Cable's Letters Home From the Road

[George Washington Cable wrote home to his wife Louise almost everyday during the tour, often scribbling notes on the backs of programs as he awaited his turn to perform. George W. Cable: His Life and Letters, by Lucy L.C. Bickle, George W. Cable, by Arlin Turner, and Mark Twain and George W. Cable, by Arlin Turner each include generous samplings from those letters. Cable's progress reports provide a delightful sense of immediacy, almost allowing us to overhear Twain's performances.]

1.-- Nov. 9, 1884; Providence

Yesterday's double duty did not hurt me at all. I never did my work before so brilliantly. You will be proud when I tell you that Mark & I seem to divide the honors as nearly even as two men well could. Mark seems greatly pleased with my work, as I am with his. As I came off the platform yesterday afternoon followed by a tremendous clatter of applause & he met me in the door as he was going to take my vacated place he exclaimed, "superb! superb!" Even Pond, sitting back at the rear of the house, applauded -- first time he has ever done it. One lady -- when I read "Mary's Night Ride," quite lost herself and wrung her hands hysterically.


2.--Nov. 21, 1884; on back of program for Association Hall, Philadelphia

Mark is on the platform, there goes a roar of applause! We have a superb audience--both in numbers & quality--& we are beating ourselves. Mark says as he passes me on the retiring room steps "Old boy, you're doing nobly."

Somehow I struck a new streak yesterday evening at Newburgh. We had a little audience & no end of fun. They kept calling us back--There goes another round of applause. The laughter is almost continual & even my milder humor is interrupted with laughter & applause. There they go again! The hall is a large one with two large balconies reaching twice around from stage & full to the ceiling. Men standing thick in the back of the house.

I thought you'd like to get just one letter from me from the lecture hall, so here it is. There they go again! ... I closed because Mark was finishing, but they have called him back & he is reading the Investment of Fourteen Dollars, the same I told you of ...


3.--Nov. 26, 1884; Philadelphia

... I wrote you last in Wash'n. I didn't tell you that I met Fred. Douglass. He came into the retiring room & was there when the President was there. They met as acquaintances. Think of it! A runaway slave!

Mark is on the stage reading (reciting) his "Desperate Encounter with an Interviewer," and the roars of laughter fall as regularly as a surf. I think it 's a great thing to be able to hold my own with so wonderful a platform figure.


4,--Nov. 28, 1884; Baltimore

I am again in the retiring room. Mark is making the house roar as only a Southern audience can. It is an immense house too, although the rain has poured all day long.


5.--Dec. 3, 1884; en route between Albany & Ithaca

We had 1400 hearers at Troy. Mark was half sick with a cold -- hoarse and weak-voiced, and compared with Balt/o & Wash/n the evening's success was feeble; but the audience thought it was great. Mary's Night Ride had to go without an encore at last. But it wasn't my fault and it was the hit of the evening. The Ghost Story (Mark's) fell almost flat by reason of persons (2 or 3) rising in the audience just at the critical moment. It was outrageous & I don't wonder M.T. came off the platform angry. . . . We were given a nice little supper & got to bed at the neat hour of two o'clock, with Mark at peace under the influence of our solemn pledge to each other henceforth to stop our reading and poke unmerciful fun at any one who dares to rise in the audience while we are speaking. It is our only defense against this double imposition on the audience and us.


6.--Dec. 8, 1884; Toronto

Such a time as we are having! Such roars of British applause. I never heard anything like it out of N. Orleans. . . . We are in a big glass Horticultural Hall with people so far away at the bottom of the audience that their features can hardly be discerned. . . .

When I go back upon the platform again (in a moment) I have to sing my 2 or 3 Creole songs. I always shrink from this, the only thing I do shrink from; though it's always encored.


7.--Dec. 11, 1884; Buffalo

Last night we had great fun. For a week past we have been introducing one another on the platform in our opening numbers, simply saying, "Ladies and gent/n allow me to introduce to you, --------------." But last evening to my astonishment Mark launched out into a burlesque introduction that filled the house with laughter; but I was [in] luck nevertheless, for just at the end of his little speech he really without intention betrayed a little opening in his harness and in went my dagger and the laugh was turned upon him in a torrent. The whole evening was a great success from a literary standpoint; but the house was not full. Yet there were many hundred present and they had an uproarious time. "Mary's Night Ride" went off with its usual, and even more than its usual, effect. As I said "And they made it!" a big man in the front row of seats jumped in his chair and holloed out "good!" so loudly that he was heard all over the house.


8.--Dec. 15, 1884, Toledo

Our experience with such [apathetic] houses is that I lift them a little with my first number, then [MT] lifts them from that stage a little higher, then with my 2/d number I lift them to a third elevation & with his 2/d no. (being the 4th) he gets them into a good strong glow. I am happy to see it is working just so now, after all. If he can get an encore from them on this we shall have them to the end without any trouble.

There! Mark gets the call back twice over. Now we're all right. It will be encores right through to the end.


