Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Lecturing Days

Life in Hartford, in the autumn of 1871, began in the letter, rather than in the spirit. The newcomers were received with a wide, neighborly welcome, but the disorder of establishment and the almost immediate departure of the head of the household on a protracted lecturing tour were disquieting things; the atmosphere of the Clemens home during those early Hartford days gave only a faint promise of its future loveliness.

As in a far later period, Mark Twain had resorted to lecturing to pay off debt. He still owed a portion of his share in the Express; also he had been obliged to obtain an advance from the lecture bureau. He dreaded, as always, the tedium of travel, the clatter of hotel life, the monotony of entertainment, while, more than most men, he loved the tender luxury of home. It was only that he could not afford to lose the profit offered on the platform.

His season opened at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, October 16th, and his schedule carried him hither and thither, to and fro, over distances that lie between Boston and Chicago. There were opportunities to run into Hartford now and then, when he was not too far away, and in November he lectured there on Artemus Ward.

He changed his entertainment at least twice that season. He began with the “Reminiscences,” the lecture which he said would treat of all those whom he had met, “idiots, lunatics, and kings,” but he did not like it, or it did not go well. He wrote Redpath of the Artemus Ward address:

“It suits me, and I’ll never deliver the nasty, nauseous ‘Reminiscences’ any more.”

But the Ward lecture was good for little more than a month, for on December 8th he wrote again:

Notify all hands that from this time I shall talk nothing but selections from my forthcoming book, ‘Roughing It’. Tried it twice last night; suits me tiptop.

And somewhat later:

Had a splendid time with a splendid audience in Indianapolis last night; a perfectly jammed house, just as I have all the time out here. . . . I don’t care now to have any appointments canceled. I’ll even “fetch” those Dutch Pennsylvanians with this lecture.

Have paid up $4,000 indebtedness. You are the last on my list. Shall begin to pay you in a few days, and then I shall be a free man again.

Undoubtedly he reveled in the triumphs of a platform tour, though at no time did he regard it as a pleasure excursion. During those early weeks the proofs of his new book, chasing him from place to place, did not add to his comfort. Still, with large, substantial rewards in hand and in prospect, one could endure much.

In the neighborhood of Boston there were other compensations. He could spend a good part of his days at the Lyceum headquarters, in School Street, where there was always congenial fellowship — Nasby, Josh Billings, and the rest of the peripatetic group that about the end of the year collected there. Their lectures were never tried immediately in Boston, but in the outlying towns; tried and perfected — or discarded. When the provincial audiences were finally satisfied, then the final. test in the Boston Music Hall was made, and if this proved successful the rest of the season was safe. Redpath’s lecturers put up at Young’s Hotel, and spent their days at the bureau, smoking and spinning yarns, or talking shop. Early in the evening they scattered to the outlying towns, Lowell, Lexington, Concord, New Bedford. There is no such a condition to-day: lecturers are few, lecture bureaus obscure; there are no great reputations made on the platform.

Neither is there any such distinct group of humorists as the one just mentioned. Humor has become universal since then. Few writers of this age would confess to taking their work so seriously as to be at all times unsmiling in it; only about as many, in fact, as in that day would confess to taking their work so lightly that they could regard life’s sterner phases and philosophies with a smile.

Josh Billings was one of the gentlest and loveliest of our pioneers of laughter. The present generation is not overfamiliar even with his name, but both the name and sayings of that quaint soul were on everybody’s lips at the time of which we are writing. His true name was Henry W. Shaw, and he was a genuine, smiling philosopher, who might have built up a more permanent and serious reputation had he not been induced to disfigure his maxims with ridiculous spelling in order to popularize them and make them bring a living price. It did not matter much with Nasby’s work. An assumed illiteracy belonged with the side of life which he presented; but it is pathetic now to consider some of the really masterly sayings of Josh Billings presented in that uncouth form which was regarded as a part of humor a generation ago. Even the aphorisms that were essentially humorous lose value in that degraded spelling.

“When a man starts down hill everything is greased for the occasion,” could hardly be improved upon by distorted orthography, and here are a few more gems which have survived that deadly blight.

“Some folks mistake vivacity for wit; whereas the difference between vivacity and wit is the same as the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

“Don’t take the bull by the horns-take him by the tail; then you can let go when you want to.”

“The difficulty is not that we know so much, but that we know so much that isn’t so.”

