LETTER FROM MARK TWAIN.
A FIRST VISIT TO BOSTON.
[SPECIAL CORRESPONDENCE OF THE ALTA CALIFORNIA]
Sunday in Boston -- First Impressions -- The Straight Streets of Modern Athens -- Nasby -- The Antiquities -- Boston "Notions" -- A Polite People -- Some Examples of the Trait.
NEW YORK, July, 1869
EDITORS ALTA: I reached Boston about seven in the morning on a certain Sunday. There was no need of an almanac whereby to discover that Sunday was the day. No -- there was Sunday in the still air; there was Sunday in the absence of hurrying feet and anxious faces; there was Sunday in the trim, special-occasion look of such apparel as drifted into view here and there; there was Sunday in the dreamy lonesomeness that brooded over all things; and presently there came floating up out of the distance the muffled murmur of a bell. There was no need of an almanac.
I was the last man out of the sleeping-car. There was not a hack in sight nor an omnibus or any vehicle whatsoever, except a small boy. He volunteered to carry my valise to the hotel for the sum of thirty cents. I scrutinized him narrowly, for I was in a strange city, and he might be one of those plausible outlaws who lie in wait near depots and decoy the unsuspecting to obscure dens and murder them, for the sake of their teeth, which they sell to the dentists -- and their hair, which they sell to the wig-makers -- and their finger bones, which they sell to the ivory makers. I have often heard of such people, and I always try to avoid them, for I do not wish to be retailed when I am dead. This boy said his name was James -- the ominous name of all the bad little boys in the Sunday School books. With many misgivings I placed myself in his power. I delivered to him my baggage, and began my reluctant march in his wake, oppressed by the knowledge that if this boy meant me harm he could easily accomplish his fell purpose, for of course there were no policemen abroad at that hour of the morning. But I tried to console myself with the reflection that I had been in situations of deadly peril before and had escaped unscathed. I trudged after him, keeping a vigilant watch upon him all the time. It was not long before my suspicions were aroused. I waited and watched, and soon I felt convinced that his actions savored of a hidden villainy of some kind. I said:
"Boy, why do you wind around in this way -- why don't you go straight?"
"Why do you poke in and out and wind around and about in this involved and sinuous way? Why don't you go straight?"
The boy turned and surveyed me impressively for many minutes, and then said, as if to himself:
"Go straight in Boston -- ain't he innocent, though?"
He then marched on. But I had lost all confidence, and so I took refuge in the first hotel I came to and discharged James, satisfied that no virtue could abide in a boy whose ways were so crooked. In going from the depot to the hotel we passed one spot seven different times and approached it from a different direction every time.
Modern Cretan Labyrinth
I found the gentleman whose guest I was to be -- Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby -- and thenceforward my two days' vacation had only pleasant experiences in it. Boston is just as delightful a city as there is in American, and one feels more tranquilly and satisfactorily at home in it in three hours than he could in New York in as many years. There is a comfortable air of good-will and good-fellowship in the aspect of the streets, the houses, the town in general, which it gets from the people, or imparts to them, I cannot tell which. One must keep a careful rein upon his "gushing" instincts, else he will shortly find himself loving Boston instead of merely admiring it -- and such conduct as that would be undignified in a stranger. It only takes a little time to reconcile one to the awful crookedness of the streets -- and only a little time longer to find in that crookedness a positive charm. The hard, straight, unrelenting lines one is used to in other cities, gives way, in Boston, to graceful curves that go sweeping in and out in a pleasant and undulating way that impels a man to assume a luxurious waltz-step in place of the driving, forward-march movement he has learned in unswerving and unbending Broadway. You cannot take in a whole Boston street with a single glance of the eye and then lose your interest because you have thus taken the edge off future discovery; on the contrary, every step reveals some portion of a building which you could not see before, some change in your vista, and some suggestion of pleasant variety yet to come, which not only keeps your interest alive but heightens it and persuades you to go on. And so your street continues to open before you and close behind you like a sure-enough panorama, and you are as well pleased with it as if you had paid fifty cents admission. Many of these bending and circling ranks of buildings are architecturally handsome, and there is a Venetian picturesqueness of effect in the unfolding of their pillared and sculptured graces as you drift around the curves and watch them swing into view.
One of the most engaging peculiarities of Boston is her reverence for her tradition, her relics, her antiquities. She still purrs complacently over her "Boston Massacre," and thinks it the most gorgeous thing of the kind that ever happened, though Nasby says it only consisted in the crippling of three mulattoes and an Irishman -- and they still point out three or four places where it occurred. I am not trying to detract from the subliminity of the Boston Massacre -- though I do consider that for all Providence has been so partial, there are other places that are just as much entitled to a massacre as Boston is. But I find no fault. San Francisco has earthquakes, anyhow. Therefore let Boson make much of her massacre if she want to -- who cares? I don't think anything of massacres. I scorn them.
