MARK TWAIN IN WASHINGTON
[SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT OF THE ALTA CALIFORNIA.]
The Great Dickens -- An Honest Criticism -- Political Gossip -- Caning the President -- Winter Festivities -- Jump in Washington.
WASHINGTON, January 11th.
I only heard him read once. It was in New York, last week. I had a seat about the middle of Steinway Hall, and that was rather further away from the speaker than was pleasant or profitable.
Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, "spry," (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage -- that is rather too deliberate a word -- he strode. He strode -- in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance -- straight across the broad stage, heedless of everything, unconscious of everybody, turning neither to the right nor the left -- but striding eagerly straight ahead, as if he had seen a girl he knew turn the next corner. He brought up handsomely in the centre and faced the opera glasses. His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures. That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face, which is rather heightened than otherwise by his portentous dignity and gravity. But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens -- Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it. Somehow this puissant god seemed to be only a man, after all. How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.
Mr. Dickens had a table to put his book on, and on it he had also a tumbler, a fancy decanter and a small bouquet. Behind him he had a huge red screen -- a bulkhead -- a sounding-board, I took it to be -- and overhead in front was suspended a long board with reflecting lights attached to it, which threw down a glory upon the gentleman, after the fashion in use in the picture-galleries for bringing out the best effects of great paintings. Style! -- There is style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings.
He read David Copperfield. He is a bad reader, in one sense -- because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly -- he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house. [I say "our" because I am proud to observe that there was a beautiful young lady with me -- a highly respectable young white woman.] I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens' reading -- I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr. Dickens' reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language -- there is no heart, no feeling in it -- it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself. And what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure -- but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.
He pronounced Steerforth "St'yaw-futh." This will suggest to you that he is a little Englishy in his speech. One does not notice it much, however. I took two or three notes on a card; by reference to them I find that Pegotty's anger when he learned the circumstance of Little Emly's disappearance, was "excellent acting -- full of spirit;" also, that Pegotty's account of his search for Emly was "bad;" and that Mrs. Micawber's inspired suggestions as to the negotiation of her husband's bills, was "good;" (I mean, of course, that the reading was;) and that Dora the child-wife, and the storm at Yarmouth, where Steerforth perished, were not as good as they might have been. Every passage Mr. D. read, with the exception of those I have noted, was rendered with a degree of ability far below what his reading reputation led us to expect. I have given "first impressions." Possibly if I could hear Mr. Dickens read a few more times I might find a different style of impressions taking possession of me. But not knowing anything about that, I cannot testify.
They import wines from Europe, now, into New York, and sell them for California wines. That is complimentary, isn't it? The California wines seem to be well liked in the East here, but they cannot compete in price with the bogus article from the Old World. They told me in New York that once, lately, the market was so overstocked with the latter that a cargo of genuine California had to be shipped back -- it was worth more in San Francisco than it would bring on this side. This Italian stuff can be sold wholesale in New York at twelve cents a gallon after freights and duties are paid, a wine merchant tells me. It don't cost anything to call it California wine, and it sells better, and so they christen it accordingly.
All of a sudden the President has grown mightily in favor, and everybody that can raise money enough buys a present for him and goes up to the White House and inflicts it on him. I believe he has received eleven different kinds of canes in the last three weeks. He got one from that same old inexhaustible Charter Oak, day before yesterday. Do you suppose that that relic will ever give out? They have already taken more wood out of it than would build a couple of steamboats, but still it holds out.
It all comes from the fact that the Democracy are talking pretty freely of running the President for reelection. About six others are talked of, and so it mixes a man up a good deal as to who he ought to send canes to. Such as are able, supply the whole gang, which is probably the safest thing to do. Mr. Johnson is willing to be reelected. In fact he is working hard for the nomination. If you will notice the papers for a short time back, you will observe that he is getting his "consistency" record up as well as possible. He is showing that the same political virtues that made him the people's choice for Vice-President are still undimmed, and in sufficiently good repair to make a proper and righteous Chief Magistrate of him.
Jump, the caricaturist, of San Francisco, is here as artist for Frank Leslie's. He has made a water-color sketch of Pennsylvania Avenue, which is attracting a deal of attention. It hangs in the window of the principal bookstore, and has a cluster of amused folks around it all the time. It has twenty or thirty portraits in it. This is just the city for Jump, where the faces of the nation's distinguished men are so familiar. In this picture he has portraits of Seward, Welles, Banks, Spinner, Horace Greeley, General Butler, Charles Sumner, Grant, Sherman, Stanton and others, whose features are well know everywhere. The execution is excellent, and the hits are good.
Jump recently married a handsome young lady in New York.
The receptions, weekly, at the President's, Mr. Colfax's and others of the great officers of the Government are getting under full blast now, and are beginning to make this slow town look sociable. They had a grand Eighth of January banquet at the Metropolitan Hotel night before last, a purely Democratic celebration, with the President of the United States at the head of it. It is said that a good many things were said there, but, according to Riley, the best was the unstudied effort of a negro waiter. He said, "Dey didn't talk 'bout nuffin but nigger -- dey 'bused de nigger all de time -- but dey didn't none of 'em give us a cent!"
The Newspaper Correspondents' Club will have its annual banquet this evening, and a royal affair it will be. The boys have been making great preparations for it for some time. They tell me I am expected to respond to the regular toast to Woman. I don't care whether I am expected or not -- I shall respond anyhow. It is my best hold. On all occasions, whenever woman is mentioned, I am ready to make a statement.
I delivered a lecture here night before last -- a new lecture. It went off well, but it was only a happy accident that it did, for there was nobody to attend to business. The newspapers are all exceedingly kid and complimentary, but one of them published a synopsis of the discourse. I was sorry for that, although it was so well meant, because one never feels comfortable, afterward, repeating a lecture that has been partly printed; and worse than that, people don't care about going to hear what they can buy in a newspaper for less money. I beg that the Coast papers will not print any synopsis of my sermons they may find floating around.
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