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Chapter 20

I will throw in a note or two here touching the time when Susy was seventeen. She had written a play modeled upon Greek lines, and she and Clara and Margaret Warner, and other young comrades, had played it to a charmed houseful of friends in our house in Hartford. Charles Dudley Warner and his brother, George, were present. They were near neighbors and warm friends of ours. They were full of praises of the workmanship of the play, and George Warner came over the next morning and had a long talk with Susy. The result of it was this verdict:

I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value--certainly no large value. When Charles Dudley Warner and I were about to bring out The Gilded Age, the editor of the Daily Graphic persuaded me to let him have an advance copy, he giving me his word of honor that no notice of it should appear in his paper until after the Atlantic Monthly notice should have appeared. This reptile published a review of the book within three days afterward, I could not really complain, because he had only given me his word of honor as security. I ought to have required of him something substantial. I believe his notice did not deal mainly with the merit of the book, or the lack of it, but with my moral attitude toward the public. It was charged that I had used my reputation to play a swindle upon the public--that Mr. Warner had written as much as half of the book, and that I had used my name to float it and give it currency--a currency which it could not have acquired without my name--and that this conduct of mine was a grave fraud upon the people. The Graphic was not an authority upon any subject whatever. It had a sort of distinction in that it was the first and only illustrated daily newspaper that the world had seen; but it was without character, it was poorly and cheaply edited, its opinion of a book or of any other work of art was of no consequence. Everybody knew this, yet all the critics in America, one after the other, copied the Graphic's criticism, merely changing the phraseology, and left me under that charge of dishonest conduct. Even the great Chicago Tribune, the most important journal in the Middle West, was not able to invent anything fresh, but adopted the view of the humble Daily Graphic, dishonesty charge and all. However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.

