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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
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:—
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.”