150 Years Ago Mark Twain Celebrated New Years Eve By Debating How Drunk He Had Been During the Preceding Year & Listening to Charles Dickens Read David Copperfield With His Future Wife

1868 was a pretty important year for Sam Clemens. Over the course of it, he would turn the Quaker City cruise of the preceding year into a lucrative cross-country lecture tour and what would prove to be a bestselling book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). He made an extended stay in Washington, DC, gathering impressions which would form the basis for his first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), as well as several humorous stories and editorials. And he would make his first trip to Elmira and his first proposal to Olivia Langdon.

Though he may not yet have realized it, he had entered the productive prime of his career. The humorous accounts of his travels to Hawaii and the Holy Land had created a thriving demand for both his publications and performances. He evidently enjoyed the attention and rarely missed an opportunity to further raise his profile. Such was the case with the letter he published on New Years Eve, 1867.

Upon returning to the States, several unintentionally humorous feuds had broken out amongst the passengers of the Quaker City tour, who found themselves minor “reality stars” thanks in part to Twain’s descriptions of them in the Alta California. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered once such instance of “Trouble Among the Pilgrims,” when the captain of the Quaker City, C. C. Duncan, told an audience at the Plymouth Church that many of his passengers were habitually drunk, an account Stephen Griswold, a prominent banker and fellow Plymouth parishioner, vehemently denied. The Eagle, parodied “this momentous question” and speculated that “Mark Twain is the man to settle the point, let us hear from him.”

Twain accepted the invitation. His response to the controversy appeared in the December 31st edition of the Eagle. He took the opportunity to quibble with the semantics of Duncan’s accusation, demonstrating that “the best intentioned language is such an unreliable vehicle for thought,” and to report that both the captain and the banker had tasted Europe’s wines, even going so far as tempting Twain with them.

As the editor of the Eagle put it, “A discussion on the relative merits of French and Italian wines between two thorough-going temperance men; like Duncan and Griswold, would be very entertaining.” Twain joined the Eagle in mocking the self-seriousness of the Duncan-Griswold debate, expressing hope that more of his fellow passengers would “pour ink upon the troubled waters.”

The evening after the letter appeared, Clemens celebrated the New Year with the family of one of those fellow passengers, Charley Langdon. Charles Dickens was giving a series of readings at Steinway Hall in New York City. It was a highly coveted ticket. Twain would repeatedly remark on how wildly successful and innovative Dickens’s 1867-68 tour had been, attempting to emulate it in many respects, including hiring Dickens’s agent, George Dolby.

Twain described the performance in a dispatch to the Alta California a week later. He was impressed by the set. Dickens stood in front of “a huge red screen” with “a table to put his book on…a tumbler, a fancy decanter and a small bouquet.” A row of “reflecting lights attached to…a long board..threw down a glory upon the gentleman, after the fashion in use in the picture-galleries for bringing out the best effects of great paintings.” Twain, with the eye of an already well-established professional lecturer, admired everything about the staging: “Style! – There is style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings.” But his expert opinion was also that Dickens was “a bad reader,” who “did not cut the syllables cleanly.” His “husky voice” and “monotonous” delivery didn’t do justice to “the beautiful pathos of his language.” And, the most mortal sin to Mark Twain, he did not know how to tell his own jokes: “His rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads it himself.”

But while the expert lecturer found faults with Dickens’s performance, the aspiring novelist was giddy with admiration for “that queer old head” with “the wonderful mechanisms within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from cradle to grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake!” Twain, still nearly a decade from delivering Adventure of Tom Sawyer (1876) tried to “see the wheels and pulleys work” in the imagination of a fiction writer whose talent (and reputation) he clearly coveted.

He also coveted Dickens’s audience, who were equally awed by the author’s mere presence. Twain was increasingly sensitive to the advantages of celebrity and observed that the “bright, intelligent audience” was generous with their attention and applause despite “a degree of ability far below what his reading reputation led us to expect.”

In his review, Twain could not help but brag that he attended the exhibition with “a beautiful young lady…a highly respectable young white woman.” This was, of course, Olivia Langdon, who in a few years would become Livy Clemens. In 1907 he wrote, “It was forty years ago; from that day to this [she] has never been out of my mind nor heart.” With the exception of his own works, his favorite novels to read aloud to their daughters were always those of Charles Dickens.

Happy New Year from the Center for Mark Twain Studies!