The Albany Evening Journal

1871: November 29

Mark Twain on Artemus Ward.

Tweddle Hall was crowded to its utmost capacity last evening to hear Mark Twain discourse on Artemus Ward. The lecturer introduced himself as Charles F. Clemens, and explained that he preferred to present himself to his audience, rather than have that duty performed by another -- "for in case I introduce myself I am sure to get in all the facts of my history." This odd commencement put the audience in good humor, and induced the fit mood for the proper enjoyment of what followed. What followed was sustantially to this effect:

My lecture is about Artemus Ward, who was one of the great humorists of our age. When I first started out on this missionary tour it was my intention to touch in my lecture upon a number of the other uncommonplace characters that I have met -- Bunyan, Martin Luther, Milton and a few others; but I find that to mention all these old fellows, the companions of my childish hours, takes a great deal too much time, and, therefore, I confine myself to the single great man whom I have named. It is my purpose to show that Artemus Ward was America's greatest humorist, not manufactured or bogus, but a born humorist, and I will give you a skeleton outline -- I have not time for more -- of his life. In this outline I shall not load you down with historic facts to such an extent that you will be unable to get home with them, nor will I even make for you any of my philosophical deductions. This last promise is, on my part, a sacrifice, for I admire my philosophic deductions as I admire few other things on earth. Strange as it may seem, I have always found that the effect produced by them upon an audience was that of intense and utter exasperation.

Artemus was a humorist from the cradle to the grave. We cannot, indeed, go back to his cradle, but very early in life we find him perpetrating a witticism. The circumstances were these: -- He and his cousin had acquired a great love for card-playing, and their surroundings being violently opposed to cards the boys were forced to indulge in their favorite amusement on the sly. An old silk gown, belonging to a Baptist Minister, who rarely appeared at their house, was the receptacle -- considered a most safe one -- for the cards when not in use. The minister appeared of a sudden one day, and before the boys could get ready for him he had put on his gown and gone down to a little stream to baptise some converts. The consequence was as the minister went down the cards came up, and the boys, with an admiration at a good hand, which rose above the tenor of the occasion, saw two bowers and one ace lying on the top of the water. The horrified minister was duly mortified at the circumstance, Artemus and his cousin were duly punished, and best of all an old aunt undertook to bring the boys to a realizing sense of the enormity of their conduct. "Why," said she, "just see the dreadful position in which the minister down there in the water was placed through your disgraceful conduct. Indeed, for my part, I wonder he made out to get out at all." Artemus, remembering the cards he saw floating, replied to his aunt, "well, for my part, considering his hand, I don't see how he could very well help getting out."

Artemus Ward's real name, as most of you are probably aware, was Charles F. Browne. He was born in Waterford, Me., in 1834. His personal appearance was not like that of most Maine men. He looked like a glove-stretcher. His hair, red and brushed well forward at the sides, reminded one of a divided flame. His nose rambled on aggressively before him, with all the strength and determination of a cow-catcher, while his red moustache -- to follow out the simile -- seemed not unlike the unfortunate cow. He was of Puritan descent, and prided himself not a little on being derived from that stern old stock of people, who had left their country and home for the sake of having freedom on a foreign shore to enjoy their own religion, and, at the same time, to prevent other folks from enjoying theirs. [Laughter.] I don't know whether it is treasonable to speak in this way about those reverend old chaps, the Pilgrim Fathers. I am a Puritan Father myself, at least I am descended from one. One of my ancestors cut a conspicuous figure in the "Boston massacre," fighting first on one side and then on the other. He wasn't a man to stand foolin' round while a massacre was goin' on. Why, to hear our family talk, you'd think that not a man named anything but Twain was in that massacre -- and when you came to hear all about it you'd wish that such was the case. [Laughter.] Then I had another ancestor in the battle of Bunker Hill. He was everything, that ancestor of mine was -- killed, wounded, and missing. He was a prompt, business-like fellow, and to make sure of being the last of the three he did it first of all -- did it well, too -- he was prompt that way -- before a shot was fired. [Laughter.] Why, I could stand here for a week and tell you of my distinguished ancestors, and I think I'll do it. On second thoughts I think I won't, but go back to my subject.

Ward never had any regular schooling; he was too poor to afford it, for one thing, and too lazy to care for it for another. He had an intense ingrained dislike for work of any kind; he even objected to see other people work, and on one occasion went so far as to submit to the authorities of a certain town an invention to run a tread-mill by steam. Such a notion could not have originated with a hard-hearted man. Ward was a dutiful son, and his first act, when money began to come in on him from his lectures, was to free from incumbrance the old homestead in his native town and settle it upon his aged mother.

