Mark Twain

(pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

Mark Twain at the Whitefriars Club

Western Daily Press, Tuesday 10 September 1872, p. 3.

Within the last few days the celebrated humourist Mark Twain has arrived in England and he was present at a dinner given by the members of the Whitefriars Club at the Mitre Tavern [on 6 September]. The meeting was presided over by Mr. J.Crawford Wilson, Mr G. Wharton Sampson occupying the vice-chair. It was as Mr Tom Hood’s guest that the distinguished visitor was present.

Mark Twain, with whose writings the English public are so familiar, belongs to the order of quiet humourists. Quaintness is his distinguishing characteristic. In the course of the evening the Chairman took occasion to propose the health of the visitor in eloquent terms.

Mr. Mark Twain responded after his peculiar fashion, amidst roars of laughter, with an effect of which the simple words convey but little idea, so much depended on the quaint and original manner of the speaker. He said:–

Gentlemen, I thank you very heartily indeed for this expression of kindness towards me. What I have done for England and civilisation in the arduous affairs which I have engaged in all that is good – that is so smooth, that I will say it again and again – what I have done for England and for civilisation in the arduous part I have performed, I have done with single-hearted devotion and with no hope of reward. I am proud, I am very proud, that it was reserved to me to find Dr. Livingstone, and for Mr. Stanley to get all the credit. (Laughter.) I hunted for that man in Africa all over seventy-five or one hundred parishes, thousands and thousands of miles in the wilds and the deserts, all over the place, sometimes riding negroes, and sometimes travelling by rail. I didn’t mind the rail or anything else, so that I didn’t come in for the tar and feathers. I found that man in Ujiji – a place you may remember if you have ever been there – and it was a very great satisfaction that I found him just in the nick of time. I found that poor old man deserted by his … geographers, deserted by all of his kind except the gorillas – dejected, miserable, famishing, absolutely famishing; but he was eloquent. Just as I had found him, he had eaten his last elephant, and he said to me, ‘God knows where I shall get another’. He had nothing to wear except his venerable and honourable navy suit, and nothing to eat but his diary. But I said to him, ‘It is all right; I have discovered you, and Stanley will be here by the four o’clock train and will discover you officially, and then we will turn to, and have a reg’lar good time.’ I said, ‘Cheer up, for Stanley has got corn, ammunition, glass beads, hymn books, whisky, and everything the human heart can desire; he has got all kinds of valuables, including telegraph poles and a few cartloads of money. By this time communication has been made with the land of Bibles and civilisation, and property will advance.’ And then we surveyed all that country from Ujiji, through Unanogo and other places, to Unyanyemba. I mention these names simply for your edification, nothing more; do not expect it – particularly as intelligence to the Royal Geographical Society. (Roars of laughter.) And then, having filled up the old man, we were all too full for utterance, and departed. Stanley has received a snuff-box, and I have received considerable snuff; he has got to write a book and gather in the rest of the credit, and I am going to levy on the copyright and to collect the money. Nothing comes amiss to me – cash or credit; but, seriously, I do feel that Stanley is the chief man, and an illustrious one, and I do applaud him with all my heart. Whether he is an American or a Welshman by birth, or one, or both, matters not to me. So far as I am personally concerned, I am simply here to stay a few months, and to see English people and to learn English manners and customs, and to enjoy myself; so the simplest thing I can do is to thank you for the toast you have honoured me with and for the remarks you have made, and to wish health and prosperity to the Whitefriars Club, and to sink down to my accustomed level. (Cheers.)

 

Mark Twain’s Witty Speech at London Dinner

16 June 1899

[New York] World Prints a Verbatim Report of an After-Dinner Talk That Convulsed London Club. Reprinted in Echoes from Alsatia (edited by Gerald O’Brien), London: The Whitefriars Club, 1993, Second edition (revised, with new material by Allessandro Gallenzi, London: Alma Books, 2017.

Fellow guest Depew Hit at

London, June 21st – Mark Twain was the guest of the Whitefriars Club the other evening. It is a literary Club founded [in 1868], and Mark Twain was made an honorary member of it a quarter of a century ago. On this occasion the chair was taken by Poultney Bigelow, while, in ad­dition to Chauncey Depew, the company was representative of literary and journalistic London.

The toast of “Our Guest” was proposed in very eloquent terms by Louis F. Austin, of the Illustrated London News, and in the course of some humorous remarks he referred to the imaginary vows of the “Friars”, as the members of the Club style themselves. Mark Twain’s reply was in his happiest vein, and The World correspondent sends the following verbatim transcript of his speech as the only way of conveying an adequate idea of its effect.