Josh Billings, Nasby, and Mark Twain were close friends. They had themselves photographed in a group, and there was always some pleasantry going on among them. Josh Billings once wrote on “Lekturing,” and under the head of “Rule Seven,” which treated of unwisdom of inviting a lecturer to a private house, he said:

Think of asking Mark Twain home with yu, for instance. Yure good wife has put her house in apple-pie order for the ockashun; everything is just in the right place. Yu don’t smoke in yure house, never. Yu don’t put yure feet on the center-table, yu don’t skatter the nuzepapers all over the room, in utter confushion: order and ekonemy governs yure premises. But if yu expeckt Mark Twain to be happy, or even kumfortable yu hav got to buy a box of cigars worth at least seventeen dollars and yu hav got to move all the tender things out ov yure parlor. Yu hav got to skatter all the latest papers around the room careless, you hav got to hav a pitcher ov icewater handy, for Mark is a dry humorist. Yu hav got to ketch and tie all yure yung ones, hed and foot, for Mark luvs babys only in theory; yu hav got to send yure favorite kat over to the nabors and hide yure poodle. These are things that hav to be done, or Mark will pak hiz valise with hiz extry shirt collar and hiz lektur on the Sandwich Islands, and travel around yure streets, smoking and reading the sighns over the store doorways untill lektur time begins.

As we-are not likely to touch upon Mark Twain’s lecturing, save only lightly, hereafter, it may be as well to say something of his method at this period. At all places visited by lecturers there was a committee, and it was the place of the chairman to introduce the lecturer, a privilege which he valued, because it gave him a momentary association with distinction and fame. Clemens was a great disappointment to these officials. He had learned long ago that he could introduce himself more effectively than any one else. His usual formula was to present himself as the chairman of the committee, introducing the lecturer of the evening; then, with what was in effect a complete change of personality, to begin his lecture. It was always startling and amusing, always a success; but the papers finally printed this formula, which took the freshness out of it, so that he had to invent others. Sometimes he got up with the frank statement that he was introducing himself because he had never met any one who could pay a proper tribute to his talents; but the newspapers printed that too, and he often rose and began with no introduction at all.

Whatever his method of beginning, Mark Twain’s procedure probably was the purest exemplification of the platform entertainer’s art which this country has ever seen. It was the art that makes you forget the artisanship, the art that made each hearer forget that he was not being personally entertained by a new and marvelous friend, who had traveled a long way for his particular benefit. One listener has written that he sat “simmering with laughter” through what he supposed was the continuation of the introduction, waiting for the traditional lecture to begin, when presently the lecturer, with a bow, disappeared, and it was over. The listener looked at his watch; he had been there more than an hour. He thought it could be no more than ten minutes, at most. Many have tried to set down something of the effect his art produced on them, but one may not clearly convey the story of a vanished presence and a silent voice.

There were other pleasant associations in Boston. Howells was there, and Aldrich; also Bret Harte, who had finished his triumphal progress across the continent to join the Atlantic group. Clemens appears not to have met Aldrich before, though their acquaintance had begun a year earlier, when Aldrich, as editor of Every Saturday, had commented on a poem entitled, “The Three Aces,” which had appeared in the Buffalo Express. Aldrich had assumed the poem to be the work of Mark Twain, and had characterized it as “a feeble imitation of Bret Harte’s ‘Heathen Chinee.’” Clemens, in a letter, had mildly protested as to the charge of authorship, and Aldrich had promptly printed the letter with apologetic explanation. A playful exchange of personal letters followed, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

One of the letters has a special interest here. Clemens had followed his protest with an apology for it, asking that no further notice be taken of the matter. Aldrich replied that it was too late to prevent “doing him justice,” as his explanation was already on the press, but that if Clemens insisted he would withdraw it in the next issue. Clemens then wrote that he did not want it withdrawn, and explained that he hated to be accused of plagiarizing Bret Harte, to whom he was deeply indebted for literary schooling in the California days. Continuing he said:

Do you know the prettiest fancy and the neatest that ever shot through Harte’s brain? It was this. When they were trying to decide upon a vignette cover for the Overland a grizzly bear (of the arms of the State of California) was chosen. Nahl Bros. carved him and the page was printed with him in it.

As a bear he was a success. He was a good bear, but then, it was objected, he was an objectless bear — a bear that meant nothing, signified nothing, simply stood there, snarling over his shoulder at nothing, and was painfully and manifestly a boorish and ill-natured intruder upon the fair page. All hands said that none were satisfied; they hated badly to give him up, and yet they hated as much to have him there when there was no point to him. But presently Harte took a pencil and drew two simple lines under his feet, and behold he was a magnificent success! — the ancient symbol of California savagery, snarling at the approaching type of high and progressive civilization, the first Overland locomotive! I just think that was nothing less than an inspiration.73

73 [The “bear” was that which has always appeared on the Overland cover; the “two lines” formed a railway track under his feet. Clemens’s original letter contained crude sketches illustrating these things.]

