June 16 2010 12:00 AM

Mark Twain invents Mark Twain


“Ladies and gentlemen, I shan’t fool away any unnecessary time in this introduction. I don’t know anything about this man. At least I know only two things: One is, that he has never been in the penitentiary, and the other is, I don’t know why.”

Thus Mark Twain introduced Mark Twain at Mead’s Hall in Lansing on Dec. 14, 1871.

Lansing never saw the Mark Twain bleached by myth — the white-haired, white-suited icon in the postage stamp and the Disneyland riverboat ride. Instead, Michigan’s 24-year-old capital got a 35-year-old vagabond, a red-haired rough boy, a shotgun satirist setting out for big game.

Twain was inventing himself as a celebrity and inventing celebrity itself.

Twain lectured twice in Lansing, first on Dec. 23, 1868, and on Dec. 14, 1871. Both lectures were at Mead’s Hall, the city’s first theater, a stately, arching edifice on the southeast corner of North Washington Avenue and Ottawa Street.

The Lansing Republican ran a typically bland notice on the morning of the 1871 talk: “Mark Twain, the inimitable humorist, lectures to-night at Mead’s Hall. As there will be a grand rush, procure your reserve-seat tickets.”

The paper sandwiched the announcement between a reminder that “city taxes are 16 days past due” and the following news: “The Grand Ledge Independent says that since the game law expired J. Burtch of that place has killed 103 turkeys.”

No wonder Twain wrote his own ads.

“A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA is in town, but has not been engaged,” reads a California notice from 1866. “A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS will be on exhibition in the next block. MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned. A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please.”

Many of Twain’s lecture notices read simply: “Doors open at 7:30, the trouble begins at eight.”

Twain hated the dreary hotels, slow trains and homesickness of lecturing, but he was kind to Lansing in a letter to his wife-to-be, Olivia Langdon, on Dec. 24, 1868.

“As usual, I found an old friend here, and we have had a glorious talk over old times. I am to dine with him & other friends tomorrow. I shall spend my Christmas Eve in this delightful little city.”

(The Lansing friend has not been identified, according to the Mark Twain Project at the University of California Berkeley, keeper of Twain’s voluminous papers and publisher of his definitive editions of his work.)

In Lansing, Twain flashed the dry, selfaware wit that blew away the inspirational speakers and long-winded academics of the Eastern lecture circuit, much like the Beatles upended the opera singers and acrobats of "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Twain had plenty of virgin rock to mine for laughs. His first Lansing lecture, “The American Vandal Abroad,” sprang from his 1867 trip to Europe and the Holy Land with a ship full of ignoramuses, yahoos and ugly Americans.

“Wherever we went, in Europe, Asia, or Africa, we created a sensation, and, I suppose I may add, a famine,” Twain recalled. “The Holy Land brought out all our enthusiasm. … We fairly rioted among the holy places of Jerusalem.”

He was touring behind his hit book about the trip, “The Innocents Abroad,” with one barrel of his shotgun aimed at the fusty Old World and the other at his own crew of new-world vandals.

Twain got irate when newspapers published his lectures, but the Lansing press was polite.

“A lecturer tells his own jokes best, and we will not repeat them,” read a review in the Lansing Republican Dec. 31, 1868.

But Twain’s report on the trip in the New York Herald catches the spirit of the book and the lectures.

“The people stared at us everywhere, and we stared at them,” Twain wrote. “We generally made them feel rather small…we bore down on them with America’s greatness until we crushed them.”

When it suited him, Twain assumed a smug ber-patriot tone 150 years before Stephen Colbert took up the shtick: “The people of these foreign countries are very, very ignorant,” Twain wrote. “They observed that we talked loudly at table sometimes. In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”

Twain’s take on the art of the old masters pleased Yankees and incensed Europeans. “We have seen 13,000 St. Jeromes, and 22.000 St. Marks, and 16,000 St. Matthews, and 60,000 St. Sebastians, and 4 millions of assorted monks, undesignated, and we feel encouraged to believe that when we have seen more of these various pictures, and had a larger experience, we shall begin to take an absorbing interest in them…”

The assault on the Old World was all in fun on the surface, but often presaged Twain’s bitterest anti-religious writings. Visiting Rome, he compared the cruelties of ancient times with more “enlightened, civilized people” of the Christian era: “The beasts tore the victims limb from limb and made poor mangled corpses of them in the twinkling of an eye. But when… the holy Mother Church became mistress of the barbarians, she taught them the error of their ways by no such means. No, she put them in this pleasant Inquisition and pointed to the Blessed Redeemer, who was so gentle and so merciful toward all men, and the urged the barbarians to love… and honor him — first by twisting their thumbs out of joint with a screw; then by nipping their flesh with pincers — red-hot ones, because they are the most comfortable in cold weather.”

Between the European trip and the Lansing lectures, Twain did a stint as a correspondent in Washington, where he started “the first Newspaper Syndicate on the planet” by sending sketches of capitol chicanery and madness to 12 weeklies “scattered among the back settlements.”

The compensation, Twain wrote, was “two doughnuts a line.”

Twain’s D.C. copy was often soaked with acid satire. In a phony interview with Gen. Ulysses Grant, then a presidential candidate, Twain claimed to ask the general questions like this: “Sir, do you propose to exterminate the Indians suddenly with soap and education, or doom them to the eternal annoyance of warfare, relieved only by periodical pleasantries of glass beads and perishable treaties?”

According to Twain, Grant answered the questions with “riotous silence.”

The Washington dispatches and early lecture circuit appearances made Twain a celebrity years before “Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “Huckleberry Finn” (1885).

This period, when Twain became Twain, fascinates Lansing actor/director Kevin Burnham most.

