MARK TWAIN should be doubly blessed for saving the center table from utter dullness. Do you remember that center table of the seventies? The marbled top showed glossy in the subdued light that filtered through the lace curtains, and it was clammy cold even on hot days. The heavy mahogany legs were chiseled into writhing curves from which depended stern geometrical designs or possibly bunches of grapes. The Bible had the place of honor and was flanked by subscription books. In those days the house never became cluttered with the ephemeral six best sellers. The new books came a year apart, and each was meant for the center table, and it had to be so thick and heavy and emblazoned with gold that it could keep company with the bulky and high-priced Bible.
Books were bought by the pound. Sometimes the agent was a ministerial person in black clothes and a stove-pipe hat. Maiden ladies and widows, who supplemented their specious arguments with private tales of woe, moved from one small town to another feeding upon prominent citizens. Occasionally the prospectus was unfurled by an undergraduate of a freshwater college working for the money to carry him another year.
The book agents varied, but the book was always the same, -- many pages, numerous steel engravings, curly-cue tail-pieces, platitudes, patriotism, poetry, sentimental mush. One of the most popular, still resting in many a dim sanctuary, was known as "Mother, Home, and Heaven." A ponderous collection of "Poetical Gems" did not involve the publishers in any royalty entanglements. Even "The Lives of the Presidents" and "Noble Deeds of the Great and Brave" gave every evidence of having been turned out as piece-work by needy persons temporarily lacking employment on newspapers. Let us not forget the "Manual of Deportment and Social Usages," from which the wife of an agriculturalist could learn the meaning of R.S.V.P. and the form to be employed in acknowledging an invitation to a levee.
Nobody really wanted these books. They were purchased because the agents knew how to sell them, and they seemed large for the price, and, besides, every well-furnished home had to keep something on the center table.
Subscription books were dry picking for boys. Also they were accessible only on the Sabbath after the weekly scouring. On week-days the boys favored an underground circulating library, named after Mr. Beadle, and the hay-mow was the chosen reading room. Let one glorious exception be made in the case of "Dr. Livingstone's Travels in Africa," a subscription book of forbidding size, but containing many pictures of darkies with rings in their noses.
Just when front-room literature seemed at its lowest ebb, so far as the American boy was concerned, along came Mark Twain. His books looked, at a distance, just like the other distended, diluted, and altogether tasteless volumes that had been used for several decades to balance the ends of the center table. The publisher knew his public, so he gave a pound of book for every fifty cents, and crowded in plenty of wood-cuts and stamped the outside with golden bouquets and put in a steel engraving of the author, with a tissue paper veil over it, and "sicked" his multitude of broken-down clergymen, maiden ladies, grass widows, and college students on to the great American public.
Can you see the boy, a Sunday morning prisoner, approach the book with a dull sense of foreboding, expecting a dose of Tupper's "Proverbial Philosophy"? Can you see him a few minutes later when he finds himself linked arm-in-arm with Mulberry Sellers or Buck Fanshaw or the convulsing idiot who wanted to know if Christopher Columbus was sure-enough dead? No wonder he curled up on the hair-cloth sofa and hugged the thing to his bosom and lost all interest in Sunday-school. "Innocents Abroad" was the most enthralling book ever printed until "Roughing It" appeared. Then along came "The Gilded Age," "Life on the Mississippi," and "Tom Sawyer," one cap sheaf after another. While waiting for a new one we read the old ones all over again.
The new uniform edition with the polite little pages, high-art bindings, and all the boisterous wood-cuts carefully expurgated can never take the place of those lumbering subscription books. They were the early friends and helped us to get acquainted with the most amazing story-teller that ever captivated the country boys and small-town boys all over America.
While we are honoring Mark Twain as a great literary artist, a philosopher, and a teacher, let the boys of the seventies add their tribute. They knew him for his miracle of making the subscription book something to be read and not merely looked at. He converted the Front Room from a Mausoleum into a Temple of Mirth.