9.--Dec. 31, 1884; Dayton

I told you in last night's letter that we had a good time in Pittsburgh; & so we did. Not the best sort, however. We pleased our audience thoroughly & it was a large & cultivated audience. The newspapers, however, must have taken some grudge against us; for they made offensive reports of the affair.


10.--Jan. 1, 1885; Paris

We have just finished a delightful evening on the platform before a hearty, quick-wiited audience that laughed to tears and groans at Mark's fun & took my more delicate points before I could fairly reach them.

I have a little bunch of flowers given me by a young lady of the Clay family. Many persons crowded round us after the entertainment. All this was particularly pleasing to me inasmuch as this is a Southern town & the two feelings which I always have to encounter in Southern towns were present & evident here. A ball was given in opposition.


11.--Jan. 5, 1885; en route between Cincinnati & Louisville

We hardly had time to eat & dress for the platform. The hall is a new one, called Odeon. I stepped upon the stage at 8/05, the audience seeming to be about all in; but I had hardly begun offering a few words of preliminary explanation when the incoming of people grew so troublesome from their number that I stopped and said that as there were almost as many people standing as there were sitting, I would sit down a moment and let the aisles empty into the chairs. There was instant applause. I sat down & fully 200 people came in and found their seats. It seems the severity of the cold in some way caused the street cars to be in some way impotent.

When I rose again and said this was the first time I had ever attempted to read to a procession, there was great laughter & applause & my first number went off with the happiest effect. . . .

It is a great mistake to suppose that these little accidents embarrass a ready-witted speaker; they are windfalls & can almost always be turned to good account, putting the audience into familiar sympathy with him. That is, when they are not serious matters. Four times, now, it has happened that a lady had to be carried out, ill, & every time it has been during my reading of Mary's Ride; not attributable to it, but that being near the end of our two hours, the room warm & the air bad. It happened this time.

The other night, in Hamilton, O., a man with creaking shoes stalked out of the hall in the midst of one of Mark's numbers. You know I told you we had decided to give any such person's a shot across his bows. So Mark calls out in the most benevolent & persuasive tone, "Take your shoes off, please; take your shoes off" -- to the great delight of the applauding audience.


12.--Jan. 17, 1885; Chicago

. . .We have just finished our last reading in Chicago; one of the greatest successes, if not the very greatest, artistic and pecuniary success of our season. The thermometer is 4 below and falling. The snow crunches and rings as though it were some powdered metal.

Ah! what an effect we did have tonight. Clemens's story of Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer liberating runaway [Jim] was received with a continual tempest of merriment, and when I gave "A Sound of Drums" I saw persons in tears all over the house. I was called back twice after my Creole songs and twice after "Mary's Night Ride." Mark & I both seemed especially inspired tonight & to inspire each other ...

... I have not told you about our evening in Burlington, Iowa. Clemens lingered behind at Keokuk to see his aged mother--from whose fine aged face he gets all his own best lines--and was to reach Burlington just in time for the reading. But the snow storm was tremendous, his train was dreadfully belated and I had to lift a stone-dead audience out of the grave, as it were, and put life & mirth into them & keep their spirits rising for an hour & a half all alone. I did it, however, & when Clemens came into the house at 9/35 my work was much more than done & he had an enthusiasm to start on. I was proud of the job...


13.--Jan. 29, 1885; Milwaukee

I have just come off the platform after reading "A Sound of Drums." Don't think I ever read it quite so well & there seemed to be a profound effect; but somehow it didn't show itself in applause to the extent I thought it would. At least I was not called back. But indeed I don't often get the 1st encore; that generally falls to Mark; but once they begin they keep it up right through.

Mark is on one of his best things now -- marked * on the back of this [the "King Sollermun" selection] & will surely be called back. I hear the ladies laughing at the tops of their voices, & whenever they do that the encore is certain to come. . . .

Now here is the strangest thing! A house full of people, seemingly highly entertained but feeble in their final applauses. Mark was not called back & I, following, was so feebly encored that I did not feel justified in doing more than bowing. Fact is Mark is under a cloud tonight -- feels it, confesses it, but cannot explain it. He doesn't take hold of his hearers and swing them as usual. There! he gets it at last. Even now it came as a kind of after thought from the audience after they had entirely ceased clapping. But it came good and heartily.

Strongest, heartiest kind of a reception to "Mary's Ride." Now Mark is on to finish; but I know he is going to come off wringing his hands with vexation. Fact is our hard railroad travel is telling on us -- has let out -- slackened -- our nerves. Queerly, but truly, we feel it most after a partial resting spell. . . . The clock strikes ten. The end is only a few moments away. Finis. Mark explains it all. He had a warm bath an hour before the reading. He'll never take another.


14.--Jan. 30, 1885, Rockford

I am reminded by something Mark is saying, of what a fine instinctive art he has for the platform. He has worked & worked incessantly on these programmes until he has effected in all of them -- there are 3 -- a gradual growth of both interest & humor so that the audience never has to find anything less, but always more, entertaining than what precedes it. He says, "I don't want them to get tired out laughing before we get to the end." The result is we have always a steady crescendo ending in a double climax. My insight into his careful, untiring, incessant labors are an education ... There! It does me good to hear them call him back at the place where the encores generally begin, instead of letting him go as they did in Milwaukee last night.


