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The Backwoods Bull In The Boston China Shop
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?
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
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.”