other hand, Schuyler
Colfax, then Speaker of the House, was reported to the extent of a
column, nonpareil. His lecture was of no literary importance, and no
echo of it now remains. But those were political, not artistic, days.
Of Mark Twain's lecture the Times notice said:
"Nearly every one present came prepared for considerable provocation for
enjoyable laughter, and from the appearance of their mirthful faces
leaving the hall at the conclusion of the lecture but few were
disappointed, and it is not too much to say that seldom has so large an
audience been so uniformly pleased as the one that listened to Mark
Twain's quaint remarks last evening. The large hall of the Union was
filled to its utmost capacity by fully two thousand persons, which fact
spoke well for the reputation of the lecturer and his future success.
Mark Twain's style is a quaint one both in manner and method, and through
his discourse he managed to keep on the right side of the audience, and
frequently convulsed it with hearty laughter.... During a description of
the topography of the Sandwich Islands the lecturer surprised his hearers
by a graphic and eloquent description of the eruption of the great
volcano, which occurred in 1840, and his language was loudly applauded.
"Judging from the success achieved by the lecturer last evening, he
should repeat his experiment at an early date."]
By Invitation of s large number of prominent Californians and
Citizens of New York,
WILL DELIVER A
THE SANDWICH ISLANDS,
On Monday Evening, May 6,1867.
TICKETS FIFTY GENTS.
For Sale at Chickering and Sons, 852 Broadway, and at the Principal
Doors open at 7 o'clock. The Wisdom will begin to flow at 8.
Mark Twain always felt grateful to the school-teachers for that night.
Many years later, when they wanted him to read to them in Steinway Hall,
he gladly gave his services without charge.
Nor was the lecture a complete financial failure. In spite of the flood
of complementaries, there was a cash return of some three hundred dollars
from the sale of tickets--a substantial aid in defraying the expenses
which Fuller assumed and insisted on making good on his own account.
That was Fuller's regal way; his return lay in the joy of the game, and
in the winning of the larger stake for a friend.
"Mark," he said, "it is all right. The fortune didn't come, but it will.
The fame has arrived; with this lecture and your book just out you are
going to be the most talked-of man in the country. Your letters for the
Alta and the Tribune will get the widest reception of any letters of
travel ever written."