Toasting the Babies

Mark Twain's half-century as a public speaker can be divided into two very different categories. His organized tours, undertaken to promote a recent book or reprise a trusted lecture, were business ventures, and he grew to hate them. His club and after-dinner talks, delivered for no or little fee, were a type of social theater, offering the sort of spotlight he found irresistible. His talent and stamina for such occasions created a steady flow of invitations, whether to toast dignitaries and tycoons, to enlighten the Little Mother's Aid Association, or the Organization for the Prevention of Unnecessary Noise, or to regale the Stomach Club of Paris or the Yorick Club of Melbourne.

 

Twain speakingHe became so skilled at the art of the banquet speech that he planned to write a Banqueter's Handbook. His notes for this indicate how deliberately he prepared for his performances, first writing and memorizing, then carefully rehearsing all his "fictitious hesitancies for the right word, fictitious unconscious pauses, fictitious unconscious side remarks, fictitious unconscious embarrassments, fictitious unconscious emphasis placed upon the wrong word with a deep intention back of it." William Dean Howells describes Twain's reliance upon mnemonic devices, his recall of a pre-arrangement of billiard balls or dinner-table cutlery and glassware giving him "full command of the phrases which his excogitation had attached to them." The glassware would have been plentiful enough. Contemporary accounts describe the full-dress dinners as six-hour, eight-course affairs, each course with its appropriate wine, each toast with its bumper of champagne, each cup of coffee with its liqueur.

 

Twain regarded his "Babies" speech, delivered in 1879 at an emotional banquet of Civil War veterans in honor of General Ulysses S. Grant, as the pinnacle of his after-dinner career. The last of fifteen speakers to take the podium that evening—by his turn it was actually 3:30 a.m., and he chose to stand on a table—the toast Twain chose was "To the Babies: As They Comfort Us in Our Sorrows, Let Us Not Forget Them in Our Festivities." From this unlikely inspiration he wove a humorous series of reflections—how all soldiers present had once been babies, how most had fathered babies, and been forced to hand in resignations "when that little fellow arrived at family headquarters." The speech concludes with an extended speculation on the future leaders of the nation, these chosen from "among the three or four million cradles now rocking in the land":

 

…And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth—an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.

 

The joke convulsed the 600 soldiers and brought them to their feet. It also "shook [Grant] up like dynamite," Twain wrote Howells, "& he sat there fifteen minutes and laughed & cried like the mortalest of mortals."


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.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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