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The Backwoods Bull In The Boston China Shop

July 2024
15min read

Before the assembled great of literary New England Mark Twain rose to poke gentle fun at their pretensions. Would they laugh, or was he laying an egg?


At seven o’clock on the evening of December 17, 1877, fifty-eight men gathered in the east dining room of the Brunswick Hotel in Boston to attack one of those gigantic meals which deserve to be regarded as a Victorian art form. The diners had been invited by H. O. Houghton, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly, to celebrate the seventieth birthday of the austere Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, who had been a frequent contributor to the magazine since the first issue twenty years before. The menu began with oysters on the shell and proceeded with the help of half a dozen wines through two kinds of fish, capon à l’anglaise with rice and cauliflower, saddle of mutton, filet of beef, squabs, terrapin, broiled partridges on toast, and canvasback ducks, to charlotte russe, gelée au champagne, gâteaux variés, and fruit. The coffee arrived some three hours after the oysters.

At a quarter past ten the doors were opened to admit additional guests who had been waiting in the halls, and the speechmaking began. The program was on the same heroic scale as the dinner. Three preliminary speakers, including Whittier, stood up before William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic, was introduced as toastmaster. After he had made a short speech he introduced Emerson, who, already suffering from loss of memory, recited Whittier’s poem “Ichabod” (denouncing Daniel Webster’s vote for the Compromise of 1850) with such irrelevant emphasis that light-minded persons wondered whether he was hinting at hidden moral delinquencies on the part of the saintly guest of honor. Then Holmes read a new poem of his own likening Whittier to “holy George Herbert, cut loose from his church,” and Charles Eliot Norton responded gracefully to a toast to James Russell Lowell, first editor of the Atlantic, who was in Madrid as American ambassador. Howells read several letters from persons unable to be present, including one from Josiah G. Holland commending “these old poets of ours” for keeping the spirit of reverence alive in American society, it was now perhaps eleven o’clock. Many of the audience must have shifted in their chairs and brightened up a little, for the next item was to be a speech by Mark Twain.

His presence on the program was entirely appropriate—he had contributed at least a dozen articles and sketches to the Atlantic, including the brilliant series about “Old Times on the Mississippi,” and he had spoken with success at a dinner given by the magazine three years earlier. Yet no one could fail to be aware of the vivid contrast between the speaker and his audience. The Boston Advertiser said that “the company was without doubt the most notable that has ever been seen in this country within four walls.” The statement was a palpable exaggeration (it left out of account, for example, the indoor groups who worked up the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution), but Houghton had undoubtedly brought together the literary aristocracy of New England: famous Men of Letters (Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes); noted scholars from Harvard (Norton, John Fiske, J. B. Greenough, John Trowbridge) and elsewhere (John Weiss, J. H. Trumbull); leading literary critics (E. P. Whipple, T. S. Perry); and a long list of other celebrities such as T. W. Higginson and G. P. Cranch. Mark Twain, on the other hand, had emerged from the Far West with only such education as a man might get in the pilot house of a Mississippi steamboat or newspaper offices in Virginia City and San Francisco. He was not, like the venerable poets at the head table, a spokesman for the Ideal, but a humorist. His function was to provide comic relief, and he knew it. The problem was how to be funny without violating the decorum of an occasion that tended to resemble a memorial service.

Howells’ introduction of his friend, although it expressed sincere admiration, was basically apologetic. He reassured anglophile Harvard with the reminder that Mark Twain’s name was “known wherever our tongue is spoken,” and recommended him to philanthropic Boston as a writer “who has, perhaps, done more kindness to our race, lifted from it more crushing care, rescued it from more gloom, and banished from it more wretchedness than all the professional philanthropists that ever live[d].…” In conclusion, Howells described Twain as “a humorist who never makes you blush to have enjoyed his joke; whose generous wit has no meanness in it, whose fun is never at the cost of anything honestly high or good, but comes from the soundest of hearts and the clearest of heads.”

