Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXL

The Definition of a Gentleman

That was a busy winter for him socially. He was constantly demanded for this thing and that — for public gatherings, dinners — everywhere he was a central figure. Once he presided at a Valentine dinner given by some Players to David Munro. He had never presided at a dinner before, he said, and he did it in his own way, which certainly was a taking one, suitable to that carefree company and occasion — a real Scotch occasion, with the Munro tartan everywhere, the table banked with heather, and a wild piper marching up and down in the anteroom, blowing savage airs in honor of Scotland’s gentlest son.

An important meeting of that winter was at Carnegie Hall — a great gathering which had assembled for the purpose of aiding Booker T. Washington in his work for the welfare of his race. The stage and the auditorium were thronged with notables. Joseph H. Choate and Mark Twain presided, and both spoke; also Robert C. Ogden and Booker T. Washington himself. It was all fine and interesting. Choate’s address was ably given, and Mark Twain was at his best. He talked of politics and of morals — public and private — how the average American citizen was true to his Christian principles three hundred and sixty-three days in the year, and how on the other two days of the year he left those principles at home and went to the tax-office and the voting-booths, and did his best to damage and undo his whole year’s faithful and righteous work.

I used to be an honest man, but I am crumbling — no, I have crumbled. When they assessed me at $75,000 a fortnight ago I went out and tried to borrow the money and couldn’t. Then when I found they were letting a whole crowd of millionaires live in New York at a third of the price they were charging me I was hurt, I was indignant, and said, this is the last feather. I am not going to run this town all by myself. In that moment — in that memorable moment, I began to crumble. In fifteen minutes the disintegration was complete. In fifteen minutes I was become just a mere moral sand-pile, and I lifted up my hand, along with those seasoned and experienced deacons, and swore off every rag of personal property I’ve got in the world.

I had never heard him address a miscellaneous audience. It was marvelous to see how he convulsed it, and silenced it, and controlled it at will. He did not undertake any special pleading for the negro cause; he only prepared the way with cheerfulness.

Clemens and Choate joined forces again, a few weeks later, at a great public meeting assembled in aid of the adult blind. Helen Keller was to be present, but she had fallen ill through overwork. She sent to Clemens one of her beautiful letters, in which she said:

I should be happy if I could have spelled into my hand the words as they fall from your lips, and receive, even as it is uttered, the eloquence of our newest ambassador to the blind.

Clemens, dictating the following morning, told of his first meeting with Helen Keller at a little gathering in Lawrence Hutton’s home, when she was about the age of fourteen. It was an incident that invited no elaboration, and probably received none.

Henry Rogers and I went together. The company had all assembled and had been waiting a while. The wonderful child arrived now with her about equally wonderful teacher, Miss Sullivan, and seemed quite well to recognize the character of her surroundings. She said, “Oh, the books, the books, so many, many books. How lovely!”

The guests were brought one after another. As she shook hands with each she took her hand away and laid her fingers lightly against Miss Sullivan’s lips, who spoke against them the person’s name.

Mr. Howells seated himself by Helen on the sofa, and she put her fingers against his lips and he told her a story of considerable length, and you could see each detail of it pass into her mind and strike fire there and throw the flash of it into her face.

After a couple of hours spent very pleasantly some one asked if Helen would remember the feel of the hands of the company after this considerable interval of time and be able to discriminate the hands and name the possessors of them. Miss Sullivan said, “Oh, she will have no difficulty about that.” So the company filed past, shook hands in turn, and with each hand-shake Helen greeted the owner of the hand pleasantly and spoke the name that belonged to it without hesitation.

By and by the assemblage proceeded to the dining-room and sat down to the luncheon. I had to go away before it was over, and as I passed by Helen I patted her lightly on the head and passed on. Miss Sullivan called to me and said, “Stop, Mr. Clemens, Helen is distressed because she did not recognize your hand. Won’t you come back and do that again?” I went back and patted her lightly on the head, and she said at once, “Oh, it’s Mr. Clemens.”

Perhaps some one can explain this miracle, but I have never been able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her hair? Some one else must answer this.

It was three years following this dictation that the mystery received a very simple and rather amusing solution. Helen had come to pay a visit to Mark Twain’s Connecticut home, Stormfield, then but just completed. He had met her, meantime, but it had not occurred to him before to ask her how she had recognized him that morning at Hutton’s, in what had seemed such a marvelous way. She remembered, and with a smile said:

“I smelled you.” Which, after all, did not make the incident seem much less marvelous.

On one of the mornings after Miss Hobby had gone Clemens said:

“A very curious thing has happened — a very large-sized-joke.” He was shaving at the time, and this information came in brief and broken relays, suited to a performance of that sort. The reader may perhaps imagine the effect without further indication of it.

“I was going on a yachting trip once, with Henry Rogers, when a reporter stopped me with the statement that Mrs. Astor had said that there had never been a gentleman in the White House, and he wanted me to give him my definition of a gentleman. I didn’t give him my definition; but he printed it, just the same, in the afternoon paper. I was angry at first, and wanted to bring a damage suit. When I came to read the definition it was a satisfactory one, and I let it go. Now to-day comes a letter and a telegram from a man who has made a will in Missouri, leaving ten thousand dollars to provide tablets for various libraries in the State, on which shall be inscribed Mark Twain’s definition of a gentleman. He hasn’t got the definition — he has only heard of it, and he wants me to tell him in which one of my books or speeches he can find it. I couldn’t think, when I read that letter, what in the nation the man meant, but shaving somehow has a tendency to release thought, and just now it all came to me.”