Among the Boston group was another Californian, Ralph Keeler, an eccentric, gifted, and altogether charming fellow, whom Clemens had known on the Pacific slope. Keeler had been adopted by the Boston writers, and was grateful and happy accordingly. He was poor of purse, but inexhaustibly rich in the happier gifts of fortune. He was unfailingly buoyant, light-hearted, and hopeful. On an infinitesimal capital he had made a tour of many lands, and had written of it for the Atlantic. In that charmed circle he was as overflowingly happy as if he had been admitted to the company of the gods. Keeler was affectionately regarded by all who knew him, and he offered a sort of worship in return. He often accompanied Mark Twain on his lecture engagements to the various outlying towns, and Clemens brought him back to his hotel for breakfast, where they had good, enjoyable talks together. Once Keeler came eagerly to the hotel and made his way up to Clemens’s room.

“Come with me,” he said. “Quick!”

“What is it? What’s happened?”

“Don’t wait to talk. Come with me.”

They tramped briskly through the streets till they reached the public library, entered, Keeler leading the way, not stopping till he faced a row of shelves filled with books. He pointed at one of them, his face radiant with joy.

“Look,” he said. “Do you see it?”

Clemens looked carefully now and identified one of the books as a still-born novel which Keeler had published.

“This is a library,” said Keeler, eagerly, “and they’ve got it!”

His whole being was aglow with the wonder of it. He had been investigating; the library records showed that in the two years the book had been there it had been taken out and read three times! It never occurred to Clemens even to smile. Knowing Mark Twain, one would guess that his eyes were likely to be filled with tears.

In his book about Mark Twain, Howells tells of a luncheon which Keeler gave to his more famous associates — Aldrich, Fields, Harte, Clemens, and Howells himself — a merry informal occasion. Says Howells:

Nothing remains to me of the happy time but a sense of idle and aimless and joyful talk — play, beginning and ending nowhere, of eager laughter, of countless good stories from Fields, of a heat-lightning shimmer of wit from Aldrich, of an occasional concentration of our joint mockeries upon our host, who took it gladly; and amid the discourse, so little improving, but so full of good-fellowship, Bret Harte’s leering dramatization of Clemens’s mental attitude toward a symposium of Boston illuminates. “Why, fellows,” he spluttered, “this is the dream of Mark’s life,” and I remember the glance from under Clemens’s feathery eyebrows which betrayed his enjoyment of the fun.

Very likely Keeler gave that luncheon in celebration of his book’s triumph; it would be like him.

Keeler’s end was a mystery. The New York Tribune commissioned him to go to Cuba to report the facts of some Spanish outrages. He sailed from New York in the steamer, and was last seen alive the night before the vessel reached Havana. He had made no secret of his mission, but had discussed it in his frank, innocent way. There were some Spanish military men on the ship.

Clemens, commenting on the matter, once said:

“It may be that he was not flung into the sea, still the belief was general that that was what had happened.”

In his book Howells refers to the doubt with which Mark Twain was then received by the polite culture of Boston; which, on the other hand, accepted Bret Harte as one of its own, forgiving even social shortcomings.

The reason is not difficult to understand. Harte had made his appeal with legitimate fiction of the kind which, however fresh in flavor and environment, was of a sort to be measured and classified. Harte spoke a language they could understand; his humor, his pathos, his point of view were all recognizable. It was an art already standardized by a master. It is no reflection on the genius of Bret Harte to liken his splendid achievements to those of Charles Dickens. Much of Harte’s work is in no way inferior to that of his great English prototype. Dickens never wrote a better short story than “The Outcasts of Poker Flats.” He never wrote as good a short story as “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Boston critics promptly realized these things and gave Harte his correct rating. That they failed to do this with Mark Twain, lay chiefly in the fact that he spoke to them in new and startling tongues. His gospels were likely to be heresies; his literary eccentricities were all unclassified. Of the ultrafastidious set Howells tells us that Charles Eliot Norton and Prof. Francis J. Child were about the only ones who accorded him unqualified approval. The others smiled and enjoyed him, but with that condescension which the courtier is likely to accord to motley and the cap and bells. Only the great, simple-hearted, unbiased multitude, the public, which had no standards but the direct appeal from one human heart to another, could recognize immediately his mightier heritage, could exalt and place him on the throne.

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