The introduction, in short, attempted to answer the great unspoken question: What was the Washoe Giant doing on the program of a dinner honoring a spiritual kinsman of George Herbert? The same question had occurred to Mark Twain; he had made it the theme of his speech. As a means of contrasting the moral atmosphere of the California mining camps and that of Brahmin New England, he had imagined three tramps who imposed themselves on a naïve California miner as Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, spouting quotations from the works of the men they were impersonating, drinking the miner’s whiskey, and finally stealing his only pair of boots. Mark Twain described them in the miner’s racy vernacular: “Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap—red-headed. Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon—he weighed as much as three hundred, & had double chins all the way down to his stomach. Mr. Longfellow was built like a prize fighter. His head was cropped & bristly—like as if he had a wig made of hair-brushes. His nose lay straight down his face, like a finger, with the end-joint tilted up.”

The heart of the joke was in the snatches of verse quoted by these rascals. They sat down to a game of “cut-throat euchre at ten cents a corner—on trust.” “Mr. Emerson dealt, looked at his hand, shook his head, says [quoting Emerson’s “Brahma,” which had appeared in the first number of the Atlantic ]—

‘I am the doubter & the doubt—’

—& calmly bunched the hands & went to shuffling for a new lay-out. Says he—

‘They reckon ill who leave me out; /They know not well the subtle ways /I keep. I pass, & deal again!’”

Perhaps the most amusing quotation is “Emerson’s” when he points to his host the miner and asks:

“Is yonder squalid peasant all /That this proud nursery could breed?”

As the unwelcome guests leave next morning, Longfellow, wearing the host’s boots, alludes to “footprints on the sands of Time.”

The fantasy ends on a graceful note of tribute. Mark Twain represents himself as exclaiming to the miner, “Why my dear sir, these were not the gracious singers to whom we & the world pay loving reverence & homage: these were impostors.” The miner’s reply serves as a snapper: “Ah—impostors, were they? are you ?”

Accounts of the dinner published in Boston newspapers next day indicate that Mark Twain’s speech was well received. He had given his manuscript to the reporters, and the text was published in full in the Advertiser, the Post, the Globe, the Journal, and the Transcript. The Globe noted that while Mark Twain was speaking, “Mr. Longfellow laughed and shook, and Mr. Whittier seemed to enjoy it keenly,” but a correspondent of the Chicago Tribune observed more circumstantially that Whittier had an “odd quizzical pucker to his lips,” and that “every now and then he would shake his shoulders with laughter, as if he was a little ashamed of giving way to it.” There were other hints that the victims of the burlesque had mixed emotions about it. Emerson, it was said, “looked puzzled … Mr. Longfellow indulged in a surprised sort of smile, and … Dr. Holmes’s smile was of a fainter hue than the hilarity of the occasion seemed to call for.” Yet the audience as a whole seems to have taken the speech in good part. The Boston Traveller declared that Mark Twain set the table in a roar, “as is his wont,” and the Globe asserted that the speech “produced the most violent bursts of hilarity.”

There is nothing here to suggest a public scandal. Yet even before Mark Twain sat down he became convinced that he had committed a monumental faux pas. The earliest record of his impression of the audience’s reaction is an entry in the journal of his Hartford friend, the Reverend Joseph H. Twichell, dated December 18–19. The dinner, it will be remembered, occurred on the evening of the seventeenth. Mark Twain must have told Twichell about the affair immediately upon his return to Hartford next day. Twichell—an unimaginative, sober witness, and Mark Twain’s intimate associate—wrote:

This week Mark Twain made a speech at the ‘Atlantic’ Contributors dinner in Boston that, by reason of the irreverence it contained toward Emerson, Longfellow & Holmes (who were present) produced, both immediately on the spot , & subsequently at large through the press, a disagreeable impression.… He saw before he was done speaking that he had made a fatal blunder. Anybody could have told him that before, that had the chance, for he was shockingly out of taste, but he didn’t know it.