Old lecture days in Boston(wirtten in 1898)I remember Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (Locke) very well. When the Civil War began he was on the staff of the Toledo Blade, an old and prosperous and popular weekly newspaper. He let fly a Nasby letter and it made a fine strike. He was famous at once. He followed up his new lead, and gave the Copperheads and the Democratic party a most admirable hammering every week, and his letters were copied everywhere, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and read and laughed over by everybody--at least everybody except particularly dull and prejudiced Democrats and Copperheads. For suddenness, Nasby's fame was an explosion; for universality it was atmospheric. He was soon offered a company; he accepted and was straightway ready to leave for the front; but the Governor of the state was a wiser man than were the political masters of K?rner and Pet?fi; for he refused to sign Nasby's commission and ordered him to stay at home. He said that in the field Nasby would be only one soldier, handling one sword, but at home with his pen he was an army--with artillery! Nasby obeyed and went on writing his electric letters.I saw him first when I was on a visit to Hartford; I think it was three or four years after the war. The Opera House was packed and jammed with people to hear him deliver his lecture on "Cussed be Canaan." He had been on the platform with that same lecture--and no other--during two or three years, and it had passed his lips several hundred times, yet even now he could not deliver any sentence of it without his manuscript--except the opening one. His appearance on the stage was welcomed with a prodigious burst of applause, but he did not stop to bow or in any other way acknowledge the greeting, but strode straight to the reading desk, spread his portfolio open upon it, and immediately petrified himself into an attitude which he never changed during the hour and a half occupied by his performance, except to turn his leaves--his body bent over the desk, rigidly supported by his left arm, as by a stake, the right arm lying across his back. About once in two minutes his right arm swung forward, turned a leaf, then swung to its resting-place on his back again--just the action of a machine, and suggestive of one; regular, recurrent, prompt, exact. You might imagine you heard it clash. He was a great, burly figure, uncouthly and provincially clothed, and he looked like a simple old farmer.I was all curiosity to hear him begin. He did not keep me waiting. The moment he had crutched himself upon his left arm, lodged his right upon his back, and bent himself over his manuscript he raised his face slightly, flashed a glance upon the audience, and bellowed this remark in a thundering bull-voice:"We are all descended from grandfathers!"Then he went right on roaring to the end, tearing his ruthless way through the continuous applause and laughter, and taking no sort of account of it. His lecture was a volleying and sustained discharge of bull's-eye hits, with the slave power and its Northern apologists for target, and his success was due to his matter, not his manner; for his delivery was destitute of art, unless a tremendous and inspiring earnestness and energy may be called by that name. The moment he had finished his piece he turned his back and marched off the stage with the seeming of being not personally concerned with the applause that was booming behind him.He had the constitution of an ox and the strength and endurance of a prize-fighter. Express trains were not very plenty in those days. He missed a connection, and in order to meet this Hartford engagement he had traveled two-thirds of a night and a whole day in a cattle car--it was midwinter. He went from the cattle car to his reading desk without dining; yet on the platform his voice was powerful and he showed no signs of drowsiness or fatigue. He sat up talking and supping with me until after midnight, and then it was I that had to give up, not he. He told me that in his first season he read his "Cussed be Canaan" twenty-five nights a month for nine successive months. No other lecturer ever matched that record, I imagine.He said that as one result of repeating his lecture 225 nights straight along, he was able to say its opening sentence without glancing at his manuscript; and sometimes even did it, when in a daring mood. And there was another result: he reached home the day after his long campaign, and was sitting by the fire in the evening, musing, when the clock broke into his revery by striking eight. Habit is habit, and before he realized where he was he had thundered out, "We are all descended from grandfathers!"I began as a lecturer in 1866, in California and Nevada; in 1867 lectured in New York once and in the Mississippi Valley a few times; in 1868 made the whole Western circuit; and in the two or three following seasons added the Eastern circuit to my route. We had to bring out a new lecture every season, now (Nasby with the rest), and expose it in the "Star Course," Boston, for a first verdict, before an audience of 2,500 in the old Music Hall; for it was by that verdict that all the lyceums in the country determined the lecture's commercial value. The campaign did not really begin in Boston, but in the towns around. We did not appear in Boston until we had rehearsed about a month in those towns and made all the necessary corrections and revisings.This system gathered the whole tribe together in the city early in October, and we had a lazy and sociable time there for several weeks. We lived at Young's Hotel; we spent the days in Redpath's Bureau, smoking and talking shop; and early in the evenings we scattered out among the towns and made them indicate the good and poor things in the new lectures. The country audience is the difficult audience; a passage which it will approve with a ripple will bring a crash in the city. A fair success in the country means a triumph in the city. And so, when we finally stepped on to the great stage at the Music Hall we already had the verdict in our pocket.But sometimes lecturers who were "new to the business" did not know the value of "trying it on the dog," and these were apt to come to the Music Hall with an untried product. There was one case of this kind which made some of us very anxious when we saw the advertisement. De Cordova--humorist--he was the man we were troubled about. I think he had another name, but I have forgotten what it was. He had been printing some dismally humorous things in the magazines; they had met with a deal of favor and given him a pretty wide name; and now he suddenly came poaching upon our preserve and took us by surprise. Several of us felt pretty unwell--too unwell to lecture. We got outlying engagements postponed and remained in town. We took front seats in one of the great galleries--Nasby, Billings, and I--and waited. The house was full. When De Cordova came on he was received with what we regarded as a quite overdone and almost indecent volume of welcome. I think we were not jealous, nor even envious, but it made us sick, anyway. When I found he was going to read a humorous story--from manuscript--I felt better and hopeful, but still anxious. He had a Dickens arrangement of tall gallows frame adorned with upholsteries, and he stood behind it under its overhead row of hidden lights. The whole thing had a quite stylish look and was rather impressive. The audience was so sure that he was going to be funny that they took a dozen of his first utterances on trust and laughed cordially--so cordially, indeed, that it was very hard for us to bear--and we felt very much disheartened. Still, I tried to believe he would fail, for I saw that he didn't know how to read. Presently the laughter began to relax; then it began to shrink in area; and next to lose spontaneity; and next to show gaps between; the gaps widened; they widened more; more yet; still more. It was getting to be almost all gaps and silence, with that untrained and unlively voice droning through them. Then the house sat dead and emotionless for a whole ten minutes. We drew a deep sigh; it ought to have been a sigh of pity for a defeated fellow craftsman, but it was not---for we were mean and selfish, like all the human race, and it was a sigh of satisfaction to see our unoffending brother fail.He was laboring now, and distressed; he constantly mopped his face with his handkerchief, and his voice and his manner became a humble appeal for compassion, for help, for charity, and it was a pathetic thing to see. But the house remained cold and still, and gazed at him curiously and wonderingly.There was a great clock on the wall, high up; presently the general gaze forsook the reader and fixed itself upon the clock face. We knew by dismal experience what that meant; we knew what was going to happen, but it was plain that the reader had not been warned and was ignorant. It was approaching nine now--half the house watching the clock, the reader laboring on. At five minutes to nine, twelve hundred people rose, with one impulse, and swept like a wave down the aisles toward the doors! The reader was like a person stricken with a paralysis; he stood choking and gasping for a few minutes, gazing in a white horror at that retreat, then he turned drearily away and wandered from the stage with the groping and uncertain step of one who walks in his sleep.The management were to blame. They should have told him that the last suburban cars left at nine and that half the house would rise and go then, no matter who might be speaking from the platform. I think De Cordova did not appear again in public.

Chapter 40

The Doctor could not master that triumphant note. He always gravely stammered and whistled and whistled and stammered it through, and it came out at the end with the solemnity and the gravity of the judge delivering sentence to a man with the black cap on.

New York, Wednesday, January 24, 1906


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