MARK TWAIN ON THE LECTURE PLATFORM
by the famous humorist
By WILL M. CLEMENS
ON Tuesday evening, September 29, 1866, Samuel Langhorne Clemens made his first appearance in public, at the Academy of Music in Pine street, San Francisco. He had just returned from the Sandwich Islands, from where he had been writing letters on the islands and the islanders to the Sacramento Union. The appearance of Artemus Ward some months previous in San Francisco had aroused an ambition in Mark Twain, to "go and do likewise," not for the fame that might come to him, not from the money to be earned, but from a spirit of pure mischievousness. Twain was one of a coterie of Bohemians which included Bret Harte, Prentice Mulford and Charles Warren Stoddard, and I can imagine how he chuckled to himself with he concluded to "learn a new trick and surprise the boys." He secured a hall and published a sort of Artemus Ward announcement that he would deliver a lecture about his trip to the Sandwich Islands.
Commenting upon the announcement, the San Francisco correspondent of a neighboring newspaper, wrote:
"We may expect either gay or grave remarks, for, by recently published letters, he very fully exhibited the resources of the islands to the great satisfaction of our business community. His lecture at this time will have a peculiar interest, independent of his own rapidly augmenting popularity, from the fact that the queen (Emma) of said country is now in our midst. Everybody is going and consequently a crowded audience will greet the maiden -- I believe -- lecture of the sage brusher. He is not at all an eloquent orator, and I fear, as he himself announces it, 'doors open at 7, the trouble will commence at 8 o'clock.'"
"The 'trouble' is over," wrote this same correspondent under the date of October 3, 1866, "the inimitable 'Mark Twain' delivered himself last night of his first lecture on the Sandwich Islands, or anything else. Some time before the hour appointed to open his head the Academy of Music (on Pine street) was densely crowded with one of the most fashionable audiences it was ever my privilege to witness during my long residence in this city. The elite of the town were there, and so was the Governor of the state -- occupying one of the boxes -- whose rotund face was suffused with a halo of mirth during the whole entertainment. The audience promptly notified Mark by the usual sign -- stamping -- that the auspicious hour had arrived, and presently the lecturer came sidling and swinging out from the left of the stage. His very manner produced a generally vociferous laugh from the assemblage. He opened with an apology, by saying that he had partly succeeded in obtaining a band, but, at the last moment, the party engaged backed out. He explained that he had hired a man to play the trombone, but he, on learning that he was the only person engaged, came at the last moment and informed him that he could not play. This placed Mark in a bad predicament, and wishing to know his reasons for deserting him at that critical moment, he replied 'that he wasn't going to make a fool of himself by sitting up there on the stage and blowing his horn all by himself.' After the applause subsided, he assumed a very grave countenance and commenced his remarks proper with the following well-known sentence: 'When, in the course of human events,' etc. He lectured fully an hour and a quarter, and his humorous sayings were interspersed with geographical, agricultural and statistical remarks, sometimes branching off and reaching beyond -- soaring, in the very choicest language, up to the very pinnacle of descriptive power."
Thus we are told how Mark "tried it on the dog," and from all appearances the canine survived. Then came invitations from surrounding towns and from Nevada for Mark Twain to repeat his San Francisco success. Thereupon in January, 1867, he started forth upon a lecture tour through the smaller cities of California and Nevada. In those days almost every entertainment brought out a crowd, and when it was announced one day in Carson City that Mark Twain was to deliver a lecture for the benefit of something or other at the Episcopal Church, it was generally understood that the house would be crowded.
"Well, the night arrived," writes a friend that was present. "Mark ascended the steps into the pulpit about 8 o'clock, there being a whole lot of the boys and young women, friends of his, as well as a good many old people in front. Mark made a very polite bow, and then unfolded a gigantic roll of brown paper. People thought at first it was a map, but it turned out to be his lecture written on great sheets of grocer's brown paper, with an ordinary grocer's marking brush. After his bow he turned his back around to the audience and craned his head up to the lamp, and thus read from the big sheets, as though it would be impossible for him to see any other way.
