- Historic Sites
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
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  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.