Howells, writing to Charles Eliot Norton on December 19, put on record a similar opinion: ”… before [Clemens] had fairly touched his point, he felt the awfulness of what he was doing, but was fatally helpless to stop. … his performance was like an effect of demoniacal possession.”

In reminiscences dictated many years later, and therefore probably colored by his imagination, Mark Twain said that soon after he began speaking, the expression of his hearers’ faces “turned to a sort of black frost. I wondered what the trouble was. I didn’t know. I went on, but with difficulty … always hoping—but with a gradually perishing hope—that somebody would laugh, or that somebody would at least smile, but nobody did.” By the time he had finished, the audience seemed to him “turned to stone with horror” at the affront to the revered poets who were seated at the head table. He recalled that a young novelist named William H. Bishop, who was supposed to speak next, was unable to utter more than a few sentences before he “slumped down in a limp and mushy pile.” This, he said, brought the program to an end, although several other men were scheduled to speak. “Nobody rose,” continued Mark Twain. “The next man hadn’t strength enough to get up, and everybody looked so dazed, so stupefied, paralyzed, it was impossible for anybody to do anything, or even try.” He could do nothing himself except follow Howells away to suffer in the privacy of a hotel bedroom.

The description of the dinner that Howells set down in 1910, just after Mark Twain’s death, closely resembles the account just quoted, and in fact probably records the substance of conversations between the two friends after the supposed catastrophe. Howells wrote that when

… the scope of the burlesque made itself clear, there was no one there, including the burlesquer himself, who was not smitten with a desolating dismay....Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or down at his plate. I chose my plate as the least affliction, and so I do not know how Clemens looked, except when I stole a glance at him, and saw him standing solitary amid his appalled and appalling listeners, with his joke dead on his hands....Clemens must have dragged his joke to the climax and left it there, but I cannot say this from any sense of the fact. Of what happened afterward at the table … I have no longer the least remembrance. I next remember being in a room of the hotel, where Clemens was not to sleep, but to toss in despair, and Charles Dudley Warner’s saying, in the gloom, “Well, Mark, you’re a funny fellow.”

The newspaper reports already cited make it clear that most of what Mark Twain and Howells remembered about the reception of the speech was pure fantasy. The program did not collapse amid general horror, but continued without interruption. When Mark Twain finished speaking, he sat down and lighted his pipe. Howells next called on Richard Henry Stoddard to read a sonnet composed for the occasion. After Stoddard came William Wetmore Story and Charles Dudley Warner, whose speech is reported at length in the papers. It is true that by the time Warner had done speaking, Whittier, Longfellow, Holmes, and Emerson had left the hall, but it was nearly midnight, and men of advanced years who seldom appeared in public could hardly have been expected to last for more than five hours. Their departure did not interfere with the proceedings. The remaining diners were still to listen to the loquacious Colonel Higginson, George E. Waring, and William F. Apthorp (music critic of the Atlantic ) before Howells called on Bishop. Bishop was followed by Francis H. Underwood, and only then, at about one o’clock—probably two hours after Mark Twain delivered his speech—did the ceremony come to an end.

Nevertheless, Mark Twain and Howells had worked themselves into an ecstasy of embarrassment and chagrin. On December 28, with Howells’ consent, Mark Twain wrote an abject letter of apology to Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, beginning:

Gentlemen: I come before you, now, with the mien and posture of the guilty—not to excuse, gloss, or extenuate, but only to offer my repentance. If a man with a fine nature had done that thing which I did, it would have been a crime—because all his senses would have warned him against it beforehand; but I did it innocently & unwarned. I did it as innocently as I ever did anything....But when I perceived what it was that I had done, I felt as real a sorrow & suffered as sharp a mortification as if I had done it with guilty intent.