"The lecture was on 'The Future of Nevada,' and was the funniest thing I ever heard. He prophesied the great era of prosperity that was before us, and sought to encourage us residents of the sage brush region by foretelling what appeared to be Golconda-like tales of impossible mineral discoveries. Right on the heels of it, however, came the remarkable discoveries at Virginia City, and then we thought that he was not so far off in his humorous predictions."
In March, Mr. Clemens published his first book, "The Famous Jumping Frog of Calaveras," and soon after sailed for New York by way of Panama. From New York he went to Washington, where he endeavored to earn his living by writing letters to the San Francisco Alta, and delivering a lecture or two. His lecture experience in Washington was brief but interesting, and he tells all about it in his inimitable way:
"Well, now, I'll have to tell you something about that lecture. It was a little the hardest and roughest experience I ever underwent in my whole career as a lecturer. Now, I had not been in Washington more than a day or two before a friend of mine came to my room at the hotel early one morning, wakened me out of a sound sleep, and nearly stunned me by asking if I was aware of the fact that I was to deliver a lecture at Lincoln Hall that evening. I told him no, and that he must be crazy to get out of bed at such an unseemly hour to ask such a foolish question. But he soon assured me that he was perfectly sane by showing the papers, which all announced that Mark Twain was to lecture that evening, and that his subject would be 'The Sandwich Islands.' To say that I was surprised would be drawing it mildly. I was mad, for I thought some one had put up a game on me.
"Well, on careful inquiry I learned that an old theatrical friend of mine thought he would do me a favor. So he started out by getting drunk. While in this condition he made all the necessary arrangements for me to lecture, with the exception of the slight circumstance that he neglected to inform me of any of his intentions. He rented Lincoln Hall, billed the town, and sent the newspapers advertisements and notices about the coming lecture, and the worst of it was that he had done all his work thoroughly. After learning this I was in a dilemma. I had never prepared any lecture on the Sandwich Islands. What was I to do? I could not back out by telling the people that I was unprepared, and that my friend was intoxicated when he made those arrangements. No, that was out of the question, because the public wouldn't believe it anyway. The billing of the town had been too well done for that. So there was only one thing left for me to do, and that was to lock myself in my room and write that lecture between the breakfast hour and half-past seven that evening. Well, I did it, and was on hand at the advertised hour, facing one of the biggest audiences I ever addressed.
"I did not use my manuscript, but in those days I always had my lecture in writing, and kept it on a reading stand at one end of the place where I stood on the platform. I was very good at memorizing, and rarely had any trouble speaking without notes; but the very fact that I had my manuscript near at hand where I could readily turn to it without having to undergo the mortification of pulling it from my pocket, gave me courage and kept me from making awkward pauses. But the writing of that Sandwich Islands lecture in one day was the toughest job ever put on me."
The voyage to Europe and the trip to Palestine came soon after this, and the subsequent publication of "Innocents Abroad," in 1869, made Mr. Clemens famous on two continents. In the autumn, James Redpath, who was the manager of a Lyceum Bureau in Boston, encouraged Mark Twain to undertake a series of lectures or talks before church societies or lyceums in the New England states and the country round about New York. One of his first engagements was before a church society in Brooklyn, and the humorist was evidently disgusted at the spirit of the entertainment, for under the date of December 4th, he wrote to Redpath:
"This is no regular course. It is an infernal mite society, a pure charity speculation."