15.--Feb. 3, 1885; Chicago

Mark is telling one of his very best numbers & the old surf-roar is booming. They will encore every number to the end.

Ah! what a noble applause calls Mark back, continuing until he has returned entirely back across the broad platform to the footlights.

Funny thing just now. I had been out & sung two Creole songs & on retiring the applause died down & Mark in his nervous way stepping out on the platform a little too promptly was met by a patterning encore intended for the singer. It was awkward for him, but he was equal to the emergency. He stood still a moment, then said in the drollest way imaginable -- "I'll go back and get him" -- At which there was a roar of laughter & applause in the midst of which he came back to make his word good. Of course I would not go, so he went back and raised another laugh, saying, "He's sung all he knows" -- and went on with "The Jumping Frog," which is getting a superb reception.


16.--Feb. 8, 1885; Indianapolis

In the matinee I had a hard time and did what I, at least, knew to be poor work; & yet I had one pleasure; for, for the first time in my life, I heard an applause follow me off the platform that was entirely the clapping of ladies' hands. I never saw men so scarce in an audience before. The sound was very sweet to the ear of a weary, brainsick man.

At night I feared I should not get through the performance at all; but, bless you, I hadn't been on the platform 2 minutes before I saw I was going to do the very best work; & in fact did render Raoul's two scenes (in The Grandissimes) better than I'd ever done them before in my life. As to Mary's Ride the applause was tremendous. I saw one lady in the middle of the house sit & cry all through it.


17.--Feb. 12, 1885; en route between Oberlin & Detroit

Strange to say I went to the work fresh & bright & from the very start did, by verdict of all, the finest evening's reading thus far in my experience. ... Clemens, on the contrary, found himself as heavy as lead--I mean in his own consciousness, and although the audience showed some heartiness of appreciation while he was before them, yet he came off disheartened, vexed & full of lamentations over his condition.

On my 2d number I instantly shot ahead of any rendering I have ever made of it. I was full of new inspirations, was interrupted early with applause, and when I came to where Ristofalo puts his arm around Kate they would not let me go any farther but drowned in applause my repeated efforts to proceed & when I finally got the better of them & went on, it was, so to speak, through breakers of laughter and applause ...

Clemens met me behind the door with pantomimic expressions of amazement & was about to go on for his turn, when a rush of applause called me back. I went, but excused myself in an impromptu remark or two, as I wanted Mark to get back & redeem himself without delay & knew he as nearly sick to do so. As I came off once more I saw intense gratification on his face.--"That was the most gracefully said," he exclaimed, and went out on the platform.

But still he rolled in the trough of the sea. The audience was greatly pleased--full of laughter; but I knew, even by their limited demonstration & he knew most painfully that he was way below par. However, he was called back, told his drollest yarn, and captured them at last. But if I had been in bad condition, too, we should have had the dreariest night of the season.

My songs were encored--There, now, I believe I'm wrong; I think Mark was not called back until after his 3d piece. He felt his deficiency the most distressingly because the previous night he had been nearly as bad. However, he began at length to rally. ...

In the midst of the story a comical thing occurred. At the point where the negro guide speaks his loud whispered goodbye to Mary & the spy, saying "I feared you gwine fo'git it, boss," in the midst of the death-like stillness which always reigns throughout the house just then, a black man, sitting behind me in a sort of choir loft all alone & in sight of every one, recognized the mimicked African enunciation and the old southern title of respect, let go a suppressed but loud titter of the purest Ethiopian character, and its character as well as its irrelevancy brought down the house. Yet it rather helped than hindered me, and when I came to the fierce thrilling end I knew by every symptom, both inward & outward, that I had done the best bit of reading I had ever done in my life.

In response to the encore I excused myself--Mark never objects to my declining an encore--& read a little note that had come in while Mark was on the platform, asking him to read the story of the "Golden Arm." So then he came out and read it & did it well & was called back & did another thing and did it his very best & so the evening ended, and presently the retiring room was full of new friends.


18.--Feb. 27, 1885; Philadelphia

. . . last night Mark & I stood before an audience of about 3000 people in the beautiful Academy of Music here. It was the finest sight I have ever looked at from the platform. And I had great success. As to Mark his was not up to high water mark though -- excuse me, the pun was accidental -- he created much enthusiasm. I don't see what is the matter with him except that he seems tired out.


19.--March 2, 1885; Washington, D.C.

Spent a long, good day yesterday with Carrie Henderson & her husband Lieut. Wadhams. Clemens was with us. I got him out to church at last!


SOURCES: 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19 -- Mark Twain and George W. Cable: The Record of a Literary Friendship, by Arlin Turner (Michigan State Univ. Press, 1960);
2, 3, 12, 15 -- George Washington Cable: His Life and Letters, by Lucy L. C. Bickle (New York: Scribners', 1928);
8, 14, 17 -- George Washington Cable: A Biography, by Arlin Turner (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1966)

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