The letter elicited the replies that might have been expected. With time to recover from any momentary embarrassment and to recognize how pompous it would have been to take offense at so gay a prank, the victims all made light of it. Longfellow insisted the matter was of “slight importance,” and assured Mark Twain that neither he nor Holmes felt any offense. Holmes added that two of his friends, “gentlemen of education and the highest social standing were infinitely amused by your sketch and stoutly defended it against the charge of impropriety. More than this, one of the cleverest and best known ladies we have among us was highly delighted with it.” Emerson’s daughter reported that he “did not hear Mr. Clemens’ speech he was so far off,” but that when his wife read it to him next day from the newspaper, “it amused him.”

Although the Transcript said on December 19 that the speech, despite its wit, was generally considered “in bad taste,” the Boston papers were not inclined to criticize Mark Twain. The Post on December 20 carried a benign pun: “It would have been hard to make a Whittier speech than that of Mark Twain’s,” and the Globe reported with detachment on December 26: ”… the Western papers have just begun to write up the Whittier dinner, and abuse Mark Twain with great unanimity.” Actually, both upstate Massachusetts and the Middle West took a stern view. The Worcester Gazette was particularly top-lofty:

Mark Twain made a speech at the Atlantic dinner, last night, which was in bad taste. We refer to it, because Mark’s sense of propriety needs development, and it is not his first offense. … men who have attained the years and fame of Longfellow and Emerson are entitled to some degree of respect amongst a company of their friends. The offence is easier to feel than describe, but it is one which if repeated would cost Mark Twain his place among the contributors to the Atlantic Monthly, where indeed his appearance was in the beginning considered an innovation.

The Cincinnati Commercial maintained that “the instincts of a gentleman” would have prevented anyone endowed with them from perpetrating “a character-sketch so coarse and absurd in every incident.” The Chicago Tribune remarked that “even a King’s jester should know when it will do to shake his cap and bells in the royal presence.”

But it remained for the anonymous author of a letter to the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican to focus upon Mark Twain’s delinquency the full glare of outraged propriety. According to this moralist, the “wild Californian bull” had been guilty of “embellishing with his gift the low, poor, weak parts of our nature, and dressing in the garb of bar-room habitues the men who stand at the other end of life.” Such behavior was intolerable; for a writer was obligated by his calling to foster “reverence for that which is truly high.” And the correspondent concluded with a flourish: “According to England’s laureate, the good things of time are ours:—

‘To shape and use; arise and fly /The reeling Faun, the sensual feast! /Move upward, working out the beast, /And let the ape and tiger die!’”

The only way to account for Mark Twain’s extraordinary remorse is to conclude that, encouraged by Howells, he shared to some extent the ideas set forth in this preposterous letter. A week after the dinner he wrote to his friend: My sense of disgrace does not abate. It grows. I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies—a list of humiliations that extends back to when I was seven years old, and which keep on persecuting me regardless of my repentancies....It seems as if I must have been insane when I wrote that speech and saw no harm in it, no disrespect toward those men whom I reverenced so much.

Yet astonishingly enough, by February 5, a little more than five weeks later, he had entirely changed his mind about the speech. It now seemed to him perfectly all right. “Why anybody should think three poets insulted because three fantastic tramps choose to impersonate them,” he asserted stoutly, “passes my comprehension. [Thomas] Nast says it is very much the best speech & the most humorous situation I have contrived.”

He continued to brood over the speech for a long time. In 1882 he mentioned it to Howells, saying the recollection made him feel like “an unforgiven criminal,” and there are further references to it in 1888 and in 1899. In 1906, when someone wrote asking him for a copy of the speech then almost three decades in the past, his mind went back to it with evident fascination, and he caused the text to be copied out for him from the files of the Boston Transcript. “I have read it twice,” he declared, “and unless I am an idiot, it hasn’t a single defect in it from the first word to the last. It is just as good as good can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn’t a suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere.”