His first lecture tour in the East was brief and disastrous to his nerves and temper. Meanwhile, he had accepted an editorship on the Buffalo Express, and had married. After his marriage he was in such demand as a platform attraction that he could not find time to reply to all the letters received, and was compelled on March 1st to have a circular printed:
But he relented at length, and during April and early in May was making lecture trips to towns in New York State, under the management of Redpath and Fall. On May 2nd, he wrote to Redpath:
Joel Benton, the author, tells a story of this period of Mark's platform career. Mark was to lecture in the village in which Benton managed the lyceum. He particularly requested the young chairman not to introduce him to the audience. It was a little whim of his, he explained. They mounted the rostrum together, and Twain gazed for a few long moments at the audience. But at last he arose, and taking a semi-circular sweep to the left, and then proceeding to the front, opened something like this, "Ladies and Gentlemen: I -- have -- lectured -- many -- years -- and -- in -- many -- towns, -- large and small. I have traveled -- north -- south -- east -- and west. I -- have -- met -- many -- great -- men; very -- great -- men. But -- I -- have -- never -- yet -- in -- all -- my -- travels -- met -- the -- president -- of a -- country -- lyceum -- who -- could -- introduce -- me -- with that -- distinguished -- consideration -- which -- my -- merits -- deserve." After this deliverance, the house, which had stared at Benton for several minutes with vexed impatience, was convulsed at his expense.
Yet no sooner had Redpath printed circulars and arranged dates for Twain's appearance than the humorist balked. Under the date of May 10th, he wrote a characteristic letter.
This last decision to cease lecturing was permanent for nearly a year, and the entreaties of Redpath and others proved of no avail. Redpath meanwhile had found a new platform star, John B. Gough, and concerning him, Mr. Clemens wrote in the following January, this letter to Redpath:
After persevering persuasion on the part of Redpath, Mark Twain was preparing to talk once more to delighted audiences during 1871. On obtaining a definite promise from the humorist, Redpath began booking him for an extended Eastern tour, while the lecturer settled down to his work of preparing the lectures. On June 27, 1871, he wrote from Elmira:
The same day, evidently in the evening, he wrote a second letter to Redpath:
In July, Mr. Redpath wrote to Mark, telling him that he had booked him for a lecture in a Brooklyn church, and incidentally mentioned that his partner, Mr. Fall, was suffering from the effects of a carbuncle. Twain's reply was characteristic:
Four days later Redpath sent him news of further bookings, and to one engagement at least Mark demurred:
Mark Twain's uncertainty as to his lecture engagements, the final decision as to whether he wanted to lecture or not, and his unsettled condition of mind as to his future plans and movements were well illustrated in a very humorous letter written to Redpath, a month later. The letter reads:
In his next letter to Redpath he tells how to get sick just before an advertised appearance to lecture.
Among the earlier engagements of his lecture tour in 1871 was his appearance in Washington, upon which occasion he delivered for the first time a lecture on Artemus Ward. Writing to Redpath, he said:
The lecture on Artemus Ward evidently proved less satisfactory to the lecturer than his much condemned reminiscences, for in December he telegraphed as follows:
His reception in the Western and Central states pleased him so well that in a letter from Logansport, Indiana, he seemed thrilled with enthusiasm, and was apparently deeply in love with his platform life.
One never knows whether Mark is afoot or on horseback. In two weeks he had changed his mind again, and was begging for fewer engagements.
Matters were going from bad to worse. Redpath was using his best endeavors to keep Twain on the platform, while the humorist was pulling like an army mule in the other direction. In February he telegraphed to Redpath from Hartford:
"How in the name of God does a man find his way from here to Amherst and when must he start? Give me full particulars and send a man with me. If I had another engagement I would rot before I would fill it.
Summer came and Mark was glad the lecture season was over. Then he sailed for England to arrange for the European publication of his works, and successfully secured Chatto & Windus as his English representatives, and the publishing house of Tauchnitz, at Leipzig, as his continental agent. Already he was widely known and quoted in England, and was a welcome guest.
Mark tells a characteristic story, and at the same time comments upon the lecture business, in a letter written to Redpath in November.