It was a situation full of amusing possibilities; but he reached no conclusion in the matter. Another telegram was brought in just then, which gave a sadder aspect to his thought, for it said that his old coachman, Patrick McAleer, who had begun in the Clemens service with the bride and groom of thirty-six years before, was very low, and could not survive more than a few days. This led him to speak of Patrick, his noble and faithful nature, and how he always claimed to be in their service, even during their long intervals of absence abroad. Clemens gave orders that everything possible should be done for Patrick’s comfort. When the end came, a few days later, he traveled to Hartford to lay flowers on Patrick’s bier, and to serve, with Patrick’s friends — neighbor coachmen and John O’Neill, the gardener — as pall-bearer, taking his allotted place without distinction or favor.

It was the following Sunday, at the Majestic Theater, in New York, that Mark Twain spoke to the Young Men’s Christian Association. For several reasons it proved an unusual meeting. A large number of free tickets had been given out, far more than the place would hold; and, further, it had been announced that when the ticket-holders had been seated the admission would be free to the public. The subject chosen for the talk was “Reminiscences.”

When we arrived the streets were packed from side to side for a considerable distance and a riot was in progress. A great crowd had swarmed about the place, and the officials, instead of throwing the doors wide and letting the theater fill up, regardless of tickets, had locked them. As a result there was a shouting, surging human mass that presently dashed itself against the entrance. Windows and doors gave way, and there followed a wild struggle for entrance. A moment later the house was packed solid. A detachment of police had now arrived, and in time cleared the street. It was said that amid the tumult some had lost their footing and had been trampled and injured, but of this we did not learn until later. We had been taken somehow to a side entrance and smuggled into boxes.172

172 [The paper next morning bore the head-lines: “10,000 Stampeded at the Mark Twain Meeting. Well-dressed Men and Women Clubbed by Police at Majestic Theater.” In this account the paper stated that the crowd had collected an hour before the time for opening; that nothing of the kind had been anticipated and no police preparation had been made.]

It was peaceful enough in the theater until Mark Twain appeared on the stage. He was wildly greeted, and when he said, slowly and seriously, “I thank you for this signal recognition of merit,” there was a still noisier outburst. In the quiet that followed he began his memories, and went wandering along from one anecdote to another in the manner of his daily dictations.

At last it seemed to occur to him, in view of the character of his audience, that he ought to close with something in the nature of counsel suited to young men.

It is from experiences such as mine [he said] that we get our education of life. We string them into jewels or into tinware, as we may choose. I have received recently several letters asking for counsel or advice, the principal request being for some incident that may prove helpful to the young. It is my mission to teach, and I am always glad to furnish something. There have been a lot of incidents in my career to help me along — sometimes they helped me along faster than I wanted to go.

He took some papers from his pocket and started to unfold one of them; then, as if remembering, he asked how long he had been talking. The answer came, “Thirty-five minutes.” He made as if to leave the stage, but the audience commanded him to go on.

“All right,” he said, “I can stand more of my own talk than any one I ever knew.” Opening one of the papers, a telegram, he read:

“In which one of your works can we find the definition of a gentleman?” Then he added:

I have not answered that telegram. I couldn’t. I never wrote any such definition, though it seems to me that if a man has just, merciful, and kindly instincts he would be a gentleman, for he would need nothing else in this world.

He opened a letter. “From Howells,” he said.

My old friend, William Dean Howells — Howells, the head of American literature. No one is able to stand with him. He is an old, old friend of mine, and he writes me, “To-morrow I shall be sixty-nine years old.” Why, I am surprised at Howells writing so. I have known him myself longer than that. I am sorry to see a man trying to appear so young. Let’s see. Howells says now, “I see you have been burying Patrick. I suppose he was old, too.”

The house became very still. Most of them had read an account of Mark Twain’s journey to Hartford and his last service to his faithful servitor. The speaker’s next words were not much above a whisper, but every syllable was distinct.

No, he was never old-Patrick. He came to us thirty-six years ago. He was our coachman from the day that I drove my young bride to our new home. He was a young Irishman, slender, tall, lithe, honest, truthful, and he never changed in all his life. He really was with us but twenty-five years, for he did not go with us to Europe; but he never regarded that a separation. As the children grew up he was their guide. He was all honor, honesty, and affection. He was with us in New Hampshire last summer, and his hair was just as black, his eyes were just as blue, his form just as straight, and his heart just as good as on the day we first met. In all the long years Patrick never made a mistake. He never needed an order; he never received a command. He knew. I have been asked for my idea of an ideal gentleman, and I give it to you — Patrick McAleer.

It was the sort of thing that no one but Mark Twain has quite been able to do, and it was just that recognized quality behind it that had made crowds jam the street and stampede the entrance to be in his presence-to see him and to hear his voice.

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