Barbs in Boston

Mark Twain's "Old Times on the Mississippi," a series of sketches about his days as a cub river pilot, were published by the Atlantic in seven monthly installments beginning in January, 1875. Though not quite his debut there, the Atlantic sketches are regarded as Twain's entry to the East Coast literary establishment. Immediately pirated by the major newspapers, they also helped consolidate Twain's fame across the U.S., as they did across England when published there in 1877 as Mark Twain's Mississippi (a detail from the cover appears at left).

 

The "Old Times" sketches also consolidated Twain's lasting relationship with Atlantic editor William Dean Howells. In My Mark Twain (1910), Howells claims that, in fact, the clubbish Boston-New York literary crowd never really warmed to his friend. "I cannot say just why Clemens seemed not to hit the favor of our community of scribes and scholars," confides Howells, "…but it is certain he did not, and I had better say so."

 

The rejection was puzzling for Twain also, no more so than after his most celebrated shunning, an 1877 banquet in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier's seventieth birthday. Because "Old Times" and then Tom Sawyer had Twain riding a wave of international fame, he had been asked to speak at the prestigious affair, attended by such other great and triple-named as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This was a literary Mount Rushmore into which Samuel Langhorne Clemens no doubt hoped to carve a place. But it was also the sort of event that brought out Mark Twain's idol-toppling spirit.

 

The yarn Twain decided to spin describes the stormy night he was forced to seek refuge in an old prospector's lonely log cabin. The prospector reveals that just the night before Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow had also come by, and their drinking, card-playing, and pompous self-quoting had stretched his frontier hospitality to the breaking point:

…However, I started to get out my bacon and beans, when Mr. Emerson came and looked on a while, and then he takes me aside by the button-hole and says:

 

"Give me agates for my meat;

Give me cantharides 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 wasn't used to the ways of littery swells.

When Longfellow steps in, chanting from "The Song of Hiawatha," he also gets the hook: "Begging 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." After a full night of Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow trying to out-drink and out-rhyme each other, and now Twain threatening more of the same, the prospector decides to pull up stakes: "I'm agoing to move—I ain't suited to a literary atmosphere."

 

The newspapers, Howells, and many guests reported that Twain's irreverence was received in open-mouthed, plate-staring silence by all present. Years later Twain was still amazed "that they didn't shout with laughter, and those deities the loudest of them all."


Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

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