Birthday Party Brouhaha

Mark Twain's infamous toast rocked the sensibilities of Boston's Brahmin establishment.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2008, Volume 29, Number 6

The most memorable event for Mark Twain in 1877 should have been his second visit to Bermuda, this time in the welcome company of his “pastor” Joe Twichell. Twain had made a brief first visit there a decade earlier at the tail end of the Quaker City cruise, which had become the basis for The Innocents Abroad (1869). His second visit in May would set in motion a pattern of returning there numerous times throughout his life, particularly in his final years, for the island reminded him of his happy childhood in the Mississippi Valley as well as his time in the paradise he had found in Hawai'i. But for sheer biographical importance, this particular Bermuda interlude is easily overshadowed by the failure, both imagined and real, of his speech at the Atlantic Monthly’s seventieth birthday dinner for John Greenleaf Whittier on December 17.

We remember it today as Twain’s speech about three drunks named “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson & Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes,” who invade the cabin of a miner in the foothills of California. The dinner involved fifty-eight distinguished male writers of the day. Women were invited only to the after-dinner speeches that began at 10:15, when the doors were opened to a select public. The diners included not only this noble trinomial of literary saints—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—but also largely forgotten writers such as Charles Dudley Warner and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose work was typical of what we would now call the age of William Dean Howells, who by century’s end had become known as the “Dean of American Letters.” The ex-Westerner was also there that evening as editor of the Atlantic, by then—it was thought—thoroughly scrubbed of his Ohio backwoods odor. In a description the following day in the New York Evening Post, George Parsons Lathrop, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son-in-law, made the gathering sound like something out of James Russell Lowel’s A Fable for Critics (1848) without the friendly satire: “Here robust and cheerful, with an expression of richly courteous dignity, stands Longfellow, a white-haired Hyperion. There, Emerson, himself beyond seventy, but to all seeming wonderfully well and wearing that incurious but searching inquiry which in a company like [this] gives him the air of one who does not suspect his own fame.” The article named the most prominent writers present, including Whittier himself, “quietly talking with a group of friends at one side of the room” in the east dining hall of the Hotel Brunswick in Boston.

The dinner began sharply at 7:00 P.M. Its seven courses were washed down with Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret, and Burgundy—objected to the following day in a formal resolution by the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Such lubrication must have placed more than a few of the auditors in an alcoholic haze that has perhaps forever compromised the accounts of how Mark Twain was actually received that evening. According to Henry Nash Smith, who has written the fullest account of the evening and its aftermath, “Henry O. Houghton [publisher of the Atlantic] made a short address of welcome and introduced Whittier as guest of honor. Whittier excused himself from speaking and asked Longfellow to read a sonnet, ‘Response,’ composed by Whittier for the occasion. Houghton then introduced Howells as toastmaster, and Howells introduced Emerson, who . . . recited Whittier’s ‘Ichabod.’”

Howells himself made a short speech, Holmes read a new poem of his own, and Charles Eliot Norton responded to a toast to Lowell, who was absent as minister to Spain. Howells then read letters from those dignitaries unable to attend, after which he introduced Twain. This wasn’t actually Twain’s first appearance as a speaker at an Atlantic dinner, and that may have been part of the problem. He had attended and spoken briefly at an Atlantic dinner on December 15, 1874, following by a month the appearance in the journal of “A True Story,” a touching piece about the reunion of a slave mother and her son during the Civil War. Because of his perceived success mainly as a humorist (at the 1874 dinner he spoke somewhat impromptu on “The President of the United States [Grant] and the Female Contributors” to the Atlantic), he was expected this time to give a performance in line with his recent Atlantic pieces, not just “A True Story,” but the “Old Times on the Mississippi” pieces of 1875. Even his latest book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was a lighthearted tale ostensibly written for children. In other words, he was expected to offer safe comic relief to a program laden with high seriousness and deep sentiment.

To those fifty-eight writers, Howells perhaps excluded because of his own unconscious fear of being an outsider, Mark Twain may have represented anarchy. During his turn at the podium, Twain proceeded to characterize Emerson as “a seedy little bit of a chap,” Holmes as “fat as a balloon,” and Longfellow as having the physical build of “a prize-fighter.” Smith concludes his lengthy analysis of the dinner with the suggestion that the speech “expressed a deep-seated conflict” on Twain’s part regarding the literary Brahmins of New England. Another literary executor of the Twain estate and lifetime student of Mark Twain’s, Bernard DeVoto, even theorizes that The Innocents Abroad had possibly been a burlesque of Longfellow’s travel books.

Black and white headshot of Mark Twain
Photo caption

Mark Twain in London, 1907, the year Oxford awarded him a D. Litt.

