Speech mocking Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes.
Mark Twain, December 17, 1877
I vaguely remember some of the details of that gathering--dimly I can see a
hundred people--no, perhaps fifty--shadowy figures sitting at tables feeding,
ghosts now to me, and nameless forevermore. I don't know who they were, but I
can very distinctly see, seated at the grand table and facing the rest of us,
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). I can see those figures with entire distinctness across this abyss of
Now at that point ends all that was pleasurable about that notable celebration
of Mr. Whittier's seventieth birthday--because I got up at that point.., with
what I have no doubt I supposed would be the gem of the evening--the gay oration
above quoted from the Boston paper. I had written it all out the day before and
had perfectly memorized it, and I stood up there at my genial and happy and
self-satisfied ease, and began to deliver it. Those majestic guests, that row of
venerable and still active volcanoes, listened, as did everybody else in the
house, with attentive interest. Well, I delivered myself of-we'll say the first
two hundred words of my speech. I was expecting no returns from that part of the
speech, but this was not the case as regarded the rest of it. I arrived now at
the dialogue: "The old miner said, 'You are the fourth, I'm going to move.' 'The
fourth what?' said I. He answered, 'The fourth littery man that has been here in
twenty-four hours. I am going to move.' 'Why, you don't tell me,' said I. 'Who
were the others?' 'Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes,
consound the lot--'"
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. I went on, but with difficulty--I struggled along, and entered upon
that miner's fearful description of the bogus Emerson, the bogus Holmes, the
bogus Longfellow, always hoping--but with a gradually perishing hope--that
somebody would laugh, or that somebody would at least smile, but nobody did. I
didn't know enough to give it up and sit down, I was too new to public speaking,
and so I went on with this awful performance, and carried it clear through to
the end, in front of a body of people who seemed turned to stone with horror. It
was the sort of expression their faces would have worn if I had been making
these remarks about the Deity and the rest of the Trinity; there is no milder
way in which to describe the petrified condition and the ghastly expression of
When I sat down it was with a heart which had long ceased to beat. I shall never
be as dead again as I was then, I shall never be as miserable again as I was
then. I speak now as one who doesn't know what the condition of things may be in
the next world, but in this one I shall never be as wretched again as I was
then. [William Dean] Howells, who was near me, tried to say a comforting word,
but couldn't get beyond a gasp. There was no use--he understood the whole size
of the disaster. He had good intentions, but the words froze before they could
get out. It was an atmosphere that would freeze anything. If Benvenuto Cellini's
salamander had been in that place he would not have survived to be put into
Cellini's autobiography. There was a frightful pause. There was an awful
silence, a desolating silence. Then the next man on the list had to get
up--there was no help for it. That was Bishop--Bishop had just burst handsomely
upon the world with a most acceptable novel, which had appeared in the Atlantic
Monthly, a place which would make any novel respectable and any author
noteworthy. In this case the novel itself was recognized as being, without
extraneous help, respectable. Bishop was away up in the public favor, and he was
an object of high interest, consequently there was a sort of national expectancy
in the air; we may say our American millions were standing, from Maine to Texas
and from Alaska to Florida, holding their breath, their lips parted, their hands
ready to applaud, when Bishop should get up on that occasion, and for the first
time in his life speak in public. It was under these damaging conditions that he
got up to "make good," as the vulgar say. I had spoken several times before, and
that is the reason why I was able to go on without dying in my tracks, as I
ought to have done--but Bishop had had no experience. He was up facing those
awful deities-facing those other people, those strangers--facing human beings
for the first time in his life, 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. I suppose that after that, and under the smothering pall of that
dreary silence, it began to waste away and disappear out of his head like the
rags breaking from the edge of a fog, and presently there wasn't any fog left.
He didn't go on--he didn't last long. It was not many sentences after his first
before he began to hesitate, and break, and lose his grip, and totter, and
wobble, and at last he slumped down in a limp and mushy pile.
Well, the programme for the occasion was probably not more than one-third
finished, but it ended there. Nobody rose. The next man hadn't strength enough
to get up, and everybody looked so dazed, so stupefied, paralyzed, it was
impossible for anybody to do anything, or even try. Nothing could go on in that
strange atmosphere. Howells mournfully, and without words, hitched himself to
Bishop and me and supported us out of the room. It was very kind--he was most
generous. He towed us tottering away into some room in that building, and we sat
down there. I don't know what my remark was now, but I know the nature of it. It
was the kind of remark you make when you know that nothing in the world can help
your case. But Howells was honest--he had to say the heart-breaking things he
did say: that there was no help for this calamity, this shipwreck, this
cataclysm; that this was the most disastrous thing that had ever happened in
anybody's history--and then he added, "That is, for you--and consider what you
have done for Bishop. It is bad enough in your case, you deserve to suffer. You
have committed this crime, and you deserve to have all you are going to get. But
here is an innocent man. Bishop had never done you any harm, and see what you
have done to him. He can never hold his head up again. The world can never look
upon Bishop as being a live person. He is a corpse."
That is the history of that episode of twenty-eight years ago, which pretty
nearly killed me with shame during that first year or two whenever it forced its
way into my mind.
Now then, I take that speech up and examine it. As I said, it arrived this
morning, from Boston. I have read it twice, and unless I am an idiot, it hasn't
a single defect in it from the first word to the last. It is just as good as
good can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn't a suggestion
of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere. What could have been the matter with
that house? It is amazing, it is incredible, that they didn't shout with
laughter, and those deities the loudest of them all. Could the fault have been
with me? Did I lose courage when I saw those great men up there whom I was going
to describe in such a strange fashion? If that happened, if I showed doubt, that
can account for it, for you can't be successfully funny if you show that you are
afraid of it. Well, I can't account for it, but if I had those beloved and
revered old literary immortals back here now on the platform at Carnegie Hall I
would take that same old speech, deliver it, word for word, and melt them till
they'd run all over that stage. Oh, the fault must have been with me, it is not
in the speech at all.
This is an occasion 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 guerre.
I very soon had an opportunity. I knocked at a miner's lonely log cabin in the
foothills 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
whisky, 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 whiskys 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, redheaded. 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 prizefighter. His head was cropped and bristly, like
as if he had a wig made of hairbrushes. 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 &
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 whisky
straight or you'll go dry.' There'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 whisky
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
"'I am the doubter and the doubt--'
--and camly 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
about a minute things were running pretty tight, but all of a sudden I see by
Mr. 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
"'Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast 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 traveled on my non 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.
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