And I say this also: He that waiteth for all men to be satisfied with his plan, let him seek eternal life, for he shall need it.'"
This portion of Mr. Twichell's sermon made a great impression upon me, and I was grieved that some one had not wakened me earlier so that I might have heard what went before.
S. L. CLEMENS.
Mr. Sykes (of the firm of Sykes & Newton, the Allen House Pharmacy) replied that he had read the letter to the committee and that it had set those gentlemen right who had not before understood the situation. "If others were as ready to do their part as yourself our poor would not want assistance," he said, in closing.
We come now to an incident which assumes the proportions of an episode-even of a catastrophe--in Mark Twain's career. The disaster was due to a condition noted a few pages earlier--the inability of genius to judge its own efforts. The story has now become history-- printed history--it having been sympathetically told by Howells in My Mark Twain, and more exhaustively, with a report of the speech that invited the lightning, in a former work by the present writer.
The speech was made at John Greenleaf Whittier's seventieth birthday dinner, given by the Atlantic staff on the evening of December 17, 1877. It was intended as a huge joke--a joke that would shake the sides of these venerable Boston deities, Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes, and the rest of that venerated group. Clemens had been a favorite at the Atlantic lunches and dinners--a speech by him always an event. This time he decided to outdo himself.
He did that, but not in the way he had intended. To use one of his own metaphors, he stepped out to meet the rainbow and got struck by lightning. His joke was not of the Boston kind or size. When its full nature burst upon the company--when the ears of the assembled diners heard the sacred names of Longfellow, Emerson, and Holmes lightly associated with human aspects removed--oh, very far removed --from Cambridge and Concord, a chill fell upon the diners that presently became amazement, and then creeping paralysis. Nobody knew afterward whether the great speech that he had so gaily planned ever came to a natural end or not. Somebody--the next on the program--attempted to follow him, but presently the company melted out of the doors and crept away into the night.
It seemed to Mark Twain that his career had come to an end. Back in Hartford, sweating and suffering through sleepless nights, he wrote Howells his anguish.
To W. D. Howells, in Boston:
Sunday Night. 1877. MY DEAR HOWELLS,--My sense of disgrace does not abate. It grows. I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies--a list of humiliations that extends back to when I was seven years old, and which keep on persecuting me regardless of my repentancies.
I feel that my misfortune has injured me all over the country; therefore it will be best that I retire from before the public at present. It will hurt the Atlantic for me to appear in its pages, now. So it is my opinion and my wife's that the telephone story had better be suppressed. Will you return those proofs or revises to me, so that I can use the same on some future occasion?
It seems as if I must have been insane when I wrote that speech and saw no harm in it, no disrespect toward those men whom I reverenced so much. And what shame I brought upon you, after what you said in introducing me! It burns me like fire to think of it.
The whole matter is a dreadful subject--let me drop it here--at least on paper. Penitently yrs, MARK.
Howells sent back a comforting letter. "I have no idea of dropping you out of the Atlantic," he wrote; "and Mr.