Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LIV

The Lecturer

It was not easy to take up the daily struggle again, but it was necessary. 44 Out of the ruck of possibilities (his brain always thronged with plans) he constructed three or four resolves. The chief of these was the trip around the world; but that lay months ahead, and in the mean time ways and means must be provided. Another intention was to finish the Hornet article, and forward it to Harper’s Magazine — a purpose carried immediately into effect. To his delight the article found acceptance, and he looked forward to the day of its publication as the beginning of a real career. He intended to follow it up with a series on the islands, which in due time might result in a book and an income. He had gone so far as to experiment with a dedication for the book — an inscription to his mother, modified later for use in ‘The Innocents Abroad’. A third plan of action was to take advantage of the popularity of the Hawaiian letters, and deliver a lecture on the same subject. But this was a fearsome prospect — he trembled when he thought of it. As Governor of the Third House he had been extravagantly received and applauded, but in that case the position of public entertainer had been thrust upon him. To come forward now, offering himself in the same capacity, was a different matter. He believed he could entertain, but he lacked the courage to declare himself; besides, it meant a risk of his slender capital. He confided his situation to Col. John McComb, of the Alta California, and was startled by McComb’s vigorous endorsement.

44 [Clemens once declared he had been so blue at this period that one morning he put a loaded pistol to his head, but found he lacked courage to pull the trigger.]

“Do it, by all means!” urged McComb. “It will be a grand success — I know it! Take the largest house in town, and charge a dollar a ticket.”

Frightened but resolute, he went to the leading theater manager the same Tom Maguire of his verses — and was offered the new opera-house at half rates. The next day this advertisement appeared:

MAGUIRE’S ACADEMY OF MUSIC
PINE STREET, NEAR MONTGOMERY

THE SANDWICH ISLANDS

MARK TWAIN

(HONOLULU CORRESPONDENT OF THE SACRAMENTO UNION) WILL DELIVER A LECTURE ON THE SANDWICH ISLANDS

AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC
ON TUESDAY EVENING, OCT. 2d
(1866)

In which passing mention will be made of Harris, Bishop Staley, the American missionaries, etc., and the absurd customs and characteristics of the natives duly discussed and described. The great volcano of Kilauea will also receive proper attention.

A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA
is in town, but has not been engaged
ALSO
A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS
will be on exhibition in the next block
MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS
were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned
A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION
may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please.

Dress Circle, $1.00 Family Circle, 50c Doors open at 7 o’clock The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock

The story of that first lecture, as told in Roughing It, is a faithful one, and need only be summarized here.

Expecting to find the house empty, he found it packed from the footlights to the walls. Sidling out from the wings — wobbly-kneed and dry of tongue — he was greeted by a murmur, a roar, a very crash of applause that frightened away his remaining vestiges of courage. Then, came reaction — these were his friends, and he began to talk to them. Fear melted away, and as tide after tide of applause rose and billowed and came breaking at his feet, he knew something of the exaltation of Monte Cristo when he declared “The world is mine!”

It was a vast satisfaction to have succeeded. It was particularly gratifying at this time, for he dreaded going back into newspaper harness. Also; it softened later the disappointment resulting from another venture; for when the December Harper appeared, with his article, the printer and proof-reader had somehow converted Mark Twain into “Mark Swain,” and his literary dream perished.

As to the literary value of his lecture, it was much higher than had, been any portion of his letters, if we may judge from its few remaining fragments. One of these — a part of the description of the great volcano Haleakala, on the island of Maui — is a fair example of his eloquence.

It is somewhat more florid than his later description of the same scene in Roughing It, which it otherwise resembles; and we may imagine that its poetry, with the added charm of its delivery, held breathless his hearers, many of whom believed that no purer eloquence had ever been uttered or written.

It is worth remembering, too, that in this lecture, delivered so long ago, he advocated the idea of American ownership of these islands, dwelling at considerable length on his reasons for this ideal.45

45 [For fragmentary extracts from this first lecture of Mark Twain and news comment, see Appendix D, end of last volume.]

There was a gross return from his venture of more than $1,200, but with his usual business insight, which was never foresight, he had made an arrangement by which, after paying bills and dividing with his manager, he had only about one-third of, this sum left. Still, even this was prosperity and triumph. He had acquired a new and lucrative profession at a bound. The papers lauded him as the “most piquant and humorous writer and lecturer on the Coast since the days of the lamented John Phoenix.” He felt that he was on the highroad at last.

Denis McCarthy, late of the Enterprise, was in San Francisco, and was willing to become his manager. Denis was capable and honest, and Clemens was fond of him. They planned a tour of the near-by towns, beginning with Sacramento, extending it later even to the mining camps, such as Red Dog and Grass Valley; also across into Nevada, with engagements at Carson City, Virginia, and Gold Hill. It was an exultant and hilarious excursion — that first lecture tour made by Denis McCarthy and Mark Twain. Success traveled with them everywhere, whether the lecturer looked across the footlights of some pretentious “opera-house” or between the two tallow candles of some camp “academy.” Whatever the building, it was packed, and the returns were maximum.

Those who remember him as a lecturer in that long-ago time say that his delivery was more quaint, his drawl more exaggerated, even than in later life; that his appearance and movements on the stage were natural, rather than graceful; that his manuscript, which he carried under his arm, looked like a ruffled hen. It was, in fact, originally written on sheets of manila paper, in large characters, so that it could be read easily by dim light, and it was doubtless often disordered.

There was plenty of amusing experience on this tour. At one place, when the lecture was over, an old man came to him and said:

“Be them your natural tones of eloquence?”

At Grass Valley there was a rival show, consisting of a lady tight-rope walker and her husband. It was a small place, and the tight-rope attraction seemed likely to fail. The lady’s husband had formerly been a compositor on the Enterprise, so that he felt there was a bond of brotherhood between him and Mark Twain.

“Look here,” he said. “Let’s combine our shows. I’ll let my wife do the tight-rope act outside and draw a crowd, and you go inside and lecture.”

The arrangement was not made.

Following custom, the lecturer at first thought it necessary to be introduced, and at each place McCarthy had to skirmish around and find the proper person. At Red Dog, on the Stanislaus, the man selected failed to appear, and Denis had to provide another on short notice. He went down into the audience and captured an old fellow, who ducked and dodged but could not escape. Denis led him to the stage, a good deal frightened.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this is the celebrated Mark Twain from the celebrated city of San Francisco, with his celebrated lecture about the celebrated Sandwich Islands.”

That was as far as he could go; but it was far enough. Mark Twain never had a better introduction. The audience was in a shouting humor from the start.

Clemens himself used to tell of an introduction at another camp, where his sponsor said:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I know only two things about this man: the first is that he’s never been in jail, and the second is I don’t know why.”

But this is probably apocryphal; there is too much “Mark Twain” in it.

When he reached Virginia, Goodman said to him:

“Sam, you do not need anybody to introduce you. There’s a piano on the stage in the theater. Have it brought out in sight, and when the curtain rises you be seated at the piano, playing and singing that song of yours, ‘I Had an Old Horse Whose Name Was Methusalem,’ and don’t seem to notice that the curtain is up at first; then be surprised when you suddenly find out that it is up, and begin talking, without any further preliminaries.”

This proved good advice, and the lecture, thus opened, started off with general hilarity and applause.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05