And then there is that old church -- the Old South, I believe, they call it -- the one that has a British cannon ball sticking in it. Boston thinks the world of that. The people tell you about it, and point it out to you, and show off the moral advantages of it, till, in spite of your foreign prejudices, you are bound to confess that there is no happiness like having a church with a British cannon ball stuck in it. Boston values that relic, and cherishes it; and every time the Old South Church wears out they build another and stick the cannon ball in again, and go on overcoming the stranger with it as serenely as ever.
And next they trot out Benjamin Franklin. I am opposed to slang; but there isn't any other expression that is descriptive enough for this emergency. And how they do believe in that venerable adventurer! If it had not been for him, with his incendiary "Early to bed and early to rise," and all that sort of foolishness, I wouldn't have been so harried and worried and raked out of bed at such unseemly hours when I was young. The late Franklin was well enough in his way; but it would have looked more dignified in him to have gone on making candles and letting other people get up when they wanted to. I do not see why he ever made candles, though -- as celebrated a man as he was. I would have turned my celebrity to better account. But Boston thinks a great deal of Franklin. He was born in two different places in Boston, simultaneously, and he came the nearest to being twins that he ever did in his life. Boston shows both of those places reverently to the stranger, and thinks just as much of one of them as she does of the other. Franklin was always fond of the sports of his boyhood, and until he was an old man he used to go out and fly his kite every Sunday. If he had ever read the Sunday School books he would have found out that it was dangerous to be tempting Providence in that way. He kept it up until at last, one beautiful Sabbath morning, he would have been struck by lightning and scattered all over the State but for a door-key that happened to be hanging on his kite-string. It was not a creditable adventure for an old person like him, but the Boston people got around it by saying that he was trying to attract the lightning on purpose, and therefore he was flying his kite in the interest of science. That cat won't fight, to use the language of metaphor. When General Washington chops down the cherry trees and Benjamin Franklin breaks the Sabbath, it is all right; but suppose I were to do such a thing? My parents would make it an interesting occasion for me.
And the Bostonians show you the ancient Capitol and Quincy market, and the residence of old John W. Hancock, the gentleman whose signature to the Declaration of Independence it is comfort to come back to and read, after you have got the blind-staggers trying to spell out the others. And they also show you old Fanueil Hall, the Cradle of Liberty. You must learn to pronounce Quincy as if it were Quinzy, and Fanueil as if it were Funnel. In this way you can palm yourself on the unsuspecting for a native, and so be respected. Presently they march you mysteriously to a pier, and standing uncovered, they point down at the water with impressive solemnity. That is where the Young Men's Christian Association, dressed as Mohawk Indians, threw the tea overboard in old Colonial times. It was one of the most spirited things that ever was, and is justly admired to this day. There was only one narrow-minded bigot in the whole commonwealth to refuse to swing his hat and say it was sublime. That was the gentleman who owned the tea. He never has collected a cent. When the Indians had finished their exploit their moccasins were full of tea. This was carefully preserved and distributed around to be kept always in remembrance of the incident. Nothing is now held in greater reverence in Boston, than these little parcels of tea. Nearly every family in New England is descended from those savages, and has some of the tea. It is estimated that there is as much as sixty tons of it in Boston alone. I shall always respect these Indians, for tea is a poor insipid beverage, and it is a pity the Indians could not have lived forever to indulge their fancy for emptying it into the sea.
But to the patriotic stranger, perhaps the most notable and interesting thing about Boston is the stately Bunker Hill Monument, which has been erected on the summit of Bunker Hill, to commemorate the battle of Bunker Hill, which was fought on another hill in a neighboring county. It is a very graceful and imposing structure, and is thirteen inches out of the perpendicular. This is the result of building it a little on the slant of the hill. One cannot stand on this sacred ground and feel no quickened impulse of the blood, now swelling of the heart, no exaltation. It was here that Warren fell. It was here that the angry tide of battle was to ebb and flow, and liberty flesh her maiden sword. It was here that Washington, careworn and anxious, leaned against the iron railing and prayed for night or Blucher. Drawn up behind the monument, his little patriot band stood in stern array awaiting the fateful onslaught of the British. At this juncture, when muscles and nerves were tense with expectancy, when every ear was listening, when every breath was clogged with restraint, and a dismal vague suspense brooded in the air, it was learned that the battle was to be fought on Breed's Hill, instead of here, by request of the British commander, whose relations resided in that neighborhood, and desired to witness it. It was thus that the battle of Bunker Hill came to be fought in another place. It was thus that this tranquil spot was spared those scenes of hell-ensanguined carnage which did not occur here.
