Dinner-Talk By Mark Twain
A Review by PERCY A. HUTCHISON
MARK TWAIN'S SPEECHES.
Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine. 396 pp.
New York: Harper & Brothers. $2.25
In most respects this edition of the speeches of Samuel L. Clemens is not a new book. Fully 90 per cent. of the speeches herein contained will be found in the earlier collection from the hands of the same editor. Moreover, that earlier collection contains more than a score of speeches not to be found in the later book. On the other hand, the new volume includes a considerable amount of material which was not in the first collection; textually, the new book is more nearly authentic; and the fact that Albert Bigelow Paine has arranged the speeches chronologically makes possible for the first time a study of Mark Twain's growth and evolution as a lecturer and after-dinner speaker. This study will be found as illuminating as it is interesting.
The earliest lecture of Mark Twain's of which Paine has been able to secure a manuscript copy was Clemens's talk on the Sandwich Islands, first delivered at Maguire's Music Hall, San Francisco, in October, 1866, and afterward repeated by Clemens many times, both in this country and in England. Previous to the initial delivery of this lecture Mark Twain had spoken more than once in public; at least, so his editor believes. But of these talks, which may have been extemporaneous there is no text or report extant. Hence, the speechmaking career of the American humorist must be considered as having begun with the Sandwich Islands talk. Paine closes the volume with the short appreciation by Twain of William Travers Jerome, delivered at a dinner to the then District Attorney held at Delmonico's in May, 1909.
Thus the speechmaking career of Mark Twain extended over a period of forty-three years, during which time his humor held unfailing, although it underwent certain subtle changes, losing its boisterousness and acquiring a mellowness as time went on. Most notable is it that never, even when life bore most heavily on Clemens, is there the slightest trace of acerbity. Indeed, as the reader progresses through the book he finds the conviction forced upon him that Mark Twain held his sense and his command of humor as a very sacred thing, as a Pentecostal gift, to be used for healing, never to be used for wounding. Righteously indignant Clemens could be at times, and righteously indignant he was when the hypocrisies, shams and abuses that were all around him seemed too great to bear. And on such occasions his wit was barbed. But after the shaft had found its mark he soothed with the curative touch of a mirth mingled with magnanimity, or turned from the subject with a jovial quip.
Certain critics have made considerable ado latterly over the alleged discovery that underlying Twain's humor was a substratum of pessimism. It is apparently the conclusion of this school that Clemens was a modern Prometheus who, finding no escape from the vulture tearing at his entrails, took refuge in making a colossal mock of his devourer. If this view be correct, there is little evidence of it in the speeches - where one would expect to find it most pronounced - and no evidence whatever in the earlier speeches. On the contrary, the impression one gets from Twain's earlier attempts to storm the lecture platform is that of a young man who has discovered that he is possessed of a certain rare talent - in this case the talent for humor - and who is making, now furtive, now arrogant, efforts to put his product across. And, far from anything of pessimism, there is, instead, all the joy of a puppy awkwardly learning to walk. If one can hear the laughter of the audience, one can also hear the chortle of the lecturer as the effect for which he planned comes off successfully.
The information furnished by the editor that in the beginning Twain "carefully wrote out his speeches, learned them by heart and practiced them in seclusion" would have been guessed at by the reader. The lecture on the Sandwich Islands shows in every line and word the most careful preparation; it was evidently not only cast but recast. And the trepidation of the speaker is at once apparent. Clemens felt that he must give a certain amount of information that bore on its face evidence that it was true, and on this information he depended to carry the speech through. Launching himself in medias res, he says:
To cut the matter short, the Sandwich Isles are 2,100 miles southwest from San Francisco, but why they were put out there n the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so far from any place and in such an inconvenient locality, is no business of ours - it was the work of Providence, and not open to criticism.
The reader feels clearly the half-hesitating manner in which Twain makes the transition from fact to humor - and not such robust humor at that. But it is enough to provoke a smile, if not a laugh, and after a little more of the same tentative wit the lecturer again seeks the solid ground of fact before his next attempt at humor. But he had succeeded, as the reader of the speech in cold type finds himself faced to admit. The smile carries over, and when again the speaker essayed the humorous - this time with more confidence and more robustness - he was master of the situation. Not only is the lecture a valuable object of study for any one planning to attempt the career of humorist, but it is illuminating as a study of Mark Twain. The lecture on the subject of the Sandwich Islands bears witness in every line that a writer and speaker had come into his own.
Very early in Twain's speechmaking two traits appear which became more pronounced as time went on. One of these was shrewdness; the other might be called egotism, but to call it egotism would be to do Clemens an injustice. It took the form of talking about himself, but of talking about himself in a humorous way. In the speech which the editor called "Unconscious Plagiarism," delivered at the dinner given by the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly to Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1879, Twain says:
A certain amount of pride always goes along with a teaspoonful of brains, and that protects a man from stealing other peoples' ideas. That is what a teaspoonful of brains will do for a man - and admirers had often told me that I had nearly a basketful - though they were rather reserved as to the size of the basket.
Or again, in the address at the Fourth of July dinner of the American Society, London, twenty years later:
Consider the effect of a short residence here. I find the Ambassador [Joseph Choate] rises first to speak to a toast, followed by a Senator, and I come third. What a subtle tribute that to the monarchial influence of the country when you place rank above respectability!