Yet his attitude was still unstable. Two weeks later he wrote to Twichell: “I have examined that speech a couple of times since, and have changed my notion about it—changed it entirely. I find it gross, coarse—well, I needn’t go on with particulars. I didn’t like any part of it, from the beginning to the end. I found it always offensive and detestable.” And there was to be yet one more reversal of attitude. On the typescript of the Autobiographical Dictation incorporating this letter, there is a note in Mark Twain’s hand: “ May 25th [1906] It did remain—until day before yesterday; then I gave it a final and vigorous reading—aloud—and dropped straight back to my former admiration of it.”

The pendulum swings of Mark Twain’s feelings about the speech are of course the most significant aspect of the whole incident, for they indicate that his unconscious motives were quite different from his conscious ones. The perspective of our own day compels us to recognize that the depiction of three tramps bearing the names of the venerable poets at the head table and quoting their works was a rather thinly disguised act of aggression against them. Mark Twain would have been more than human if he had not resented the ideal of the Man of Letters which they embodied. Although he was an immensely popular writer (The Innocents Abroad had sold more copies than any American book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin), his work was classified as Humor; it was not Literature. Part of the time he maintained that he had no ambition to write Literature for the refined and educated minority; he was content, he said, to be a humorist and write for the masses. Yet he could not help knowing that he was something more than a mere Phunny Phellow in the manner of Artemus Ward. It was frustrating for him that American society had no conception of how a man could be a writer of consequence without resembling a composite portrait of Emerson, Longfellow, and the rest. To the Tom Sawyer who was always to be found somewhere in Mark Twain these men bore a fatal resemblance to the Good Little Boy of the Sunday School books. They made him want to play the role of the Bad Little Boy.

One of the ways in which the Whittier Dinner speech embodies such a subversive impulse is its handling of quotations from the work of the three revered poets. Burlesque of this sort can involve a kind of testing of the work quoted, a measurement of its durability. The better poems of Emerson, such as “Brahma,” stand up well under scrutiny, but Holmes’s “The Chambered Nautilus,” Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” and even Emerson’s “Monadnoc” are revealed as emptily rhetorical. Contemporary admirers of the poets must have felt to some extent the power of Mark Twain’s implied indictment. Indeed, the speech even suggested that the cult of the Man of Letters on the model of Whittier was merely an elaborate self-deception on the part of his readers. Surely some buried demon of irreverence in Mark Twain was gratified when to the admonition, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my Soul!” he could have his miner reply, “I can’t afford it, Mr. Holmes, & moreover I don’t want to.”

Yet the ultimate effect of the little fantasy is humble. The sharpest thrust is directed, as so often in Mark Twain’s humor, at the author himself. He really felt that he was the man who needed most to fear the question, “Are you an impostor?” How had a tramp like him dared to wear the disguise of a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly? Did he propose to set himself up in the exalted role of the Author-Priest? His sense of guilt began to punish him for his presumption even as he was writing the speech (hence that question at the end), and it continued to disturb him the rest of his life. He was never able to work out for himself a stable conception of his role as a writer. Howells deserves much credit for doing what he could to convince Mark Twain that he was a first-rate artist. But Howells was too much a man of his time, too deeply committed to the official culture of nineteenth-century New England, to be able to comprehend the full extent of Mark Twain’s importance for literature. He tended to praise the wrong books for the wrong reasons, even though he sometimes praised the right books and touched the outer edges of the right reasons.

Joel Chandler Harris put his finger on the technical greatness of Huckleberry Finn in a private letter to the author. This was not enough, however, to offset the pressures toward being elevated and genteel, toward being a proper Man of Letters, that were exerted on Mark Twain throughout his career. He could never make up his mind whether his best book was the vernacular masterpiece Huckleberry Finn or the sentimental romance Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. The time would come when Ernest Hemingway would write that “all modern American literature comes from one book … called Huckleberry Finn,” and when Mark Twain would outrank every other writer who was present in the Brunswick dining room on that evening in 1877. But this time was far in the future as the speaker felt his cherished bit of comedy dying on his hands even while he delivered it, and caught from the anguished face of his friend Howells the idea that in daring to poke fun at the famous poets of the New England tradition he had committed an act of sacrilege.

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