Besides having wit, and brilliant scintillations of happy fancies, Artemus possessed genuine humor. He once took an old Queen Anne musket and loaded it according to directions given by a hired man. The directions were, put in a handful of powder or so, a handful of bullets or so, a handful of nails or so. Ward did as he was told, only he had to take out a few of the bullets to make room for the nails. The gun being loaded, the boy went into the woods to shoot it off, but, soon as his hand got to the trigger, his courage failed, and finally he came home with the gun unfired, and handed it in that state to his father. The father sighted a sapling and let drive. The result was a small earthquake. Soon as the old gentleman, after being laid up for a week, could call his son to account, he propounded the inquiry, "Why did you not tell me the condition in which that gun was?" "I was going to," said Artemus, "but I thought perhaps you'd find it out yourself."

His first literary venture was type-setting, in the office of the old Boston Carpet-Bagger, to which John G. Saxe, Shillaber, (Mrs. Partington) and other leading wits were then contributing, and for that paper he wrote his first squib. He tried every branch of writing, even going so far as to send to the Smithsonian Institute -- at least so he himself said -- an essay entitled "Is Cats to be Trusted?" He soon tired of settled life and poor pay in Boston and wandered off over the country to better his fortune, obtaining a position in Cleveland as a reporter at $12 per week. It was while in Cleveland that he wrote his first badly spelled article, signing it "Artemus Ward." He did not think much of it at the time of writing it, but it gave him a start that speedily sent him to the top of the ladder without touching a single rung.

It was not so very long after receiving that salary that we find him the recipient of $1,600 in gold an hour paid him in California for one lecture. He represented in Artemus Ward an obscure showman having much of a certain low cunning and shrewdness, a good hand at a story, always ready to turn an honest or a dishonest penny, and whose mission was dollars. In the full tide of his success Ward left Cleveland and going to New York assumed the editorship of "Vanity Fair," a comic weekly, just then in a languishing condition. Settled employment, however, did not suit him, and he soon started out on his first lecture tour. The success of this new employment, although not great at first, soon exceeded his most sanguine expectations, and he adopted it as a permanent profession. When he went to England his reception was of the nature of an ovation. It is said that for each of his articles contributed to Punch he received $600. His panoramic exhibitions in Egyptian Hall were a grand success, drawing night after night immense crowds to witness them.

Some of the best things attributed to Artemus Ward were not his. Indeed, his celebrated expression, "It would be ten dollars in Jeff. Davis' pocket if he had never been born," I found in an English author who wrote some fifty years ago. Pounds were substituted for dollars, and some other name appeared in the place of Jeff. Davis. Again, in one of his lectures Ward used to say that to be attached to anything did not argue good feeling toward it, for he knew of a horse being attached to a dray and yet being down on that dray. A Western journalist told me that this witticism was not original with Artemus Ward, but that he himself was the author of it.

But, in spite of this, Ward must not be regarded as a plagiarist. It is possible for a man to write what he thinks is a creation, but which is in fact only a memory; and it is also possible for two minds at different times to happen on the same idea. Holmes bears witness to this in the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." I myself have written what I thought was my own -- have imagined that I have created something clever and really good, and found out afterwards that the whole thing had been filched from me years and years before by Josephus.

The lectures which Ward delivered with so much success all over the country were without form or consistency or sequence. His first one he called "The Babes in the Woods," but "My Seven Grandmothers" -- the name he originally intended to give it -- would have been equally appropriate for anything there was in the lecture. His success as a lecturer depended even more on the manner than on the matter. His inimitable way of pausing and hesitating, of gliding in a moment from seriousness to humor without appearing to be conscious of so doing, cannot be reproduced, so that many of his best things read flat and tame in consequence. In England Ward was heartily received, and his efforts to please were very successful, but the climate of cold and fog seemed to have the effect of eating away his life, and although he struggled hard he had to relinquish his avocation. When he knew that he must die, his only desire was to get home, but this was denied him. He got as far as Southampton, but his physician peremptorily forbid his attempting the sea voyage, and at Southampton, on the 6th of March, 1867, in the thirty-fourth year of his age, he died.

Mr. Clemens concluded his lecture by repeating with much feeling the following tribute to the great humorist, which appeared originally in the Spectator:

Is he gone to the land of no laughter,
    This man that made mirth for us all?
Proves death but a silence hereafter
    From the sounds that delight or appal?
Once closed, have the lips no more duty,
    No more pleasure the exquisite ears;
Has the heart done o'erflowing with beauty,
    As the eyes have with tears?

Nay, if aught be sure, what can be surer
    That the Earth's good decays not with Earth?
And of all the heart's springs none are purer,
    Than the springs of the fountains of mirth.
He that sounds them has pierced the heart's hollows,
    The place where tears are and sleep;
For the foam-flakes that dance in life's shallows
    Are wrung from life's deep.

He came with a heart full of gladness,
    From the glad-hearted world of the West,
Won our laughter, but not with mere madness,
    Spake and joked with us, not in mere jest;
For the pain in our heart lingered after,
    When the merriment died from our ears,
And those that were loudest in laughter
    Are silent in tears.