John Greenleaf Whittier was a lion of American literature. He founded the antislavery Liberty party in 1840 and helped to found Atlantic Monthly in 1842. Following the war he became one of America’s most beloved poets.
Whittier would turn 70 in 1877, and the city of Boston was not going to let the occasion go by without a fitting tribute. A celebratory evening was planned that would pale all previous literary celebratory evenings. Wadsworth, Longfellow, Emerson & Holmes, the Brahmins of Boston, would be seated at the head table with Whittier. Mark Twain would be the keynote speaker. William Dean Howells, editor of what we know today as “The Atlantic,” was the distinguished host at the luxurious Boston Hotel Brunswick.
Twain, floating on popularity from the recently published, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was full of himself, and felt licensed to roast these literary lions in front of the highest society Boston had to offer.
The room was unprepared, and fell into a brown study. According to Twain, “The silence weighed forty pounds to the square inch.” His audacious attempt to use Nevada humor in this most conservative of eastern venues resulted in the “flattest failure that ever was, the perfectest and completest fiasco in history.”
But we should let Sam tell it…
“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. 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.”
In a letter to Howells, apologizing for this disaster, Sam wrote, “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.
Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.”
Twain & Howells went on to become fast friends, the lions forgave Sam, and Mark Twain went to work on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
America’s first celebrity roast was in the books. It would be a long while before anybody would muster the courage to try another. A mere 97 years later, Dean Martin would successfully revive Mark Twain’s celebrity roast.
Learn more about McAvoy Layne at www.ghostoftwain.org.