While in London he lectured not infrequently, and with striking success. The Rev. H. R. Haweis, the literary critic, who heard him, writes:
"I heard him once at the Hanover Square rooms. The audience was not large nor very enthusiastic. I believe he would be an increasing success had he stayed longer. We had not time to become accustomed to his peculiar way, and there was nothing to take us by storm. He came on the platform and stood quite alone. A little table with the traditional water bottle and tumbler was by his side. His appearance was not impressive, and very unlike the representation of him in the various pictures in his 'Tramp Abroad.' He spoke more slowly than any other man I have ever heard, and did not look at his audience quite enough. I do not think that he felt altogether at home with us, nor we with him. We never laughed loud or long. We sat throughout expectant and on the qui vive, very well interested and gently simmering with amusement. With the exception of the exquisite description of the old Magdalen ivy-covered collegiate buildings at Oxford University, I do not think that there was one thing worth setting down in print. I got no information out of the lecture, and hardly a joke that would wear, or a story that would bear repeating. There was a story of the Mexican plug that bucked, and a duel which never came off, and another duel in which no one was injured, and we sat patiently enough through it fancying that by and by the introduction would be over and the lecture would begin, when Twain suddenly made his bow, and went off. It was over. I looked at my watch. I was never more taken aback. I had been sitting there exactly an hour and twenty minutes. It seemed ten minutes, at the outside. If you have ever tried to address a public meeting, you will know what this means. It means that Mark Twain is a consummate public speaker. If he ever chose to say anything, he would say it marvelously well, but in the art of saying nothing in an hour he surpasses our most accomplished parliamentary speakers."
Upon his return to America and to Elmira he found Mrs. Clemens ill, and consequently he telegraphed Redpath that he would not lecture again, and told his wife that there was not enough money in America to hire him to leave her for one day. He wrote Redpath that he might arrange a lecture tour later on, if Mrs. Clemens could accompany him. He appeared occasionally during the next few years in a few of the leading cities, but his decision to quit the platform was almost final.
Only once did he appear in public as a political speaker. As a conscientious Republican in his political preferences, Mr. Clemens took an active interest in the presidential campaign of 1880. While visiting in Elmira, New York, in the fall of that year, he made a short speech one Saturday night, introducing to a Republican meeting Gen. Hawley, of Connecticut. In the course of his remarks Mr. Clemens said:
"General Hawley is a member of my church at Hartford, and the author of 'Beautiful Snow.' Maybe he will deny that. But I am only here to give him a character from his last place. As a pure citizen, I respect him; as a personal friend of years, I have the warmest regard for him; as a neighbor, whose vegetable garden adjoins mine, I -- why, I watch him. As the author of 'Beautiful Snow,' he has added a new pang to winter. He is a square, true man in honest politics, and I must say he occupies a mighty lonesome position. So broad, so bountiful is his character that he never turned a tramp empty-handed from his door, but always gave him a letter of introduction to me. Pure, honest, incorruptible, that is Joe Hawley. Such a man in politics is like a bottle of perfumery in a glue factory -- it may moderate the stench, but it doesn't destroy it. I haven't said any more of him than I would say of myself. Ladies and gentlemen, this is General Hawley."
In 1884, Mr. Clemens and George W. Cable made a tour of the country, giving readings from their own works, under the management of Major Pond. Cordial receptions and crowded houses greeted them everywhere. Strong inducements had been offered him to lecture abroad, even so far away as Australia. In 1884 he consented to lecture in America for a period not exceeding five months.
