"Mark Twain as Orator"
By Charles Vale
TWO dates: November 30th, 1835; April 21st, 1910. Between them, a life that counts -- the full life of a virile, brilliant and successful man. For Mark Twain was eminently successful. He made money, and lost it. He captured the affection of the world, and never lost it. When it was necessary, he made more money, by a sustained and wonderful effort. When it was quite unnecessary, he made more friends, without any effort at all. He had long been rich, in the currency of affection. New friendships represented merely the income from his invested capital.
The secret of his popularity is an open one. It has been shouted from the housetops, and whispered by the press. Mark Twain pesonified the most valuable and obvious traits of the American character -- the ability and the desire for hard work; contempt for the finicking, the insincere, the affected; bitter scorn for the larger shams of the unit and the multitude graft, greed, hypocrisy, cant. In a land of vast possibilities, but some unpleasant realities, he upheld the banner of commercial integrity and maintained the moral obligation of every man to pay his debts in full -- as Nature pays hers. The doctrine was sufficiently antique to be attractive: the modern setting served as an advertisement. The world dearly loves a lover of lucre: it applauds a thief whose peculations are on a magnificent scale. Yet deeper and more enduring than the reverence for the multi-millionaire is the reverence for the single-hearted, honest man. Mark Twain earned this reverence, nobly. It was given to him ungrudgingly, though not fulsomely: and he passed it on to his wife.
During his visit to England in the Summer of 1907, he was the guest of honor at many banquets. At the one presided over by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, his health was proposed by Mr. T. P. O'Connor, who referred to the parallel achievements of Dr. Clemens and Sir Walter Scott. Mark Twain's reply commenced with witticisms, as usual, and concluded with a wonderful peroration. But in the period of transition, when the stream of jests had been cut off and the sentiment had not yet begun to flow, he said, simply and naturally:
"'Tay Pay' paid a compliment to me about the time when I was bankrupt and heavily in debt. But I always feel when that is referred to that I should tell the truth about it. My lay-headed commercial friends said that the business would pay thirty cents on the dollar, and I ought to let it pay that and go free. Now, a man can be easily persuaded to step outside the strict moral line, but it is not so with a woman. It was my wife who said: 'No. You shall pay one hundred cents on the dollar, and I am with you all the time.' She kept her word, and it is rather more due to her than to myself."
This is the account of a business transaction, told in plain, uncolored words: but it moved strangely the vast audience which the orator was addressing. For Mark Twain was an orator, and not merely a molder of evanescent epigrams. His grip -- the grip of a controller of men -- was upon all who watched, and listened, and wondered; and slowly, quietly, he showed them what few, perhaps, had suspected -- the large emotions of one who has lived, suffered, worked, thought and remembered. None would accuse him of sentimentality: he never cultivated the tricks of the mere showman, or sought refuge in the facile revelations of the self-pitier. But just as he represented the obvious traits of the typical American character -- sincerity in word and deed -- so also he represented the unobvious, and sometimes unsuspected, traits -- the emotional susceptibility, the questing for the ideal, all the spiritual unrest and human lovableness lying deep, very deep, in the heart of the race which is outwardly brusque and business-like to the point of brutality and offensive rudeness. The reception he had met with; the weeks of spontaneous and astonishing demonstrativeness -- a prolonged orgy of unsatiated affection; the comprehension of his aims and the graceful and ungrudging acceptance of the charm of his personality: all had combined to wear away the outer shell of customary reticence. And so, very human, a little weary, but altogether unafraid of eloquence, be came at last to his peroration.
"Home is dear to us all, and I am now departing for mine on the other side of the ocean. Oxford has conferred upon me the loftiest honor that has ever fallen to my fortune, the one I should have chosen as outranking any and all others within the gift of men or states to bestow upon me. And I have had, in the four weeks that I have been here, another lofty honor, a continuous honor, an honor which has known no interruption in all these twenty-six days, a most moving and pulse-stirring honor: the hearty hand-grip and the cordial welcome which does not descend from the pale gray matter of the brain, but comes up with the red blood out of the heart! It makes me proud, and it makes me humble.