The great humorist was received with a prolonged outburst of ap­plause as he rose, and when silence had been restored he began in his charming, dreamy, conversational style.

“Mr Chairman and Brethren of the Vow – in whatever the vow is (laughter), for although I have been a member of this Club for five-and- twenty years, I do not know any more about what that vow is than Mr Austin seems to. But whatever the vow is, I do not care what it is, I have made a thousand vows.

“There is no pleasure comparable to making a vow in the presence of men who appreciate that vow, in the presence of men who honour and appreciate you for making the vow, and men who admire you for making the vow.

Higher Pleasure: Breaking the Vow

“There is only one pleasure higher than that, and that is to get outside and break the vow. (Laughter.) A vow is always a pledge of some kind or other for the protection of your own morals and principles or somebody else’s, and generally by the irony of fate, it is for the protection of your own morals.

“Hence we have pledges that make us eschew tobacco or wine, and while you are taking the pledge, there is a holy influence about that makes you feel you are reformed and that you can never be so happy again in this world until… you get outside and take a drink. (Laughter.)

“I had forgotten that I was a member of this Club. It is so long ago. But now I remember that I was here five-and-twenty years ago and that I was then at a dinner of the Whitefriars Club, and it was in those old days when you had just made two great finds. All this London was talking about nothing else than that they had found Livingstone, and that the lost Sir Roger Tichborne had been found, and they were trying him for it. (Laughter.) And at the dinner, the Chairman – I do not know who he was – failed to come to time. The gentleman who had been appointed to pay me the customary compliments and to introduce me forgot the compliments and did not know what they were.

“And so George Augustus Sala came in at the last moment, just when I was about to go without compliments altogether. And that man was a gifted man. They just called on him instantaneously while he was going to sit down, to introduce the stranger, and Sala made one of those marvellous speeches which he was capable of making.

Sala as a History-Maker

“I think no man talked so fast as Sala did. One did not need wine while he was making a speech. The rapidity of his utterance made a man drunk in a minute. (Laughter.) An incomparable speech was that, an impromptu speech, and an impromptu speech is a very seldom thing, and he did it so well.

“He went into the whole history of the United States and made it entirely new to me. He filled it with episodes and incidents that Wash­ington never heard of, and he did it so convincingly that, although I knew none of it had happened, from that day to this I do not know any history but Sala’s. (Laughter.)

“I do not know anything so sad as a dinner where you are going to get up and say something by and by and you do not know what it is. You sit and wonder and wonder what the gentleman is going to say who is going to introduce you. You know that if he says something severe, that if he will deride you or traduce you or do anything of that sort, he will fur­nish you with a text, because anybody can get up and talk against that.

“Anybody can get up and straighten out his character (laughter), but when a gentleman gets up and merely tells the truth about you, what can you do? (Laughter.)

“Mr Austin has done well. He has supplied so many texts that I will have to drop out a lot of them, and that is about as difficult as when you do not have any text at all. Now, he made a beautiful and smooth speech without any difficulty at all, and I could have done that if I had gone on with the schooling with which I began. I see here a gentleman on my left who was my master in the art of oratory more than twenty-five years ago.

Depew, Master of Oratory

“When I look upon the inspiring face of Mr Depew, it carries me a long way back. An old and valued friend of mine is he, and I learnt many things of him, and it has reached pretty well up to now, when he, by another miscarriage of justice, is a United States Senator. (Laughter.) But those were delightful days when I was taking lessons in oratory.

“My other master – the Ambassador – is not here yet. Under those two gentlemen I learnt how to make after-dinner speeches, and it was very charming.

“You know, the New England dinner is the great occasion on the other side of the Water. It is held every year to celebrate the landing of the pilgrims. Those pilgrims were a lot of people who were not needed in England (laughter) and they were persuaded to go elsewhere, and they chartered a ship called the Mayflower and set sail, and I have heard it said that they pumped the Atlantic Ocean through that ship sixteen times. (Laughter.)

“And you know they had great rivalry there with the Dutch from Rotterdam, Amsterdam and a lot of other places with profane names (laughter), and it is from that gang that Mr Depew is descended. (Laughter and cheers.)

“On the other hand, Mr Choate is descended from those Puritans who landed on a bitter night in December. Every year those people used to meet at a grand banquet in New York, and those masters of mine in oratory had to make speeches. It was Mr Depew’s business to get up there and apologize for the Dutch (laughter), and Mr Choate had to get up later and explain the crimes of the Puritans (laughter), and grand, beautiful times we used to have.

