Jump to Content

Add to My CitationsEditorial narrative following 5 November 1875 to William A. Seaver
Click to add citation to My Citations.

No letters written between 5 and 17 November, except for the preceding one, have been found. Even it suggests that Clemens probably remained in Hartford, working on the novel he had recently begun (see 4 Nov 75 to Howells, n. 9). On 12 November he made a public appearance, to deliver a “prologue” at the debut performance of the newly formed Hartford Dramatic Association. The play was Our Best Society, by Irving Browne (1835–99), of Troy, New York, who had previously translated Racine’s comedy The Suitors (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1871) and later wrote humorous works on the law. According to the Hartford Courant of 13 November, it was “a clever satire upon would-be aristocracy,” based on George William Curtis’s Potiphar Papers, and “as a piece for amateurs it is capital.” The newspaper gave the following account of Clemens’s address:

At a quarter before 8 the curtain was drawn aside and Mr. Henry Wilson stepped out, with Mr. S. L. Clemens, and introduced the latter as “Mr. Mark Twain.” (Applause). Mr. Clemens maintained a ludicrous silence for two or three minutes, and then began to speak in his inimitable way. He said he had been appointed to come out and talk five minutes, by the watch, and he had been instructed that he was not there to deliver a lecture, and must not forget himself and go on too long, because there was a play to be performed. He understood that he was not to talk on anything in particular. He had got to talk—that was all. It mattered little what he said—he was to put in the time, so that the actors could have a chance to cool down their excitement, so as to play calmly and do credit to themselves and to the piece. He was not to stand there and ooze wisdom or deliver instruction, but to put in the time. They had given him five minutes, and if he got in a close place, six minutes, but if he found he was in a close place, he would take the extra minutes to get out in. He believed his business was to do as in Shakespeare’s time—deliver a prologue—describe the character of the play and the moral it was expected to teach. He had glanced through the pamphlet and found it like all others of this kind in print; he could get neither head nor tail of it. When he read in Richard III, “A horse, a horse!” it seemed prosaic enough, but it was different in delivery. All was the same in print. He had found in Mr. Potiphar what he took to be a bloody villain; Mr. Cream Cheese appeared to be an upright, model man; Mrs. Potiphar a modest lady, sweet and gentle. But he was afraid to venture on a description—he might get it mixed up. He begged permission to tell an anecdote—one that Colonel Sellers tells now—in illustration. Mr. Clemens then related the “whistling story”—which is familiar to those who have seen the play of “The Gilded Age”—about the stammering gentleman, who tried the plan of whistling whenever he hesitated in pronouncing a word. Mr. Clemens said a Boston friend had mailed him this little story, advising him to introduce it in a lecture. He had read it and couldn’t see the point. It appeared to be a stammer and a whistle and everything mixed up. Afterwards he heard his friend tell it, and then he saw the point—it was all in the delivery. It was a cure for stammering. It is needless to say that Mark Twain’s relation of the anecdote set the house in an uproar of laughter. Mr. Clemens concluded by saying that this story in print didn’t seem to have any point; neither did the MSS. of the play carry any sense to his mind, and he would advise all to see the performance of it and judge for themselves. (SLC 1875)

Clemens included a version of the “whistling story” in at least some of the “Roughing It” lectures he delivered between 1871 and 1874, attributing it to Artemus Ward (see Lorch 1968, 304, 320–21, and Fatout 1976, 62–63). Colonel Sellers tells the story in act four of the Gilded Age play (SLC 1874). Henry Wilson was a Hartford organist and music teacher. Our Best Society was repeated on 13 November, but without Clemens’s participation (“Our Best Society,” Hartford Times, 13 Nov 75, 2; Geer 1875, 153, 235).