"Many and many a year ago I read an anecdote in Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. A frivolous little self-important captain of a coasting-sloop in the dried-apple and kitchen-furniture trade was always hailing every vessel that came in sight, just to hear himself talk and air his small grandeurs. One day a majestic Indiaman came ploughing by, with course on course of canvas towering into the sky, her decks and yards swarming with sailors, with macaws and monkeys and all manner of strange and romantic creatures populating her rigging, and thereto her freightage of precious spices lading the breeze with gracious and mysterious odors of the Orient. Of course, the little coaster-captain hopped into the shrouds and squeaked a hail: Ship ahoy! What ship is that, and whence and whither?' In a deep and thunderous bass came the answer back, through a speaking-trumpet: The Begum of Bengal, a hundred and twenty-three days out from Canton -- homeward bound! What ship is that?' The little captain's vanity was all crushed out of him, and most humbly he squeaked back: Only the Mary Ann, fourteen hours out from Boston, bound for Kittery Point with nothing to speak of!' That eloquent word only' expressed the deeps of his stricken humbleness.
"And what is my case? During perhaps one hour in the twentyfour -- not more than that -- I stop and reflect. Then I am humble then I am properly meek, and for that little time I am only the Mary Ann' -- fourteen hours out, and cargoed with vegetables and tin-ware: but all the other twenty-three my self-satisfaction rides high, and I am the stately Indianian, plowing the great seas under a cloud of sail, and laden with a rich freightage of the kindest words that were ever spoken to a wandering alien, I think; my twenty-six crowded and fortunate days multiplied by five; and I am the Begum of Bengal, a hundred and twenty-three days out from Canton. Homeward bound!"
The audience sat spellbound, in almost painful silence, till it could restrain itself no longer; and when in rich, resonant, uplifted voice Mark Twain sang out the words: "I am the Begum of Bengal a hundred and twenty-three days out from Canton," there burst forth a great cheer from one end of the room to the other. It seemed an inopportune cheer, and for a moment it upset the orator: yet it was felicitous in opportuneness. Slowly, after a long pause, came the last two words -- like that curious, detached and high note on which a great piece of music suddenly ends -- "Homeward bound." Again there was a cheer: but this time it was lower; it was subdued it was the fitting echo to the beautiful words -- with their double significance -- the parting from a hospitable land, the return to the native land -- wail and paean, paean and wail. Only a great litterateur could have conceived such a passage: only a great orator could have so delivered it.
Very many years before, a huge, strange, Bohemian party had been held in an enormous house in Fitzroy Square. It was the mansion in which Colonel Newcome is said to have lived. The old drawing-room was now used as a studio: it was high, panelled, lit with candles, and divided by folding-doors. Men of world-wide celebrity were present -- Wagner, Liszt, Turgenev, Browning, Rosetti, Sir Frederick Leighton, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Bret Harte and -- with the red shirt, revolvers and top-boots of a Nicaragua filibuster -- Joaquin Miller.
There was one other. With a cigar held between his teeth, with low collar leaving free a well-developed neck, with rather long, bushy hair that suggested bunches of grapes, with a thick mustache that seemed to have been scattered and blown about by a sudden wind, with keen eyes veiled a little by half-closed lids, as if they, too, were peering into a stiff breeze; silent, observant, with the chin thrust resolutely forward, there stood Mark Twain.
It may have been the unaccustomed society that rendered him so silent; it may have been his compatriot's revolvers and red shirt glaring out among the black velvet coats and aesthetic dresses; it may have been merely that it was one of his silent days; it may have been that he simply could not "get the hang" of that assembly: but for hours he stood there in the candle-light and said nothing.
Now, as he played at will on the emotions of a new generation, there was the same face -- the keen eyes, the grizzled mustache, the resolute chin. But Time, and many labors, had painted their story in a clear language; and the bushy hair was white as snow. Yet still, even while he spoke, he seemed to be peering into a stiff breeze: the voice rose and fell; but the spirit of the man was claimed by the ocean of strange experiences. Thus he eluded measurement. None could say: here is the end of this personality; thus and thus are set firmly its boundaries and limitations.
