Of course the first of these impressions, the verdict of the fresh mind uninfluenced by the old conception, was the more correct one. The speech was decidedly out of place in that company. The skit was harmless enough, but it was of the Comstock grain. It lacked refinement, and, what was still worse, it lacked humor, at least the humor of a kind suited to that long-ago company of listeners. It was another of those grievous mistakes which genius (and not talent) can make, for genius is a sort of possession. The individual is pervaded, dominated for a time by an angel or an imp, and he seldom, of himself, is able to discriminate between his controls. A literary imp was always lying in wait for Mark Twain; the imp of the burlesque, tempting him to do the 'outre', the outlandish, the shocking thing. It was this that Olivia Clemens had to labor hardest against: the cheapening of his own high purpose with an extravagant false note, at which sincerity, conviction, and artistic harmony took wings and fled away. Notably he did a good burlesque now and then, but his fame would not have suffered if he had been delivered altogether from his besetting temptation.
HARTFORD AND BILLIARDS
Clemens was never much inclined to work, away from his Elmira study. "Magnanimous Incident Literature" (for the Atlantic) was about his only completed work of the winter of 1877-78. He was always tinkering with the "Visit to Heaven," and after one reconstruction Howells suggested that he bring it out as a book, in England, with Dean Stanley's indorsement, though this may have been only semi-serious counsel. The story continued to lie in seclusion.
Clemens had one new book in the field--a small book, but profitable. Dan Slote's firm issued for him the Mark Twain Scrap-book, and at the end of the first royalty period rendered a statement of twenty-five thousand copies sold, which was well enough for a book that did not contain a single word that critics could praise or condemn. Slote issued another little book for him soon after Punch, Brothers, Punch!--which, besides that lively sketch, contained the "Random Notes" and seven other selections.
Mark Twain was tempted to go into the lecture field that winter, not by any of the offers, though these were numerous enough, but by the idea of a combination which he thought night be not only profitable but pleasant. Thomas Nast had made a great success of his caricature lectures, and Clemens, recalling Nast's long-ago proposal, found it newly attractive. He wrote characteristically:
MY DEAR NAST,--I did not think I should ever stand on a platform again until the time was come for me to say, "I die innocent." But the same old offers keep arriving. I have declined them all, just as usual, though sorely tempted, as usual.
Now, I do not decline because I mind talking to an audience, but because (1) traveling alone is so heartbreakingly dreary, and (2) shouldering the whole show is such a cheer-killing responsibility.
Therefore, I now propose to you what you proposed to me in 1867, ten years ago (when I was unknown)--viz., that you stand on the platform and make pictures, and I stand by you and blackguard the audience. I should enormously enjoy meandering around (to big towns--don't want to go to the little ones), with you for company.
My idea is not to fatten the lecture agents and lyceums on the spoils, but to put all the ducats religiously into two equal piles, and say to the artist and lecturer, "absorb these."
For instance, [here follows a plan and a possible list of the cities to be visited]. The letter continues:
Call the gross receipts $100,00 for four months and a half, and the profit from $60,000 to $75,000 (I try to make the figures large enough, and leave it to the public to reduce them).
I did not put in Philadelphia because Pugh owns that town, and last winter, when I made a little reading-trip, he only paid me $300, and pretended his concert (I read fifteen minutes in the midst of a concert) cost him a vast sum, and so he couldn't afford any more. I could get up a better concert with a barrel of cats.