Courtesy, Mac Donnell Rare Books, Austin, Texas

In the speech Mark Twain recalled a time thirteen years earlier when, having stirred up “a little Nevadian puddle” himself, he had decided to test his newly won nom de guerre at the cabin of a miner, not far from Yosemite. “Standing here on the shore of the Atlantic and contemplating certain of its literary billows,” Twain spoke of three inebriated prospectors who under the pseudonyms of Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes had visited the cabin on the previous evening. In the story within the story, we learn that these three miners cheat at cards and threaten to brawl until their host falls asleep. He wakes just in time to spot the three miners leaving his cabin. Longfellow, who is making off with the host’s only set of boots, is called out as “Evangeline.” The fraud impersonating that century's leading poet then answers with the following lines from Longfellow’s most famous poem, “A Psalm of Life”:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

Twain was performing as he was expected to—having some good fun with some sacred verses, lines of poetry that he apparently knew very well, if not by heart. (See the full text of his speech following this article.)

William Henry Bishop followed him on the speaker’s dais. Today, his name is completely forgotten, but in 1877 he was a promising author and one of Howells’s protégés. His first romance, entitled Detmold, was just beginning its serialization in the Atlantic. Twain recalled in a chapter from his autobiography published in the North American Review in December 1907 that the faces of his auditors that evening, as he completed his own performance, had the “expression faces would have worn if I had been making these remarks about the Deity and the rest of the Trinity.” Yet such remarks about “the rest of the Trinity” had already been literally made long ago in Emerson’s own “Divinity School Address” of 1838, after which he had become persona non grata at Harvard for more than thirty years. Only in recent years had Emerson, one of Twain’s alleged victims that evening, been hailed as a member of the (literary) godhead. Twain recalled or claimed that the shock of his address was so severe that his successor at the speaker’s platform lost all composure and could not complete his address. Having “burst handsomely upon the world with a most acceptable novel,” Twain noted in his autobiography, Bishop crumbled. “He was facing those awful deities . . . with a speech to utter. No doubt it was well packed away in his memory, no doubt it was fresh and usable, until I had been heard from.”

In fact, Bishop didn’t lose his composure at the Whittier birthday dinner, as Twain remembered in his autobiography, but delivered his speech as planned. Furthermore, the rest of the speeches went forward as well. The Post the next day in its report of the dinner did not even mention Twain’s speech, while the Boston Globe of the same date noted that it had “produced the most violent bursts of hilarity.” The negative response emerged a couple of days later. Once the Boston Transcript pronounced the speech “in bad taste,” similar newspaper verdicts followed. And for Twain, this reaction was also probably fueled by Howells’s statement to him in a letter on Christmas Day that “every one with whom I have talked about your speech regards it as a fatality.” At Howells’s suggestion, Twain sent letters of apology to Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow, all of whom (with the possible exception of Emerson) quickly dismissed the speech as generally harmless and even entertaining. Gradually, Twain forgave himself as “God’s fool,” and a few weeks later even told his friend Mary Fairbanks that it was one of the funniest things he had ever written. Even later—almost twenty-nine years after the event, in 1906—his social secretary Isabel V. Lyon recorded in her diary that even though Twain took the blame for the Whittier speech in his autobiography, he was privately, in her words, “chuckling with delight over the speech. . . . ‘Oh [he exclaimed], it will do to go into print before I die’ and the couch [shook] with him and his laughter.” He subsequently insisted on reading the Whittier speech to Lyon, word for word.

Some still insist that it was funny. Certainly, it is at least as entertaining today as the Jumping Frog story that first made him famous, particularly in the way that Twain sets New England’s best known verse against the arid landscape of the gold and silver mines of California. But while poets like Whitman were being parodied constantly for their experimental verse, writers like Longfellow, Holmes, and Emerson were by then considered sacrosanct. Yet it wasn’t the poets themselves who objected, but their admirers. Apparently, neither Longfellow nor Holmes took offense. Longfellow responded on January 6, 1878, to Twain’s apology by saying he was “a little troubled, that you should be so much troubled about a matter of such slight importance.” He added, “The newspapers have made all the mischief.” And initially the newspapers had supported Longfellow and Holmes’s favorable impression of Twain’s speech. The next day, the Boston Globe noted: “Mr. Longfellow laughed and shook, and Mr. Whittier seemed to enjoy it keenly.”