As humorist, humanist, moralist, he could be appraised; as an orator, he could be admired; as a dreamer of dreams, he was robed still with aloofness. Mark Twain could not be charted. Even in the moments of intimate confidence one was aware of the reservations. There were depths still unsounded, altitudes unscanned. He revealed himself as an enigma.
At home, Mark Twain has been a great personality, a public man of the first eminence, esteemed, honored and beloved. But the merits of the author have sometimes been obscured by the very vividness of the man. He has been so much more than a mere author that people are apt to forget how great an author he was. He is a classic. Yet it took some time for the world to see through the trivialities and jocosities with which his name was at first associated, to the essential strength and seriousness of his genius. A good deal of his work, no doubt, was simply journalism; and some of it was marred by an intolerance of history, an indignation against the past, which seemed strange in a man who sustained ordinarily a wide and clear outlook, who was eminently capable of careful and valid criticism.
In the great mass of his output there are many flat and uninspired passages, and passages of over-elaboration in which a humorous or fantastic idea is strained to its extreme limits. But when he is at his best -- and that is in thousands of pages -- he is unique and incomparable. He is not only a great humorist, but a potent realist; not only an admirable humanitarian, but an accomplished story-teller, a psychologist and a poet. Above all, he is a great master of the English language. There have been many self-conscious stylists who have produced more elaborate and in some ways more beautiful work than his: but no one in our day has written English with more nervous vitality, or terseness, or color. Probably, like Bunyan and Defoe, he never deliberately considered his style: but, like them, he had an instinctive sense for the right word and the right place for it.
He has written many things of high value: Life on the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer, Pudd'nhead Wilson, The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, and a score of other tales, sketches and satires, great and small. But Huckleberry Finn is his supreme and incontestable masterpiece. There are few books in any literature that so pulsate with vitality, few books of such fertile invention and varied charm. Quaint and very astonishing are the episodes of irresistible humor, such as the adventures of the King and the Duke, and the "funeral orgies" of Peter Wilkes: but even the broadest of the humor is founded always on just and searching observation and knowledge of human nature. Yet its true greatness lies, not merely, or even chiefly, in its humor, but in its masterly reproduction of the scenery and atmosphere of the great rivers, in its wonderfully skilful mingling of tragedy, comedy and farce, and above all, in the character of Huckleberry Finn himself, and his relations with the nigger Jim. A caricaturist represented Mark Twain's fellow-passengers on the Minneapolis as all engaged in studying his various works, and assigned Huckleberry Finn to a small boy. That was an egregious mistake. Boys love it, no doubt: but it needs ripe experience to appreciate its irony, its humanity, and the subtler phases of its humor.
And this whole wonderful book is written in the manner and with the vocabulary of a waif -- a waif of genius, no doubt, but still a perfectly credible and unmiraculous personage. Esmond is regarded as a great achievement in impersonative style: but in Huckleberry Finn a more difficult task was accomplished with perhaps more convincing success. Take this example of a storm, seen by Huck and Jim from the shelter of their cave.
Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it began to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest -- fst! it was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world.
The most admirable things in the book are the recurrent passages in which Huck's conscience reproaches him with the enormity of his misconduct in abetting the escape of a runaway nigger. Time after time he makes up his mind to betray the trusting Jim, and time after time his innate goodness (which he takes for a temptation of the Evil One) conquers the conventional morality instilled into him by slave-holding public opinion. But at last, unable to resist the urgent reproaches of "conscience," he actually writes a letter to Jim's legal owner, telling where he may be found. The letter written, he lays it down and looks at it, feeling "good and all washed clean of sin." And then he meditates upon how near he came to "being lost and going to hell."
And I went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog . . . and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world . . . and then I happened to look around and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up and held it in my band. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide for ever betwixt two things, and I know'd it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
Surely one of the most human -- and the most subtly ironic -- passages in all fiction!
A many-sided man, this Mississippi pilot; clear-eyed, and conscious of the jest and zest of life. So, he appeared to his English friends; so, once, with his long white hair flying on the breeze and his grave, grim face set in a stern mold, which could not conceal the creases that yield to the impulse of laughter, he came to the Savoy Hotel, to be the guest of the Pilgrims. Augustine Birrell, of Obiter Dicta fame, presided, and the conclusion of his speech deserves appropriate record here.
