ABOUT MARK TWAIN: How He Was Forced to Lecture in Washington Without Warning [Evening Star, 27 June, 1896]

ES_1896.6.27 _ Evening star. pg 150001ABOUT MARK TWAIN

How He Was Forced to Lecture in Washington Without Warning.


Reminiscences of the Popular Author and Lecturer


Written for the Evening Star.

A book has recently been published, entitled “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” by Mark Twain. Considering the facts that Joan lived and died in the early fifteenth century, and that Mark was born along toward the middle of the nineteenth century, thus requiring him to draw upon his meemory [sic] for narration of events personally observed by him about four and a half centuries before he was born, captious people might want to know the processes by which his mind had accomplished this fact. I do not belong to that faction. My faith is unlimited in anything Mark Twain may say or do.

A few years ago it was my good or ill fortune to be at the head of an executive office under the federal government in Washington. One day during a session of Congress, a slightly built, gray-haired man was ushered into my room, bearing a note of introduction from Senator Joseph R. Hawley of Connecticut. The man was Mark Twain. I was glad to meet him, and told him so, following the statement by another to the effect that something more than twenty years before I had listened with a good deal of delight to a lecture delivered by him in Washington on the subject of the “Sandwich Islands.”

An Unpremeditated Lecture

“Oh, yes,” said Twain, “I delivered such a lecture in this city, and the history of that production was peculiar. I came here at that time for rest and to visit some of my friends. Congress was in session and I expected to have a good time. I arrived in the city at night, and being tired did not care to leave the hotel for any purpose until morning.

“When I opened the daily paper next morning at breakfast, what was my amazement to see an announcement in the advertising columns that I would deliver a lecture that evening at the old Lincoln Hall on the subject of the Sandwich Islands. I had no such lecture on hand. Nobody had asked me to deliver such a lecture. Not a soul had spoken to me on the subject, nor had I spoken to anybody immediately or remotely hinting toward such a performance. To say that I was angry would imperfectly describe my mental condition. For once, language seemed too poor to enable me to do the subject justice. I longed to meet the miscreant or miscreants who had taken such liberties with my name. But the more I reflected on the subject, the more the embarrassments of the situation dawned upon me. Suppose I should make a public statement of the facts that he announcement of the lecture was without my authorization, knowledge or consent. Half the community would not believe me. The would think there was some advertising dodge in some way connected with it.

“As you may imagine, my appetite had disappeared, and my breakfast was left upon the table untasted. I wanted to find my unknown advertising agent. When I visited the hotel office I found huge posters upon the walls making the same announcement as was contained in the newspaper advertising columns, and that the whole town had been billed in a thorough manner.

Taking the Bull on the Horns

“By a careful series of inquiries I learned that an old personal friend of mine, whose libations sometimes led him into extravagancies and inconsistencies, had put up this job upon me, not through pique or malice, but in his exuberance at learning I was in the city, wanted to give a demonstration of his admiration for me. That explanation settled my fate. I saw I was in for it. I could not inform the public that the whole miserable business was the result of a drunken freak on the part of one of my personal friends. So I went to my room, denied myself to all visitors, and devoted that day to writing a lecture on the subject of the Sandwich Islands. What you heard on the night you spoke of was the result.”

The lecturer had no reason to be ashamed of the performance. He had a magnificent audience. Representatives and Senators, bureau and cabinet officers, citizens and strangers filled all the seats of the immense hall, and there was not even standing room in the aisles. “The Innocents Abroad” had been published only a short time before, and the public had been quick to recognize the fact which that work disclosed, that side by side with the quaintest wit there were specimens of rhetoric which marked the author as a master of English prose.

A Drag-Net Lecture

As may be supposed, the Sandwich Islands did not constitute the sole topic of that lecture. It was used as a sort of drag net to bring before the audience incidents and imageries which had been floating in the mind of the lecturer in his long experiences as a traveler at home and abroad. I called his attention to one illustration he used in the course of his lecture to show how mean human nature could sometimes be. He said: “In a mining district in California there was one day a miner engaged in preparing a charge for blasting rock. With tampering rod in hand he was tamping, tamping, tamping, but in an unlucky moment he gave one tamp too much. The charge exploded prematurely, and that miner shot up into the air like a cannon ball. At first he appeared to be about as big as bee, then about as big as a cat, then about as big as a small boy, then he landed on the same rock, the tamping rod entered the same old hole, and he commenced tamping, tamping, tamping. That man wasn’t gone more than fifteen minutes. But don’t you think that mining company wanted to dock the man for lost time.”

When Twain brought the note of introduction to me I supposed his chief purpose was probably to look through the institution then in my charge; but as our conversation progressed and heads of divisions and called from the Capitol dropped in on official business and were introduced to him, he became the center of a captivated group of listeners, who remained as long as they could hear him talk.

At a Chicago Banquet

At the time of his Lincoln Hall lecture in Washington, Mark Twain’s hair was black, and he stood at the front of the platform I thought he was a splendid specimen of young manhood. About ten years afterward I saw and heard him again at the banquet given in Chicago in honor of the return of Gen. Grant from a trip around the world. The occasion called together more military and literary celebrities than are likely to be seen again in one assemblage in a generation. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Schofield, Logan and many other military officers less in rank were there; and among the gentlemen announced for speeches were Robert G. Ingersoll, Stewart L. Woodford, Emory A. Storrs, Leonard Swett, William F. Vilas and Mark Twain. It was nearly 3 o’clock in the morning when the toast to which Twain was to respond was read. Naturally, after a sitting of nearly nine hours at the banquetting board, interest in the proceedings might be expected to diminish, and speeches to pall upon the ear of hosts and guests. But when Twain mounted a table to respond to every face in the great dining hall was turned toward him. The subject of the toast was “Babies,” and from the beginning to the end of the response there was uproarious laughter. No speech of the many brilliant ones of that night compared with this. As I remember the event after a lapse of seventeen years, some of Twain’s sentences come to my remembrance. “If,” said he, “any young husband here thinks he is the head of his household and of consequences there, let him wait until the arrival of the first baby. His wisdom will then count for naught, his authority will be ignored, and he may consider himself fortunate if he is not driven in humiliation and disgrace to retirement in the back yard.” “One baby in the house is equal to a riot, and two babies he equivalent to an insurrection.” “Whatever any of you may ever do, let me beg of you never to indulge in an ambition for twins.”

At the time of this Grant banquet Twain’s hair had commenced to show threads of silver. When I saw him in my room in Washington, only a few months ago, his locks were white, and his face showed the wrinkles which time brings to all remorselessly. But his spirits were as elastic and his mind was as clear as in his young manhood. One of the most pathetic events in the history of this talented author is his loss of a fortune, honestly accumulated, and the necessity which is upon him in his old age of unceasing literary toil to lighten his burden of debt.


Evening Star, 27 June, 1896, p. 15

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