The December good-fortune was an opportunity Clemens had to redeem himself with the Atlantic contingent, at a breakfast given to Dr. Holmes.
Howells had written concerning it as early as October, and the first impulse had been to decline. It would be something of an ordeal; for though two years had passed since the fatal Whittier dinner, Clemens had not been in that company since, and the lapse of time did not signify. Both Howells and Warner urged him to accept, and he agreed to do so on condition that he be allowed to speak.
If anybody talks there I shall claim the right to say a word myself, and be heard among the very earliest, else it would be confoundedly awkward for me — and for the rest, too. But you may read what I say beforehand, and strike out whatever you choose.
Howells advised against any sort of explanation. Clemens accepted this as wise counsel, and prepared an address relevant only to the guest of honor.
It was a noble gathering. Most of the guests of the Whittier dinner were present, and this time there were ladies. Emerson, Longfellow, and Whittier were there, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Julia Ward Howe; also the knightly Colonel Waring, and Stedman, and Parkman, and grand old John Bigelow, old even then.99
99 [He died in 1911 in his 94th year.]
Howells was conservative in his introduction this time. It was better taste to be so. He said simply:
“We will now listen to a few words of truth and soberness from Mark Twain.”
Clemens is said to have risen diffidently, but that was his natural manner. It probably did not indicate anything of the inner tumult he really felt.
Outwardly he was calm enough, and what he said was delicate and beautiful, the kind of thing that he could say so well. It seems fitting that it should be included here, the more so that it tells a story not elsewhere recorded. This is the speech in full:
MR. CHAIRMAN, LADIES, AND GENTLEMEN — I would have traveled a much greater distance than I have come to witness the paying of honors to Dr. Holmes, for my feeling toward him has always been one of peculiar warmth. When one receives a letter from a great man for the first time in his life it is a large event to him, as all of you know by your own experience. You never can receive letters enough from famous men afterward to obliterate that one or dim the memory of the pleasant surprise it was and the gratification it gave you. Lapse of time cannot make it commonplace or cheap. Well, the first great man who ever wrote me a letter was our guest, Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was also the first great literary man I ever stole anything from, and that is how I came to write to him and he to me. When my first book was new a friend of mine said, “The dedication is very neat.” Yes, I said, I thought it was. My friend said, “I always admired it, even before I saw it in The Innocents Abroad.” I naturally said, “What do you mean? Where did you ever see it before?” “Well, I saw it first, some years ago, as Dr. Holmes’s dedication to his Songs in Many Keys.” Of course my first impulse was to prepare this man’s remains for burial, but upon reflection I said I would reprieve him for a moment or two, and give him a chance to prove his assertion if he could. We stepped into a book-store. and he did prove it. I had stolen that dedication almost word for word. I could not imagine how this curious thing happened; for I knew one thing, for a dead certainty — that a certain amount of pride always goes along with a teaspoonful of brains, and that this pride protects a man from deliberately stealing other people’s ideas. That is what a teaspoonful of brains will do for a man, and admirers had often told me I had nearly a basketful, though they were rather reserved as to the size of the basket. However, I thought the thing out and solved the mystery. Some years before I had been laid up a couple of weeks in the Sandwich Islands, and had read and reread Dr. Holmes’s poems till my mental reservoir was filled with them to the brim. The dedication lay on top and handy, so by and by I unconsciously took it. Well, of course, I wrote to Dr. Holmes and told him I hadn’t meant to steal, and he wrote back and said, in the kindest way, that it was all right, and no harm done, and added that he believed we all unconsciously worked over ideas gathered in reading and hearing, imagining they were original with ourselves. He stated a truth and did it in such a pleasant way, and salved over my sore spot so gently and so healingly, that I was rather glad I had committed the crime, for the sake of the letter. I afterward called on him and told him to make perfectly free with any ideas of mine that struck him as good protoplasm for poetry. He could see by that time that there wasn’t anything mean about me; so we got along, right from the start.100
100 [Holmes in his letter had said: “I rather think The Innocents Abroad will have many more readers than Songs in Many Keys . . . You will be stolen from a great deal oftener than you will borrow from other people.”]
I have met Dr. Holmes many times since; and lately he said — However, I am wandering wildly away from the one thing which I got on my feet to do; that is, to make my compliments to you, my fellow-teachers of the great public, and likewise to say I am right glad to see that Dr. Holmes is still in his prime and full of generous life, and as age is not determined by years but by trouble, and by infirmities of mind and body, I hope it may be a very long time yet before any can truthfully say, “He is growing old.”
Whatever Mark Twain may have lost on that former occasion, came back to him multiplied when he had finished this happy tribute. So the year for him closed prosperously. The rainbow of promise was justified.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00