"Mark Twain is a man whom English and Americans do well to honor. He is the true consolidator of nations. His delightful humor is of the kind which dissipates and destroys national prejudices. His truth and his honor, his love of truth and his love of honor, overflow all boundaries. He has made the world better by his presence. We rejoice to see him here. Long may he live to reap the plentiful harvest of hearty, honest human affection!"
The toast was drunk with loud cheering, and Mark Twain, rising ere the shouts had died away, began his speech. Drawling his words, as usual, and making his phrases piquant with his special intonation, he commenced with a touching allusion to the youthful undergraduates at Oxford, whose buoyant -- if somewhat boisterous -- greeting had stirred him deeply.
"When a man has grown so old as I am, when he has reached the verge of seventy-two years, there is nothing that carries him back to the dreamland of his life, to his boyhood, like the recognition of those young bearts."
He went on jesting and "chaffing," as he himself described it. He referred to the reputed somnolent effect of his books on Darwin, who read himself to sleep with them. And he continued:
"When I arrived in England -- in London -- I saw a newsman going round with a great, red, highly-displayed placard bearing two sentences, unpunctuated sentences which to some minds might have conveyed a wrong impression. They were: 'Mark Twain arrives Ascot Cup stolen.' It was rather unkind, and my character has suffered from it. I have never stolen anything -- in England -- except a hat some years ago. But that did not amount to anything. However, it was a good hat -- a clergyman's hat. It occurred at a party at which Archdeacon Wilberforce was present. He was then a canon serving in the Westminister battery. Afterwards the Archdeacon wrote and said that when he was going home in that hat -- the other hat -- my hat -- all his gravities, his solemnities, his deep thoughts, his eloquent remarks, were snatched up by the people he met and mistaken for brilliant witticisms. A man who can exaggerate in that graceful way ought to be a bishop.
"Well, I was passing down a certain street when I realized that my hat -- the hat I had appropriated -- needed ironing. I went to a big shop and gave them the contract. They were even courtly to me, and after a little while they brought back the hat.' How much?' I asked. Oh,' was the reply, 'We don't charge the clergy.' I have long cherished the delight of that moment. Yet the other day I had my hat ironed at the same shop, and when I inquired the consequences I was told quite coldly: 'Ninepence.'"
Thus he rambled on, laughing and joking. Suddenly, without warning, he became serious, and with shaking voice and the impression of tears, while the room was hushed and still, he brought his speech to a conclusion.
"My history includes an incident which will always connect me with England in a pathetic way, for when I arrived here seven years ago with my wife and my daughter we had gone around the globe lecturing to raise money to clear off a debt. My wife and one of my daughters started across the ocean, to bring to England our eldest daughter. She was twenty-four years of age, and in the bloom of young womanhood, and we were unsuspecting, when a cablegram -- one of those heart-breaking cablegrams which we all, in our days, have to experience -- was put into my hand. It stated that my daughter had gone to her long sleep.
"And so, as I say, I cannot always be cheerful, and I cannot always be chaffing. I must sometimes lay the cap and bells aside. I have received since I have been here, in this one week, hundreds of letters from all conditions of people in England -- men, women, and children -- and there is compliment, praise, and, above all and better than all, there is in them a note of affection.
"Praise is well, compliment is well, but affection -- that is the last and final and most precious reward that any man can win, whether by character or achievement; and I am very grateful to have that reward. All these letters make me feel that here in England, as in America, when I stand under the English flag, I am not a stranger, I am not an alien, but at home."
Yet not often was this master of the joke moved so deeply by the sense of the enduring pressure of the yoke of destiny. Very rarely he struck the note of personal sorrow: he chose the cap and bells as a mark of honor, and gave the world the boon of a little laughter, -- such laughter as rippled through the vast room at the Hotel Cecil at one annual celebration of Independence Day.