Of course this egotism, or mock egotism, is indicative of the progress Twain had achieved in the affections of the people, not merely the American people but Englishmen also. It would be an interesting experiment to place the volume of speeches before some reader who had never taken up a book of Twain's, who knew nothing of the humorist's place in literature, have him construct the man from this record of his spoken words. The picture would be more nearly true than most portraits, for Clemens gave of himself unsparingly, genuinely. As we get away from the lecture period and into the years when the speeches were invariably made in response to the toastmaster's call, Twain is more and more frankly himself, although it was his rule, after a momentary revelation, to turn the matter off with a quip. On these occasions he talked of his debts, his honor, his family, his hopes and his fears and his affections. But so nimble was he that before there was any slopping over into sentimentality he had snapped the whip, and his hearers - on the verge of a tear - were brought up with a laugh. Very rarely was there any exception to this. In the political speech against Blaine, Clemens was in too deadly earnest to trifle with humor; and when he replied to the toast at the dinner given him at Delmonico's on his 70th birthday by Colonel Harvey he finished without the customary joke at the end. The close of the 70th birthday speech has no counterpart in American literature, and the only Britisher who could have come near it would have been Stevenson. And Stevenson could not have done it in so consummate a fashion.
Twain led up to his closing with a fine burst of buffoonery. It was not such good buffoonery as he had mustered in his younger days, but it served his purpose, which was o get his hearers into such a state of laughter that they would not grasp the fact that he had turned to seriousness until he was half way through. Apparently launched into verbal clowning that had no end in sight, Twain suddenly switched:
Threescore years and ten!
It is the Scriptural statute of limitations. After that you have no active duties. You are a time-expired man, to use Kipling's military phrase. You have served your time, well or ill, and you are mustered out. * * * If you shrink at the thought of night, and Winter, and the late homecoming from the banquet and the lights and laughter through the deserted streets - a desolation which would not remind you now, as for a generation it did, that your friends are sleeping, and you must creep in a-tiptoe and not disturb them, but would only remind you that you need not tiptoe, you can never disturb them more - if you shrink at the thought of these things you need not make in declining an invitation the "previous engagement" plea, you need only reply : Your invitation honors me, and pleases me because you still keep me in your remembrance, but I am seventy - seventy - and would nestle in the chimney-corner, and smoke my pipe, and read my book, and take my rest, and then when you in your turn shall arrive at pier No. 70 you may step aboard your waiting ship with a reconciled spirit, and lay your course toward the sinking sun with a contented heart.
This also should go a long way to refute the pessimist charge. It is true that Mark Twain was no superficial optimist, he was a stanch moralist, a teacher in cap and bells, almost a preacher. But he delighted in his humor. And even if he had his moments of melancholy - such moments are evidenced more than once - he was no pessimist.
One cannot leave the subject of Mark Twain's speeches without recurring to what he must have looked back upon as the most ludicrous happening of his career, although at the time it seemed anything but ludicrous. The story is told in the Twain biography, and will be familiar to most of Twain's readers. Reference is made to the Whittier dinner in Boston in 1877, at which Clemens unintentionally wounded the susceptibilities of Boston's literary inhabitants hero-worshipping at the names of Longfellow, Emerson and Holmes.
In his broadest, but never gross, frontier style and manner, Twain elaborated an extravagant fiction of having arrived at a miner's cabin and asked shelter for the night, seeking to get on the right side of the miner by impressing him with the fact that his caller was none less than Mark Twain. The prospector, however, instead of being impressed, "allowed" that he wanted no more literary fellows around, three having stopped there the night before and mussed up things generally, ending with a fight. On Twain's inquiry as to the identity of the strangers they turned out to be the trinity named.
The speech was received in utter silence. Clemens had quoted from the poetry of each, and made, it is true, a ridiculous application of the passage quoted. For example, the three are represented as playing euchre.
I began [says the miner] to notice some pretty suspicious things. Mr. Emerson dealt, looked at his hand, shook his head, says: "I am the doubter and the doubt - " and ca'mly bunched the hands and went to shuffling for a new layout. Says he:
"They reckon ill who leave me out;
They know not well the subtle ways I keep
I pass and deal again."
Twain's other quotations were similarly applied. And the very exaggeration of the humor should have been sufficient to carry the absurdity across. But no. Even W. D. Howells, who, as toastmaster, had introduce the humorist, was unable to smooth maters out. Twain was stunned. Speaking of the incident later he said:
The people in front of me seemed to turn to stone with horror. It was the sort of expression their faces would have worn if I had been making these remarks about the Deity and the rest of the Trinity. There is no other way in which to describe the petrified condition and ghastly expression of those people.
It took many letters of apology before Clemens was able to set himself right, and he never tried again the experiment of lampooning an idol of the Boston Brahmins. But the episode shows that we of this generation hardly realize how seriously America's Victorians took themselves. But some of the Brahmins of the idols of our present Georgian period would undoubtedly make a similar spectacle of themselves if some Mark Twain should open the windows on their pretensions and let in the fresh wind of humor and common sense.
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