In December Twain and Cable appeared in Cleveland. They arrived one afternoon and registered at the Forest City House. I called to pay my respects. Was Mr. Clemens in? Yes, but he had just eaten dinner, it then being 3 o'clock, and had gone to bed, not to be disturbed until 7 o'clock, excepting in case Mr. John Hay, the author of "Little Breeches," called. Mr. Clemens would see Mr. Hay, but no other human being could entice him from his bed. In the evening occurred the entertainment. Mr. Cable read passages from his novel, "Dr. Sevier." Mark Twain came upon the stage walking slowly, apparently in deep meditation. Those present saw a rather small man, with a big head, with bushy gray hair, heavy dark eyebrows, a receding chin, a long face, toothless gums visible between the lips, an iron-gray mustache, closely cut and stiff. The right hand involuntarily stroked the receding chin, and a merry twinkle came into his eyes, as he advanced to the front of the stage and began to recite, in his peculiar, drawling and deliberate way, "King Sollermun," taken from advance sheets of "Huckleberry Finn." When he had finished, he turned and boyishly ran off the stage, with a sort of dog trot. Then I remember that Mr. Cable came on, told us all about "Kate Riley" and "Ristofolo," and then, in imitation of Mark Twain, tried to run off the stage in the same playful manner. I remember also what a deplorable failure Mr. Cable made of the attempt, how his gentle trot reminded me of a duck going down hill, and how eventually he collided with one of the scenes, and lastly how the audience roared with laughter. Then Mark came forward again with his "Tragic Tale of the Fishwife," followed by Cable, who walked soberly now, like a Baptist deacon. Twain told us of "A Trying Situation," and finally concluded the entertainment with one of his inimitable ghost stories.
He is a good talker, and invariably prepares himself, though he skillfully hides his preparation by his method of delivery, which denotes that he is getting his ideas and phrases as he proceeds. He is an accomplished artist in his way. His peculiar mode of expression always seems contagious with an audience, and a laugh would follow the most sober remark. It is a singular fact that an audience will be in a laughing mood, when they first enter the lecture room; they are ready to burst out at anything and everything. In the town of Colchester, Connecticut, there was a good illustration of this, the Hon. Demshain Hornet having a most unpleasant experience at the expense of Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens was advertised to lecture in the town of Colchester, but for some reason failed to arrive. In the emergency the lecture committee decided to employ Mr. Hornet to deliver his celebrated lecture on temperance, but so late in the day was this arrangement made that no bills announcing it could be circulated, and the audience assembled, expecting to hear Mark Twain. No one in the town knew Mr. Clemens, or had ever heard him lecture, and they entertained the idea that he was funny, and went to the lecture prepared to laugh. Even those upon the platform, excepting the chairman, did not know Mr. Hornet from Mark Twain, and so, when he was introduced, thought nothing of the name, as they knew "Mark Twain" was a pen-name and supposed his real name was Hornet.
Mr. Hornet bowed politely, looked about him, and remarked, "Intemperance is the curse of the country." The audience burst into a merry laugh. He knew it could not be at his remark, and thought his clothes must be awry, and asked the chairman, in a whisper, if he was all right, and received "yes" for an answer. Then he said: "Rum slays more than disease!" Another, but louder laugh followed. He could not understand it, but proceeded: "It breaks up happy homes!" Still louder mirth. "It is carrying young men down to death and hell!" Then came a perfect roar of applause. Mr. Hornet began to get excited. He thought they were poking fun at him, but went on: "We must crush the serpent!" A tremendous howl of laughter. The men on the platform, except the chairman, squirmed as they laughed. Then Hornet got mad. "What I say is gospel truth," he cried. The audience fairly bellowed with mirth. Hornet turned to a man on the stage and said: "Do you see anything very ridiculous in my remarks or behavior?" "Yes, ha, ha! It's intensely funny -- ha, ha, ha! Go on!" replied the roaring man. "This is an insult," cried Hornet, wildly dancing about. More laughter, and cries of, "Go on, Twain!" Then the chairman began to see through a glass darkly, and arose and quelled the merriment, and explained the situation, and the men on the stage suddenly ceased laughing, and the folks in the audience looked sheepish, and they quit laughing too, and then the excited Mr. Hornet, being thoroughly mad, told them that he had never before got into a town so entirely populated with asses and idiots, and having said that, he left the hall in disgust, followed by the audience in deep gloom.