Only Emerson, it said, appeared “a little puzzled about it.” We now know that by this time he was entering a phase of dementia, and this condition may have come into play here. But, if fully alert, he too wouldn’t have minded Twain’s joke at his expense. The author of “The Comic” knew, as he wrote in that essay, that man was “the only joker in nature” because he alone possessed an appreciation of incongruity, which is at the heart not only of humor, but the challenge of nature itself as an emblem of God or the Oversoul. In other words, we became grotesque and the object of humor, the transcendentalist decreed, when we fell out of harmony with nature. In fact, if any Emerson was offended, it was his daughter Ellen, one of the many admirers of these School Room poets and New England Brahmins. In answering for her father, Ellen Emerson, who had become his secretary and constant companion at his lectures and other public events, responded (exclusively to Mrs. Clemens, incidentally) that the Emerson family was disappointed since “we have liked almost everything we have ever seen over Mark Twain’s signature.” In other words, they had appreciated him merely as a humorist. Twain, in spite of his real or simulated contrition about the speech, must have found Ellen Emerson’s condescending letter as galling as Whitman, another vernacular writer associated with Emerson, would find her brother Edward’s slight of him in Emerson in Concord (1889). Yet Twain had recently put away the manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after running out of gas, as he often put it, and he was having a hell of a time as a writer—so low at that point that he couldn’t even have insisted that Concord take him for anything except a clown.

Whitman had been an object of scorn to the Emerson family ever since 1855 for twice publishing without permission the Concord philosopher’s famous letter of greeting to the poet “at the beginning of a great career.” First he had it published in the New York Tribune of October 10. Then, as if this liberty were not sufficiently offensive, the poet copied (and answered) it in an appendix to his 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass and plastered its most prominent clause in gold letters on the spine of his book. Not only Emerson’s family but also his many friends and acquaintances were outraged. Yet Emerson said nothing at the time. He even struck his “tasks,” as he promised Whitman in the letter, and visited him in Brooklyn. Had he been in possession of his full faculties in 1877, he no doubt would have responded as nobly as Longfellow and Holmes did. It wasn’t the great writers, but their New England audience that was so protective of its culture and so fearful of the barbarism of the West and western ideologies like that of Whitman, who, though he lived in the East, was anti-New England in many ways. This group of writers, it is sad to say, included Howells, who maintained throughout his life that his friend had “trifled” with the personalities of the great on that bedeviled December evening.

The question remains as to why Twain publicly subscribed to the view of his speech in the North American Review as scandalous, while privately rejoicing in it. As noted, he had defended the speech to Mrs. Fairbanks shortly after the event. The answer may be that Twain did not want to openly disagree with his friend Howells’s interpretation. The editor of the Atlantic had given The Innocents Abroad one of its strongest reviews, and he had become Twain’s close friend and literary colleague since then. Moreover, the rather pompous North American Review in 1907 that published his account of the Whittier dinner probably wouldn’t have published any other view. But Twain also knew when something was truly funny, and to protect himself in perpetuity he included in that December article a copy of the 1877 speech with only slight and insignificant minor changes. He knew that the best humor had to be irreverent, but also that that irreverence, as the basis of humor, couldn’t ever be personal or spiteful. That made it merely local and quickly dated, like that of so many other humorists of his era who relied on current events for their material. (In poetry it would be the difference between a sentimental poem for a particular person and an elegy whose personal subject is never named so that the chant becomes universal, for example, Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or Milton’s “Lycidas.”) Twain hadn’t in fact attacked the personalities of Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, nor would that have been humorous if he had; it was the story’s incongruity that put their grand poetic lines in the mouths of three drunks. Twain discovered a great lesson in all this, one that he would apply in his greatest book—that the impersonal was the gateway to the greatest humor. Twain’s speech would have been in “bad taste,” as some of the newspapers later charged it was, if its humor had in fact depended on personalities and belittled actual people, but this tall tale merely deflated bloated sentiments, such as those in Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” In Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist is most hilarious (deadly so) when in observing human behavior he naively juxtaposes hard reality with the sentimental or craven distortion of it. Of course, his creator had probably sensed the difference long before, even before Jim Smiley in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” bet against the parson’s fervent hope that his wife would recover from her life-threatening illness.

The Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech

17 December 1877

This is an occassion peculiarly meet for the digging up of pleasant reminiscences concerning literary folk; therefore I will drop lightly into history myself. Standing here on the shore of the Atlantic and contemplating certain of its largest literary billows. I am reminded of a thing which happened to me thirteen years ago, when I had just succeeded in stirring up a little Nevadian literary puddle myself, whose spume-flakes were beginning to blow thinly Californiaward. I started an inspection tramp through the southern mines of California. I was callow and conceited, and I resolved to try the virtue of my nom de gurerre.

I very soon had an opportunity. I knocked at a miner’s lonely log cabin in the foot-hills of the Sierras just at nightfall. It was snowing at the time. A jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened the door to me. When he heard my nom de guerre he looked more dejected than before. He let me in—pretty reluctantly, I thought— and after the customary bacon and beans, black coffee and hot whiskey, I took a pipe. This sorrowful man had not said three words up to this time. Now he spoke up and said, in the voice of one who is secretly suffering, “You’re the fourth—I’m going to move.” “The fourth what?” said I. “The fourth littery man that has been here in twenty-four hours—I’m going to move.” “You don’t tell me!” said I; “who were the others?” “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes—consound the lot!”

You can easily believe I was interested. I supplicated—three hot whiskeys did the rest—and finally the melancholy miner began. Said he: “They came here just at dark yesterday evening, and I let them in of course. Said they were going to the Yosemite. They were a rough lot, but that’s nothing; everybody looks rough that travels afoot. Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap, red-headed. Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon; he weighed as much as three hundred, and had double chins all the way down to his stomach. Mr. Longfellow was built like a prize-fighter. His head was cropped and bristly, like as if he had a wig made of hair-brushes. His nose lay straight down his face, like a finger with the end joint tilted up. They had been drinking, I could see that. And what queer talk they used! Mr. Holmes inspected this cabin, then he took me by the buttonhole, and says he:

“‘Through the deep caves of thought
I hear a voice that sings,
Build thee more stately mansions,
O my soul!’

“Says I, ‘I can’t afford it, Mr. Holmes, and moreover I don’t want to.’ Blamed if I liked it pretty well, either, coming from a stranger, that way. However, I started to get out my bacon and beans, when Mr. Emerson came and looked on awhile, and then he takes me aside by the buttonhole and says:

“‘Give me agates for my meat;
Give me cantharids to eat;
From air and ocean bring me foods,
From all zones and altitudes.’

“Says I, ‘Mr. Emerson, if you’ll excuse me, this ain’t no hotel.’ You see it sort of riled me—I warn’t used to the ways of littery swells. But I went on a-sweating over my work, and next comes Mr. Longfellow and buttonholes me, and interrupts me. Says he:

“‘Honor be to Mudjekeewis!
You shall hear how Pau-Puk-Keewis—’

“But I broke in, and says I, ‘Beg your pardon, Mr. Longfellow, if you’ll be so kind as to hold your yawp for about five minutes and let me get this grub ready, you’ll do me proud.’ Well, sir, after they’d filled up I set out the jug. Mr. Holmes looks at it, and then he fires up all of a sudden and yells:

“‘Flash out a stream of blood-red wine!
For I would drink to other days.’

“By George, I was getting kind of worked up. I don’t deny it, I was getting kind of worked up. I turns to Mr. Holmes, and says I, ‘Looky here, my fat friend, I’m a-running this shanty, and if the court knows herself, you’ll take whiskey straight or you’ll go dry.’ Them’s the very words I said to him. Now I don’t want to sass such famous littery people, but you see they kind of forced me. There ain’t nothing onreasonable ’bout me; I don’t mind a passel of guests a-treadin’ on my tail three or four times, but when it comes to standing on it it’s different, ‘and if the court knows herself,’ I says, ‘you’ll take whiskey straight or you’ll go dry.’ Well, between drinks they’d swell around the cabin and strike attitudes and spout; and pretty soon they got out a greasy old deck and went to playing euchre at ten cents a corner—on trust. I began to notice some pretty suspicious things. Mr. Emerson dealt, looked at his hand, shook his head, says:

“‘I am the doubter and the doubt—’

and calmly bunched the hands and went to shuffling for a new layout. Says he:

“‘They reckon ill who leave me out;
They know not well the subtle ways I keep.
I pass and deal again!’

Hang’d if he didn’t go ahead and do it, too! Oh, he was a cool one! Well, in a minute things were running pretty tight, but all of a sudden I see by Emerson’s eye he judged he had ’em. He had already corralled two tricks, and each of the others one. So now he kind of lifts a little in his chair and says:

“‘I tire of globes and aces!—
Too long the game is played!’

—and down he fetched a right bower. Mr. Longfellow smiles as sweet as pie and says:

“‘Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou has taught,’

—and blamed if he didn’t down with another right bower! Emerson claps his hand on his bowie, Longfellow claps his on his revolver, and I went under a bunk. There was going to be trouble; but that monstrous Holmes rose up, wobbling his double chins, and says he, ‘Order, gentlemen; the first man that draws, I’ll lay down on him and smother him!’ All quiet on the Potomac, you bet!

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was “Barbara Frietchie.”’ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”’ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company—and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot—so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped—at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘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 I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours—and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”
I said to the miner, “Why, my dear sir, these were not the gracious singers to whom we and the world pay loving reverence and homage; these were impostors.”

The miner investigated me with a calm eye for a while; then said he, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?”

I did not pursue the subject, and since then I have not travelled on my nom de guerre enough to hurt. Such was the reminiscence I was moved to contribute, Mr. Chairman. In my enthusiasm I may have exaggerated the details a little, but you will easily forgive me that fault, since I believe it is the first time I have ever deflected from perpendicular fact on an occasion like this.

From Mark Twain’s Speeches
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1910); 1-16.