Mark Twain bombed in a very big way when he poked fun at America’s most august literary lights during a 70th birthday party for John Greenleaf Whittier. He later said he was never in his life so miserable as he was on Dec. 17, 1877, when he delivered an after-dinner speech that fell flat.
Whittier had achieved fame and honor as one of the five Fireside Poets, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They had distinctly American voices, and they were called the Fireside Poets because their poems could be read and memorized by the whole family as they sat around the fire. Lowell, at 58, was the youngest of the group; Bryant, at 82, the oldest.
Twain had achieved fame as a fresh new voice from the West — too fresh, it turned out.
Mark Twain Bombed
The Atlantic Monthly hosted the dinner in part to showcase the intellectual and literary firepower of its contributors. The magazine had invited 58 distinguished writers. Holmes and Longfellow were there, as was the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, then 74 years old and suffering from dementia. The Boston Daily Advertiser called the assemblage “without doubt the most notable that has ever been seen in this country within four walls.”
Twain, who at 42 was much younger than the august group gathered before him, thought he’d have some good-natured fun at their expense. He launched into a story about a lonely old miner in southern California who’d been visited by three disreputable tramps: Mr. Emerson, Mr. Longfellow and Mr. Holmes. The miner described Emerson as “a seedy little bit of a chap, red-headed,” while Holmes was “as fat as a balloon” and Longfellow was “built like a prizefighter.”
Twain recounted how the poets quoted apposite selections from their own poetry at the miner, while drinking his whiskey and cheating at cards. “They swelled around the cabin and spouted,” said Twain. Then they fought and made the miner sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” In the end, he reveals the three tramps are imposters.
The humor lay in the pretensions of the drunken tramps. Mr. Holmes, for example, enters the shanty and exclaims, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!” When served whiskey, he exclaims, “Flash out a stream of blood-red wine.” The miner tells him he’ll drink his whiskey straight or he’ll go dry.
When the miner discovers the Longfellow imposter making off with his boots, he shouts, “Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?” Longfellow replied, “Going to make tracks with ’em; because:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
As Twain later told the story, 50 or 100 people attended the banquet.
“Mr. Emerson, supernaturally grave, unsmiling; Mr. Whittier, grave, lovely, his beautiful spirit shining out of his face; Mr. Longfellow, with his silken white hair and his benignant face; Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, flashing smiles and affection and all good-fellowship everywhere like a rose-diamond whose facets are being turned toward the light first one way and then another—a charming man, and always fascinating, whether he was talking or whether he was sitting still (what he would call still, but what would be more or less motion to other people).”
They listened with attentive interest, he wrote. After the first 200 words, Twain began to expect laughter, but heard none.
“Now, then, the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost. I wondered what the trouble was. I didn’t know.” He went on, he said, but with difficulty. In the end, he didn’t know enough to just give up and sit down.
His friend William Dean Howells also attended the dinner. Howells described the speech as “the amazing mistake, the bewildering blunder, the cruel catastrophe.”
“After the first two or three hundred words,” wrote Howell, “those Atlantic diners became petrified with amazement and horror. Too late, then, the speaker realized his mistake. He could not stop, he must go on to the ghastly end.”
Several days later, newspapers across the country reported on the speech. Many proclaimed it in bad taste. The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin claimed sales of Twain’s books had dropped off, and it was even suggested he moved up his planned departure for Europe to avoid the negative publicity.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union even weighed in, passing a resolution objecting to the number of boozy beverages served with the seven-course meal: Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret and Burgundy.
Smart and Humorous. Or Not.
Twain wrote in his autobiography that he tried to forget about the dinner for years. In 1906, an acquaintance he called “Mrs. H.” wrote to him about it, saying her family found humor in his story about the miner.
Twain dug the speech out of his files, and found it didn’t have a single defect.
“It is just as good as good can be,” he wrote. He called it “smart” and “saturated with humor.” “There isn’t a suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere,” he wrote.
Several days later, he looked at it again and called it “offensive and detestable.’ And then he reversed his opinion again.
Whatever it was, the speech was memorable. It is still, to this day, being discussed by scholars and historians.
This story last updated in 2022.
A genius born before his time.
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