Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LVIII

A New Book and a Lecture

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 April 15th:

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 Californians.

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 doubtful.

“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 the prospect.

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 anyway.”

Clemens said:

“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,




On Monday Evening, May 6,1867.

For Sale at Chickering and Sons, 852 Broadway, and at the Principal Hotel

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.”

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