Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXIX

A Lecture Tour

James Redpath, proprietor of the Boston Lyceum Bureau, was the leading lecture agent of those days, and controlled all, or nearly all, of the platform celebrities. Mark Twain’s success at the Cooper Union the year before had interested Redpath. He had offered engagements then and later, but Clemens had not been free for the regular circuit. Now there was no longer a reason for postponement of a contract. Redpath was eager for the new celebrity, and Clemens closed with him for the season of 1868-9. With his new lecture, “The Vandal Abroad,” he was presently earning a hundred dollars and more a night, and making most of the nights count.

This was affluence indeed. He had become suddenly a person of substance — an associate of men of consequence, with a commensurate income. He could help his mother lavishly now, and he did.

His new lecture was immensely popular. It was a resume of the ‘Quaker City’ letters — a foretaste of the book which would presently follow. Wherever he went, he was hailed with eager greetings. He caught such drifting exclamations as, “There he is! There goes Mark Twain!” People came out on the street to see him pass. That marvelous miracle which we variously call “notoriety,” “popularity,” “fame,” had come to him. In his notebook he wrote, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident; the only, earthly certainty oblivion.”

The newspapers were filled with enthusiasm both as to his matter and method. His delivery was described as a “long, monotonous drawl, with the fun invariably coming in at the end of a sentence — after a pause.” His appearance at this time is thus set down:

Mark Twain is a man of medium height, about five feet ten, sparsely built, with dark reddish-brown hair and mustache. His features are fair, his eyes keen and twinkling. He dresses in scrupulous evening attire. In lecturing he hangs about the desk, leaning on it or flirting around the corners of it, then marching and countermarching in the rear of it. He seldom casts a glance at his manuscript.

No doubt this fairly presents Mark Twain, the lecturer of that day. It was a new figure on the platform, a man with a new method. As to his manuscript, the item might have said that he never consulted it at all. He learned his lecture; what he consulted was merely a series of hieroglyphics, a set of crude pictures drawn by himself, suggestive of the subject-matter underneath new head. Certain columns represented the Parthenon; the Sphinx meant Egypt, and so on. His manuscript lay there in case of accident, but the accident did not happen.

A number of his engagements were in the central part of New York, at points not far distant from Elmira. He had a standing invitation to visit the Langdon home, and he made it convenient to avail himself of that happiness.

Poster for a Brooklyn Lecture about 1869

His was not an unruffled courtship. When at last he reached the point of proposing for the daughter of the house, neither the daughter nor the household offered any noticeable encouragement to his suit. Many absurd anecdotes have been told of his first interview with Mr. Langdon on the subject, but they are altogether without foundation. It was a proper and dignified discussion of a very serious matter. Mr. Langdon expressed deep regard for him and friendship but he was not inclined to add him to the family; the young lady herself, in a general way, accorded with these views. The applicant for favor left sadly enough, but he could not remain discouraged or sad. He lectured at Cleveland with vast success, and the news of it traveled quickly to Elmira. He was referred to by Cleveland papers as a “lion” and “the coming man of the age.” Two days later, in Pittsburgh (November 19th), he “played” against Fanny Kemble, the favorite actress of that time, with the result that Miss Kemble had an audience of two hundred against nearly ten times the number who gathered to hear Mark Twain. The news of this went to Elmira, too. It was in the papers there next morning; surely this was a conquering hero — a gay Lochinvar from out of the West — and the daughter of the house must be guarded closely, that he did not bear her away. It was on the second morning following the Pittsburgh triumph, when the Langdon family were gathered at breakfast, that a bushy auburn head poked fearfully in at the door, and a low, humble voice said:

“The calf has returned; may the prodigal have some breakfast?”

No one could be reserved or reprovingly distant, or any of those unfriendly things with a person like that; certainly not Jervis Langdon, who delighted in the humor and the tricks and turns and oddities of this eccentric visitor. Giving his daughter to him was another matter, but even that thought was less disturbing than it had been at the start. In truth, the Langdon household had somehow grown to feel that he belonged to them. The elder sister’s husband, Theodore Crane, endorsed him fully. He had long before read some of the Mark Twain sketches that had traveled eastward in advance of their author, and had recognized, even in the crudest of them, a classic charm. As for Olivia Langdon’s mother and sister, their happiness lay in hers. Where her heart went theirs went also, and it would appear that her heart, in spite of herself, had found its rightful keeper. Only young Langdon was irreconciled, and eventually set out for a voyage around the world to escape the situation.

There was only a provisional engagement at first. Jervis Langdon suggested, and Samuel Clemens agreed with him, that it was proper to know something of his past, as well as of his present, before the official parental sanction should be given. When Mr. Langdon inquired as to the names of persons of standing to whom he might write for credentials, Clemens pretty confidently gave him the name of the Reverend Stebbins and others of San Francisco, adding that he might write also to Joe Goodman if he wanted to, but that he had lied for Goodman a hundred times and Goodman would lie for him if necessary, so his testimony would be of no value. The letters to the clergy were written, and Mr. Langdon also wrote one on his own account.

It was a long mail-trip to the Coast and back in those days. It might be two months before replies would come from those ministers. The lecturer set out again on his travels, and was radiantly and happily busy. He went as far west as Illinois, had crowded houses in Chicago, visited friends and kindred in Hannibal, St. Louis, and Keokuk, carrying the great news, and lecturing in old familiar haunts.

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