Mark Twain’s half-century as a public speaker canbe divided into two very different categories. His organized tours, undertakento promote a recent book or reprise a trusted lecture, were business ventures,and he grew to hate them. His club and after-dinner talks, delivered for no orlittle fee, were a type of social theater, offering the sort of spotlight hefound irresistible. His talent and stamina for such occasions created a steadyflow of invitations, whether to toast dignitaries and tycoons, to enlighten theLittle Mother’s Aid Association, or the Organization for the Prevention ofUnnecessary Noise, or to regale the Stomach Club of Paris or the Yorick Club ofMelbourne.
Hebecame so skilled at the art of the banquet speech that he planned to write aBanqueter’s Handbook. His notes for this indicate how deliberately he preparedfor his performances, first writing and memorizing, then carefully rehearsingall his “fictitious hesitancies for the right word, fictitious unconsciouspauses, fictitious unconscious side remarks, fictitious unconsciousembarrassments, fictitious unconscious emphasis placed upon the wrong word witha deep intention back of it.” William Dean Howells describes Twain’sreliance upon mnemonic devices, his recall of a pre-arrangement of billiardballs or dinner-table cutlery and glassware giving him “full command ofthe phrases which his excogitation had attached to them.” The glasswarewould have been plentiful enough. Contemporary accounts describe the full-dressdinners as six-hour, eight-course affairs, each course with its appropriatewine, each toast with its bumper of champagne, each cup of coffee with itsliqueur.
Twainregarded his “Babies” speech, delivered in 1879 at an emotionalbanquet of Civil War veterans in honor of General Ulysses S. Grant, as thepinnacle of his after-dinner career. The last of fifteen speakers to take thepodium that evening—by his turn it was actually 3:30 a.m., and he chose to standon a table—the toast Twain chose was “To the Babies: As They Comfort Us inOur Sorrows, Let Us Not Forget Them in Our Festivities.” From thisunlikely inspiration he wove a humorous series of reflections—how all soldierspresent had once been babies, how most had fathered babies, and been forced tohand in resignations “when that little fellow arrived at familyheadquarters.” The speech concludes with an extended speculation on thefuture leaders of the nation, these chosen from “among the three or fourmillion cradles now rocking in the land”:
…Andin still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustriouscommander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with hisapproaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategicmind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into hismouth—an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest ofthis evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if thechild is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that hesucceeded.
Thejoke convulsed the 600 soldiers and brought them to their feet. It also “shook[Grant] up like dynamite,” Twain wrote Howells, “& he sat therefifteen minutes and laughed & cried like the mortalest of mortals.”
Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.