The view from the top of the monument is one of the grandest the continent can afford. Toward the south the eye wanders over silvery glimpses of the bay, fringed with a long array of masts delicately pencilled against the sky; beyond, the blue hills of Canada lift their filmy outlines above the level world of tinted forest, and out of their midst Mount Washington thrusts it crown of ice and snow. Westward the bright grain fields of New Hampshire stretch their emerald undulations toward the rising sun; in the shadowy east the sullen furnaces glow among the cavernous glens of Pennsylvania and sadden the upper air with a sable pall of smoke; and in the distant north, beyond the swelling sea of vegetation flecked with white villages and threaded with sinuous brooks; beyond the dreamy belt where village and brook and forest melt together and lose their individuality; away beyond ranges of hazy mountains that lap their purple waves together under the clouds, one catches fitful glimpses of that mysterious ocean that heaves its sailless tides about the pole -- and on a clear day one can see the pole itself. Such, I learn, is the view that one may obtain from Bunker Hill Monument. I did not go up.
One of the most winning features of Boston is the politeness of the people. I do not refer to any class particularly. One is civilly treated by all. You would not enjoy stopping New Yorkers to ask the way to places -- you would not get in a habit of it, certainly, for you would get more curt answers than compliments. But you shortly learn in Boston to question whom you please on such matters. The native stops at once and maps your course out for you with a patience and a gentleness of speech that are as gratifying as they are unexpected and astonishing. Crooked streets are invaluable, if this is the effect they have -- for I do not know what else to attribute Boston's patient affability to if it be not the schooling her citizens get in teaching lost strangers how to find themselves. We were inquiring the way pretty much all the time, but we did not get a crusty answer in a single instance. We made one inquiry of an Irishman, sitting on the ground with his back against a house. He got up to answer, and then it was plain that he was a distillery in disguise. He stretched out his hand to point, but it wavered and slewed around. He tried the other, and it slewed around also. He reeled magnificently at the same moment, and his cap slid off. In catching at his cap he tripped and fell in the gutter. He gathered himself up and apologized for the delay, and said he would tell us how to go, because he had the mumps and could not point good. Then he said:
"You go around that corner there, and turn to the right and go two blocks, and then turn to the left and go a block, and turn to the right and go two blocks to the left, and then go straight till you turn to the right, and then --"
He was tangled. He began over again, and got tangled again. He tried it all over, and checked it off on his fingers. But he got tangled in the same place. Then he reflected awhile in painful perplexity, but suddenly he said:
"Got it now! Might have thought of it before. I'll go along and show you myself." And he did.
I could not see much of Boston in a day and a half, of course, as we were simply idling about visiting people the greater part of the time, but what I did see of it has been very pleasant to remember. As it was early March that I was there, I cannot say anything about the great Peace Jubilee, for that enterprise had hardly been thought of at that time, in fact, I did not suggest it to Gilmore until about the first of April.
is about thirty-five years old. He is compact, solid, heavy. He weighs a hundred and seventy or eighty, perhaps. There is nothing of a dainty look about him, but, on the contrary, he is as burly and vigorous as a theatrical blacksmith. His energy is invincible. After travelling all day and lecturing every night for months together, he was as fresh as ever. His attire is unfashionable, but he cares nothing for that. It does not fit, but that does not concern him. He is not graceful on the stage, but that does not distress him. He is not as handsome as I am, but more picturesque.
Nasby has achieved a great success, and did it without other help than the talents that were born with him. His newspaper has a prodigious circulation; his letters take well; his books sell well; his lecture-field is the whole country. His lecture is the best thing he has written. It is a very unvarnished narrative of the negro's career, from the flood to the present day, and bristles with satire. For instance, the interpolating of the word white in State Constitutions existing under a great general Constitution which declares all men to be equal, is neatly touched by a recommendation that the Scriptures be so altered, at the same time, as to make them pleasantly conform to men's notions -- thus: "Suffer little white children to come unto me, and forbid them not!" The lecture is a fair and logical argument against slavery, and is the pleasantest to listen to I have ever heard upon that novel and interesting subject. It is necessarily severe upon the Democracy, but not more so than one would expect from Nasby. The wonder is that anybody should expect anything else. But they do. In half the places I have lectured in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, and other States, I heard people talking acrimoniously about Nasby having given them an offensive political lecture instead of one upon some inoffensive subject. I wonder what on earth they did expect Nasby to talk about? Poetry, no doubt. Well, Nasby is a good fellow, and companionable, and we sat up till daylight reading Bret Harte's Condensed Novels and talking over Western lecturing experiences. But lecturing experiences, deliciously toothsome and interesting as they are, must be recounted only in secret session, with closed doors. Otherwise, what a telling magazine article one could make out of them. I lectured all over the States, during the entire winter and far into the spring, and I am sure that my salary of twenty-six hundred dollars a month was only about half of my pay -- the rest was jolly experiences. I am not sure but that Nasby will go with me when I start to California about the first of August.
Return to Alta index
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links