In Montreal, upon the occasion of Mark Twain's appearance in 1884, many Frenchmen were in the audience. This caused him to introduce into his lecture the following:
"Where so many of the guests are French, the propriety will be recognized of my making a portion of my speech in that beautiful language, in order that I may be partly understood. I speak French with timidity, and not flowingly, except when excited. When using that language, I have noticed that I have hardly ever been mistaken for a Frenchman, except, perhaps, by horses -- never, I believe, by people. I had hoped that mere French construction, with English words, would answer, but this is not the case. I tried it at a gentleman's house in Quebec, and it would not work. The maid-servant asked, 'What would monsieur?' I said, 'Monsieur So-and-so, is he with himself?' She did not understand. I said, 'Is it that he is still not returned to his house of merchandise?" She did not understand that, either. I said, 'He will desolate himself when he learns that his friend American was arrived, and he not with himself to shake him at the hand.' She did not even understand that; I don't know why, but she did not, and she lost her temper besides. Somebody in the rear called out, 'Qui est donc la? or words to that effect. She said, 'C'est un fou,' and shut the door on me. Perhaps she was right, but how did she ever find that out? For she had never seen me before that moment. But as I have already intimated, I will close this oration with a few sentiments in the French language. I have not ornamented them. I have not burdened them with flowers of rhetoric, for to my mind, that literature is best and most endearing which is characterized by a noble simplicity: J'ai belle bouton d'or de mon oncle, mais je n'ai pas celui du charpentier. Si vous avez le fromage du brave menuisier, c'est bon; mais si vous ne l'avez pas, ne vous desolez pas, prenez le chapeau de drap noir de son beau frere malade. Tout a l'heure! Savoir faire! Qu'est ce que vous dites! Pate de fois gras! Revenou a nos moutons! Pardon, messieurs, pardonnez moi; essayant a parler la belle langue d'Ollendorf strains me more than you can possibly imagine. But I mean well, and I've done the best I could.
Once when the late Richard Malcolm Johnston had been prevailed on to give a reading in Baltimore, Thomas Nelson Page volunteered to assist him. But a death in Mr. Page's family prevented him from appearing in the entertainment. Mark Twain heard of it. The people of Baltimore had long wanted to have Twain appear there, but he had steadfastly refused to resume his lectures. But he went on that occasion, for he appreciated the genius of Richard Malcolm Johnston, and, desiring to honor him, he left New York, at a great personal sacrifice, and appeared with him on that occasion. There was never such a crowded house in a Baltimore theatre. When the entertainment was over, Col. Johnston, with his accustomed fairness and courtesy, tendered Twain the bulk of the receipts.
"No," said Mark, "not one cent shall I receive. It is such a great honor to know a man like you that I am the one who owes you a debt of gratitude."
"Well," said the colonel, "at least let me defray your expenses."
"I have a through ticket," said Twain. "Good-by and God bless you!"
His last appearance in New York was during the winter of 1894, when he appeared at Madison Square Garden, with the late Bill Nye and James Whitcomb Riley. He had aged noticeably. The failure of his publishing firm in New York had told upon him in every way. His appearance on the platform at this time is best told in the words of a well-known journalist:
"And now comes dear old Mark. Those curly grayish locks, that drooping mustache, the half-closed eyes, the gentle expression of the mouth, almost melancholy, that historic dress suit, too, a relic of several decades ago. The waistcoat barely reached the trousers. Still there was a charming quaintness about him. His self-abnegatory way of speaking was more restful than the egotism of the other two. I took my eyes off him but once, and then it was to look on the veteran historian, Parke Godwin, who was sitting a few seats in front. There was a resemblance between the two more striking than the difference in their ages. Both show the same disregard for the prevailing fashion in dress that frequently suggests genius. The paths of these two lives have been widely divergent; there is little in common between the author of 'Tom Sawyer' and the historian of the French Revolution. But they are alike in that to either and to both one might apply the words of Homer:
'He was the friend of man,
"And now he begins his story. It is 'The Jumping Frog.' The sad expression begins to fade away, the half-closed eyes are opened wider and begin to twinkle; the point is reached and Twain has once more resumed the self-contemplative look and is again another Jacques."
His lecture tour of the world begun in 1895, under the management of Major Pond, was for a purpose to earn money with which to pay the debts of his publishing firm -- and all the world knows of his success in that grand endeavor.