The American Ambassador proposed "The Day We Celebrate." Mark Twain supported the toast in a humorous speech, beginning with a reference to the stolen Ascot Cup. He said he had tried to convince people that he did not take the cup, but had failed: so he might as well confess that he did take it, and be done with it. Nor did he think it fair, when England had been attempting to take a cup of theirs for forty years, to make so much trouble when he tried to go into the business. Continuing, he said:
"Our Ambassador has spoken of the Fourth of July, and the noise it makes. We have a double Fourth of July in America. We honor it all through the daylight hours, and when the night comes we dishonor it. Just at this hour the pandemonium would be about to begin. More than the noise, there would be people crippled and killed, all through the permission which we give to irresponsible boys to play with fire-arms and fire-crackers. Really we destroy more property on the night of the Fourth of July than the whole of the United States was worth a hundred and twenty-five years ago, and to thousands it is turned into a day of mourning.
"I have suffered in that way myself. I had an uncle in Chicago -- as good an uncle as ever I had, and I have had a lot of them. He opened his mouth to express his patriotism, and a rocket went down his throat. And before that man could ask for a drink of water to quench the thing it had scattered him all over the forty-five states. Really, this is true. Twenty-four hours after that it was a sort of raining buttons on the Atlantic seaboard. A man cannot have a disease like that and be entirely cheerful during the rest of his life. These things grieve me, but don't let them make you sad."
One of the special charms of his wit was its spontaneity.
"All that report about my proposal to buy Windsor Castle is false rumor," he informed a newspaper correspondent. "I started it myself."
After the ceremony of conferring his degree of D.Litt., at Oxford, while he was strolling about in his doctor's robes, with the orthodox mortar-board on his head, a man approached him, saying: "I believe I have the honor of addressing Mark Twain?"
"Well, sir, will you allow me to say how proud I am to have the privilege of meeting you? I am the porter of this college."
"I greatly appreciate the high compliment you have paid me," was the reply. And there was neither condescension nor satire in this suave, polite utterance. Mark Twain was not a snob.
Nor was he a coward. After he bad reached the three-score years and ten of man's allotted life, he could confront destiny steadfastly and with comprehension, though with a smile and a jest as fitting illustrations to the writing on the wall. His visit to England would seem perhaps the culmination and crowning triumph of his career. After many endeavors, many inventions, many labors, he was shown unmistakably that it was not necessary for him to die in order to attain his niche in the gallery of the world's celebrities -- honored, esteemed and loved. But he was both a poet and a realist; and he had communed, fancifully sometimes, earnestly often, with death, in whose shadow poetry and realism are most superbly blended.
He had arrived at St. Pancras, and the long ordeal was before him -- the ordeal of acknowledging adequately his superb welcome. He was met by a throng of Pressmen. One of them asked if he was engaged on any new work.
"No," he replied; "I don't write anything now. I merely dictate my autobiography. I give it an hour and a half each day, from 10 o'clock in the morning till 11:30. The arrangement has this advantage: one need not be out of bed to dictate. However, I'm always up for lunch: but it is not long before I am again resting.
"For a man of my age rest is essential. I believe in giving way to the body as soon as it feels tired, just as I always obey my eyes when they suggest sleep. For dinner in the evening I invariably dress, but 11 o'clock generally sees me in bed, where I read and smoke till, perhaps, 1 o'clock in the morning.
"When will the biography be finished? Just when they send for the undertaker, and not any sooner. You hope that will be very far off? Well, I don't know. Palmists, clairvoyants, seers and other kinds of fortune-tellers, all assure me that I am going to die, and I have the utmost admiration for their prediction. Perhaps they would convince me a little more if they told me the date." He laughed.
And still, for a little while longer, he laughed from time to time as he tossed a jest or an aphorism to the world; and with him, throughout the two hemispheres, laughed the myriads of his friends. But they saw in him the ideal, not the idle, humorist: the Pilot who could be trusted in troubled waters. And so it was that a wonderful degree of affection and esteem was given to the Laughing Philosopher of the New World, the shrewd, witty, lovable Wise Man of the West.
Pilot of many Pilgrims since the shout
So wrote Owen Seaman, the editor of Punch. But the course is broken now: the date that the palmists and seers withheld has been filled in at last. The tired eyes are closed in a long sleep. The autobiography is finished.