Monday, May 5, 2014

Mark Twain, Collector Of Compliments

by Stephen J. Gertz

Little Montana Girl's Compliment
"She was gazing thoughtfully at a photograph of Mark Twain
on a neighbor's mantelpiece. Presently she said, reverently,
'We've got a Jesus like that at home only ours has more trimmings.'"

On January 11, 1908, The Lotos Club in New York City, one of the oldest literary associations in the United States, held a dinner in honor of one of its members, Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain.

Founded in New York City in 1870 by a group of young writers, journalists and critics, the Lotos Club initiated Twain to membership in 1873, who, waggish card that he was, immediately declared it “The Ace of Clubs.” At the dinner - attended by many luminaries - the guest of honor gave a speech announcing that he had become a collector of compliments. PBA Galleries is offering one of those compliments, in Twain's hand, in its Historic Autographs & Manuscripts with Archival Material sale May 8, 2014. It is estimated to sell for $2,500-$4,000.

As reported in the New York Times, January 12, 1908, Twain told the gathering:

"I wish to begin at the beginning, lest I forget it altogether. I wish to thank you for your welcome now and for that of seven years ago, which I forgot to thank you for at the time, also for that of fourteen years ago which I also forgot to thank you for. I know how it is; when you have been in a parlor and are going away, common decency ought to make you say the decent thing, what a good time you have had. Everybody does it except myself.

"I hope that you will continue that excellent custom of giving me dinners every seven years. I had had it on my mind to join the hosts of another world - I do not know which world - but I have enjoyed your custom so much that I am willing to postpone it for another seven years.

"The guest is in an embarrassing position, because compliments have been paid to him. I don't care whether you deserve it or not, but it is hard to talk up to it.

"The other night at the Engineers' Club dinner they were paying Mr. Carnegie here discomforting compliments. They were all compliments and they were not deserved, and I tried to help him out with criticisms and references to things nobody understood.

"They say that one cannot live on bread alone, but I could live on compliments. I can digest them. They do not trouble me. I have missed much in life that I did not make a collection of compliments, and keep them where I could take them out and look at them once in a while. I am beginning now. Other people collect autographs, dogs, and cats, and I collect compliments. I have brought them along.

"I have written them down to preserve them, and think that they're mighty good and exceedingly just."

[Twain began to read a few. The first, by essayist, critic, and editor Hamilton W. Mabie, declared that La Salle might have been the first man to make a voyage of the Mississippi, but that Mark Twain was the first man to chart light and humor for the human race].

"If that had been published at the time that I issued that book [Life on the Mississippi] it would have been money in my pocket. I tell you it is a talent by itself to pay complements gracefully and have them ring true. It's an art by itself.

"Now, here's one by my biographer. Well, he ought to know me if anybody does. He's been at my elbow for two years and a half. This is Albert Bigelow Paine:

"'Mark Twain is not merely the great writer, the great philosopher, but he is the supreme expression of the human being with its strengths and weaknesses.'

"What a talent for compression!"

[Novelist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells, Twain said, spoke of him as first of Hartford and ultimately of the solar system, not to say of the universe].

"You know how modest Howells is. If it can be proved that my fame reaches to Neptune and Saturn, that will satisfy even me. You know how modest and retiring Howells is, but deep down he is as vain as I am."

"Edison wrote: 'The average American loves his family. If he has any love left over for some other person he generally selects Mark Twain.'

"Now here's the compliment of a little Montana girl, which came to me indirectly. She was in a room in which there was a large photograph of me. After gazing at it steadily for a time, she said:

"'We've got a John the Baptist like that.' 

"She also said: 'Only ours has more trimmings.'

"I suppose she meant the halo.

[Since the offered "compliment" is numbered “4” and the Times reported the little girl’s compliment after three prior, this sheet was most likely Twain’s reading copy; he extemporaneously changed some of the words but it was basically the same story].

"Now here is a gold miner's compliment. It is forty-two years old. It was my introduction to an audience to which I lectured in a log schoolhouse. There were no ladies there. I wasn't famous then. They didn't know me. Only the miners were there with their breeches tucked into their boot tops and with clay all over them. They wanted someone to introduce me, and then selected a miner, who protested that he didn't want to do on the ground that he had never appeared in public. This is what he said:

"'I don't know anything about this man. Anyhow, I only know two things about him. One is he has never been in jail and the other is I don't know why...'"

The dinner was Twain-themed. As tasty as his speech was, the meal was tastier, a feast for those whose tongue for Twain went all the way. On the menu that evening:

Innocent Oysters Abroad.
Roughing It Soup.
Huckleberry Finn Fish.
Joan of Arc Filet of Beef.
Jumping Frog Terrapin.
Punch Brothers Punch.
Gilded Duck.
Hadleyburg Salad.
Life on the Mississippi Ice Cream.
Prince and the Pauper Cake.
Pudd'nhead Cheese.
White Elephant coffee.
Chateau Yquem Royals.
Pommery Brut.
Henkow Cognac.

Dishes served only in spirit included:

Double-Barrelled Detective Mystery Vegetable.
Connecticut Yankee Stew.
Mysterious Stranger Souvlaki.

Our compliments to the chef - and honoree.

Image courtesy of PBA Galleries, with our thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Marvelous. If you all would like to see a double ambrotype of Mark Twain, age around 26, visit


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