The Backwoods Bull In The Boston China Shop


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: