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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
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.