MARK TWAIN, ORATOR
One of the questions suggested to the reader by "Mark Twain's Speeches" (Harpers) - one of many, it is true - is: Was he a spontaneous speaker? Henry Watterson, who was an intimate friend, as well as a relative, says that he could be spontaneous on occasion, and intimates that he generally was, and was at his best when he was. W. D. Howells, on the contrary, who also was an intimate friend for many years, frankly suggests that when Twain trusted "to the spontaneity in which other speakers confide, or are believed to confide, when they are on their feet," the result was "near-failures." And Howells gives an emphatic and eloquent account of the humorist's habitual method:
He studied every word and syllable, and memorized them by a system of mnemonics peculiar to himself, consisting of an arbitrary arrangement of things on a table - knives, pens, boxes, or whatever was at hand - which stood for points, and clauses and climaxes, and were at once indelible diction and constant suggestion. He studied every tone and every gesture, and he forecast the result with the real audience from its result with that imagined audience. Therefore it was beautiful to see him and to hear him; he rejoiced in the pleasure he gave and the blows of surprise that he dealt; and because he had his end in mind, he knew when to stop.
The internal evidence is pretty strongly in favor of Mr. Howells's view. There are more than a hundred speeches, or parts of speeches, in this volume; the great body of them are "funny"; and of these by far the greater part give the impression of deliberate preparation. The "blows of surprise" are carefully aimed and as carefully delivered. To the reader the impression thus made is not wholly pleasant. There seems to be vital incongruity in a pre-digested and accurately compounded joke and still more in a series of jokes leading up to a climax. When the thing is heard and the speaker is seen it may come off supremely well. It certainly did in every case recalled by the present writer. The commanding personality, the persuasion of those keen eyes, the continuing charm of that drawling voice, the happy turning to one or another of the notable men sure to be present - all this absorbed the attention and quite put to sleep any critical faculty the hearer might otherwise have been minded to apply. Even so, the best of Mark Twain's amusing speeches were tame compared to he best of his amusing talks. In the latter there was spontaneity, so to speak, "to burn." His drollery gushed forth at the lightest tap of current suggestion, and the range, the variety, was as wonderful as the flow. Nor was it essentially reminiscential, as the talk of very witty men often is. There was plenty of anecdote, but there was abundance also of flashing comment and of repartee.
Possibly it is the recollection of such talk that makes the collected speeches seem a little unfair to the author of them, causes them to fall short of the unique and telling effect of which he was know to be capable. We may practically avoid this unfairness by following the advice of Mr. Clemens as to the volume and only "seasoning our graver reading with it now and them when the mind demands such relaxation." With that precaution any other is hardly necessary. As a book "to take up" lightly in a leisure moment - not hour - and as lightly to drop, the volume is admirable. It is so full of fun. Most often it is fun directed against some one - not seldom himself - and has the flavor of what is known as a practical joke, but the joke is as genial and without venom when some one else is the target as when it is aimed at himself. It is the ludicrous, not the ridiculous, that he depicts, nine times in ten. He laughs, and makes others laugh, with the victim of the moment, not at him, so that in a certain circle it was rather a privilege, a kind of honor, to be selected by him as the protagonist o one of his sparkling attacks. Now that he is dead and we shall never again hear that strange, penetrating, sympathetic voice or catch the confident gleams from beneath his bushy eyebrows, or share in the wild mirth he kindled in such varying company, it is good to have this record. To many it will be precious; to none, coming upon it anew, or coming back to it, will it bring pain. As Mr. Howells says: "it is good matter, glad, honest, kind, just."
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