Three Exiles

“It is curious that after that long lapse of time I meet the Whitefriars again, some looking as young and fresh as in the old days, others showing a certain amount of wear and tear – and here, after all this time, I find one of the masters of oratory and the other named in the list.

“And here we three meet again as exiles on one pretext or another, and you will notice that while we are absent there is a pleasing tranquillity in America – a building-up of public confidence. (Laughter.)

“We are doing the best we can for our country. I think we have spent our lives in serving our country, and we never serve it to greater advantage than when we get out of it. (Laughter.)

“But impromptu speaking – that is what I was trying to learn – that is a difficult thing. I used to do it in this way: I used to begin about a week ahead and write out my impromptu speech and get it by heart (laughter), and then I brought it to the New England dinner printed on a piece of paper in my pocket, so that I could pass it to the reporters all cut and dried. (Laughter.)

“And in order to do an impromptu speech as it should be done, you have to indicate the places for the pauses and hesitations. I put them all in it. And then you want the applause in the right place.

“When I got to the place where it should come in, if it did not come in I did not care – but I had it marked on the paper. (Laughter.) And these mas­ters of mine used to wonder why it was my speech came out in the morning in the first person while theirs went through the butchery of synopsis.

“To do that kind of speech – I mean an offhand speech – and do it well and make no mistake in such a way as to deceive the audience completely and make that audience believe it is an impromptu speech – that is art. (Laughter and cheers.)

“I was frightened out of it at last by an experience of Dr Hayes.

He was a sort of Nansen of that day. He had been to the North Pole and been all the way and seen the North Pole (laughter), and it made him very celebrated. He had seen the polar bear climb the Pole. (Laughter.) He had made one of those magnificent voyages such as Nansen made, and in those days, when a man did anything which greatly distinguished him for the moment, he had to come on the lecture platform and tell all about it.

“Dr Hayes was a great, magnificent creature like Nansen, superbly built. He had never been on a platform at all. He was to appear in Boston. He wrote his lecture out, and it was his purpose to read it from manuscript: but in an evil hour he concluded that it would be a good thing to preface it with something rather handsome, poetical and beautiful that he could get off by heart and deliver as if it were the thought of the moment.

“He had not had my experience and could not do that. (Laughter.) He came on the platform and began with a beautiful piece of oratory. He spoke something like this:

Dr Hayes’s Sad Experience

‘“When a lonely human being, a pigmy in the midst of the archi­tecture of nature, stands solitary on those icy wastes and looks abroad to the horizon and sees mighty castles and temples of eternal ice raising up their pinnacles, tipped by the pencils of the departing sun—’

“Here a man came across the platform and touched him on the shoulder and said: ‘One minute,’ and then to the audience: ‘is Mrs John Smith in the house?’ (Laughter.) ‘Her husband has slipped on the ice and broken his leg.’ (Laughter.)

“And you could see the Mrs John Smiths get up and drift out of the house, and it made great gaps everywhere. (Laughter.) Then Dr Hayes began again:

“‘When a lonely man, a pigmy in the architecture—’ The janitor came in again and shouted: ‘It is not Mrs John Smith, it is Mrs John Jones.’ (Laughter.)

“Then all the Mrs Joneses got up and left. (Roars of laughter.) Once more the speaker started, and was in the middle of the sentence, when he was interrupted again, and the result was that the lecture was not delivered.

“But the lecturer interviewed the janitor afterwards in a private room, and of the fragments of the janitor they took twelve basketfuls. (Laughter.)

“Now I do not want to sit down just in this way. I have been talking so much levity that I have said no serious thing, and you are really no better or wiser, although Robert Buchanan has suggested that I am a person who deals in wisdom. I have said nothing which would make you better than when you came here.

“I should be sorry to sit down without having said one serious word which you can carry home and relate to your children and the old people who are not able to get away.

“And this is just a little maxim which has saved me from many a dif­ficulty and many a disaster, and in times of tribulation and uncertainty has come to my rescue, as it shall come to yours if you observe it as I do, day and night.

“I always use it an emergency, and you can take it home as a legacy from me, and it is: ‘When in doubt, tell the truth’.”

A sentiment greeted with loud laughter and cheers, amid which Mark Twain resumed his seat.

The menu for the dinner was:

MENU

Hors d’Oeuvres
Croûte au Pot, Purée de Tomate
Filets de Sole Paysanne, Blanchailles
Poulet Sauté Chasseur
Selle de Mouton Jardinière
Pommes au Beurre
Caneton Rôti
Salade
Petits Pois
Gelées aux Fruits
Bombe Huckleberry
Gaufrettes Dessert
Café

 

Sources: The Sketch, The New York Book Buyer, The British Weekly, New York World.