Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXII

A Prophet Honored in His Country

Clemens left next day for Columbia. Committees met him at Rensselaer, Monroe City, Clapper, Stoutsville, Paris, Madison, Moberly — at every station along the line of his travel. At each place crowds were gathered when the train pulled in, to cheer and wave and to present him with flowers. Sometimes he spoke a few words; but oftener his eyes were full of tears — his voice would not come.

There is something essentially dramatic in official recognition by one’s native State — the return of the lad who has set out unknown to battle with life, and who, having conquered, is invited back to be crowned. No other honor, however great and spectacular, is quite like that, for there is in it a pathos and a completeness that are elemental and stir emotions as old as life itself.

It was on the 4th of June, 1902, that Mark Twain received his doctor of laws degree from the State University at Columbia, Missouri. James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture, and Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Secretary of the Interior, were among those similarly honored. Mark Twain was naturally the chief attraction. Dressed in his Yale scholastic gown he led the procession of graduating students, and, as in Hannibal, awarded them their diplomas. The regular exercises were made purposely brief in order that some time might be allowed for the conferring of the degrees. This ceremony was a peculiarly impressive one. Gardner Lathrop read a brief statement introducing “America’s foremost author and best-loved citizen, Samuel Langhorne Clemens — Mark Twain.”

Clemens rose, stepped out to the center of the stage, and paused. He seemed to be in doubt as to whether he should make a speech or simply express his thanks and retire. Suddenly, and without a signal, the great audience rose as one man and stood in silence at his feet. He bowed, but he could not speak. Then that vast assembly began a peculiar chant, spelling out slowly the word Missouri, with a pause between each letter. It was dramatic; it was tremendous in its impressiveness. He had recovered himself when they finished. He said he didn’t know whether he was expected to make a speech or not. They did not leave’him in doubt. They cheered and demanded a speech, a speech, and he made them one — one of the speeches he could make best, full of quaint phrasing, happy humor, gentle and dramatic pathos. He closed by telling the watermelon story for its “moral effect.”

He was the guest of E. W. Stevens in Columbia, and a dinner was given in his honor. They would have liked to keep him longer, but he was due in St. Louis again to join in the dedication of the grounds, where was to be held a World’s Fair, to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase. Another ceremony he attended was the christening of the St. Louis harbor-boat, or rather the rechristening, for it had been decided to change its name from the St. Louis 159 to the Mark Twain. A short trip was made on it for the ceremony. Governor Francis and Mayor Wells were of the party, and Count and Countess Rochambeau and Marquis de Lafayette, with the rest of the French group that had come over for the dedication of the World’s Fair grounds.

159 [Originally the Elon G. Smith, built in 1873.]

Mark Twain himself was invited to pilot the harbor boat, and so returned for the last time to his old place at the wheel. They all collected in the pilot-house behind him, feeling that it was a memorable occasion. They were going along well enough when he saw a little ripple running out from the shore across the bow. In the old days he could have told whether it indicated a bar there or was only caused by the wind, but he could not be sure any more. Turning to the pilot languidly, he said: “I feel a little tired. I guess you had better take the wheel.”

Luncheon was served aboard, and Mayor Wells made the christening speech; then the Countess Rochambeau took a bottle of champagne from the hand of Governor Francis and smashed it on the deck, saying, “I christen thee, good boat, Mark Twain.” So it was, the Mississippi joined in according him honors. In his speech of reply he paid tribute to those illustrious visitors from France and recounted something of the story of French exploration along that great river.

“The name of La Salle will last as long as the river itself,” he said; “will last until commerce is dead. We have allowed the commerce of the river to die, but it was to accommodate the railroads, and we must be grateful.”

Carriages were waiting for them when the boat landed in the afternoon, and the party got in and were driven to a house which had been identified as Eugene Field’s birthplace. A bronze tablet recording this fact had been installed, and this was to be the unveiling. The place was not in an inviting quarter of the town. It stood in what is known as Walsh’s Row — was fashionable enough once, perhaps, but long since fallen into disrepute. Ragged children played in the doorways, and thirsty lodgers were making trips with tin pails to convenient bar-rooms. A curious nondescript audience assembled around the little group of dedicators, wondering what it was all about. The tablet was concealed by the American flag, which could be easily pulled away by an attached cord. Governor Francis spoke a few words, to the effect that they had gathered here to unveil a tablet to an American poet, and that it was fitting that Mark Twain should do this. They removed their hats, and Clemens, his white hair blowing in the wind, said:

“My friends; we are here with reverence and respect to commemorate and enshrine in memory the house where was born a man who, by his life, made bright the lives of all who knew him, and by his literary efforts cheered the thoughts of thousands who never knew him. I take pleasure in unveiling the tablet of Eugene Field.”

The flag fell and the bronze inscription was revealed. By this time the crowd, generally, had recognized who it was that was speaking. A working-man proposed three cheers for Mark Twain, and they were heartily given. Then the little party drove away, while the neighborhood collected to regard the old house with a new interest.

It was reported to Clemens later that there was some dispute as to the identity of the Field birthplace. He said:

“Never mind. It is of no real consequence whether it is his birthplace or not. A rose in any other garden will bloom as sweet.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00