“Everyone is very familiar with the older Twain, the man who’s sitting from his perch at 70, going, ‘Oh yes,’” Burnham said. “What I found interesting is the younger man.”

Burnham has played Twain dozens of times in Michigan and Missouri. To honor the centennial of Twain’s death, Burnham will appear as Twain on the Michigan Princess June 24, for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, and July 7 at the Meridian Historical Village.

When Burnham first did Twain in the late 1980s at a theater in Alpena, he modeled himself after the 70-ish sage familiar from actor Hal Holbrook’s one-man show.

As time went on, Burnham grew more attracted to the sarcastic vandal that insinuated himself into the culture in the late 1860s.

Public lectures, Burnham explained, were one of the few diversions of Twain’s day, but laughs were few. Listeners paid 50 cents for temperance speeches, discourses on morality, or, if they were lucky, gobs of prolix metaphysics from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“This guy comes in, totally different from what they’re used to, with his Southern drawl and lackadaisical non-oratory, and just blows them away,” Burnham said.

After a series of bumpy adventures, including a failed turn as a prospector out West, Twain was panning for a lucrative persona; around the time of his Lansing lectures, he struck real gold.

“He goes from being a riverboat pilot to a newspaper reporter to becoming this celebrity, almost a rock star,” Burnham said.

There are no sound recordings of Twain’s voice, but Burnham had plenty of descriptions to go on.

“The Vandal, who yet disgraces the national name in the classic cities of the old world, was drawn to the life,” enthused the Dec. 31, 1868 Lansing Republican. The same review described him as “a young man, little over thirty years of age, and looks as though he had never been a drawing room pet, but had been used to the rough and tumble, the ups and downs of life.”

An 1871 report from the Philadelphia Press described Twain’s manner on stage:

“Mr. Clements [sic] stood quite still for a few moments, gazing vacantly around the house, much as if he expected to see a long-lost grandmother amidst the audience. Apparently not finding the ancient relative, he coughed modestly, and proceeded to introduce himself in a nasal voice, which from its twang was of itself amusing and during the whole lecture he sent forth a vein of humor that was perfectly irresistible.”

Still, some folks just didn’t get Twain. “It was impossible to know when he was talking in earnest and when in burlesque,” complained a reviewer in the Iowa City Republican Jan. 20, 1869. “We would not give two cents to hear him again.”

The Detroit Free Press gave a mixed notice of the “Vandal” speech Dec. 23, 1868.

“The lecture itself was decidedly good, but its delivery was not what might have been expected, an assumed drawl… spoiling the effect.”

The Lansing Republican took issue with the word “assumed”: “His manner is judged by many to be affected on the stage, which is untrue, his manner being the same in personal conversation, and an infirmity which, as he says, was honestly inherited.”

Twain’s Southern drawl, droll self-introductions and feigned surprise when laughter broke out were potent weapons against old-world pomposity.

On the lecture circuit, at least, Twain could be described as the anti-Dickens. When Twain attended a reading by Charles Dickens at Steinway Hall in New York in January1868, two of the world’s literary giants came within spitting distance of each other. It was Twain’s first date with his wife-to-be, Olivia Langdon.

Twain found Dickens, with his “tempestuously” brushed hair and air of “portentous dignity and gravity,” riding for a fall.

“His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures,” Twain noted, cattily. “How the great do tumble from their pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage like other men!”

Twain even used Olivia to sneak in another dig. “I am proud to observe that there was a beautiful young lady with me — a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens’ reading — I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed.”
Twain was sure to put the pork and cabbage front and center in his own lectures, deflating himself before anyone else could have a chance.

Between Twain’s 1869 and 1871 Lansing lectures, his fame grew and negative notices dwindled. The 1871 lecture filled Mead’s “to overflowing,” according to the Lansing Republican. The talk brought in $94 at the door and over $150 in subscribers to the 1871-72 lecture series, which also featured Frederick Douglass.

Twain changed the topic of the 1871 lecture twice. He started the year with a talk called “Reminiscences of Some Pleasant Characters I Have Met,” but by October he was tired of it.

“I’ll never deliver the nasty, nauseous ‘Reminiscences’ anymore,’” he wrote his agent, James Redpath, on Oct. 28, 1871.

A new lecture paying tribute to a recently deceased fellow humorist, Artemus Ward, wore out its welcome quickly when newspapers printed the text.

“Notify all hands that from this time I shall talk nothing but selections from my forthcoming book ‘Roughing It,’" Twain wrote to his managers Dec. 8. “Tried it last night. Suits me tiptop.”

A quick-fingered reporter from the Lansing Republican copied the entire lecture; that Dec. 21 story is the source of all the quotes below. There is no record of Twain’s reaction to the coup, which would probably have been unprintable anyway.

“Roughing It” details Twain’s adventures out West, including his early journalistic career in Nevada.

The saga was liberally spiced with humorous stories, which varied from town to town, but several reviewers praised Twain’s lyrical descriptions of nature, including Lake Tahoe.

“Where it was 80 feet deep, the pebbles on the bottom were just as distinct as if you held them in your hand; and in that clear white atmosphere it seemed as if the boat was drifting through the air,” he told the Lansing audience, then lightened the tone by urging them to see it in person: “If it don’t cure you, I’ll bury you at my own expense.”

The “Roughing It” talk, like “American Vandal,” had the flavor of a travelogue, but Twain’s attention was clearly shifting toward building his own anti-legend. He was lazy, he confessed, and didn’t take well to mining.

“Many a time when I have been carrying sand from one pile to another 30 or 40 feet apart I would get started with a pailful when a splendid idea would strike me and I would carry that sand right back and think about it,” he said. “Like as not, I would get so absorbed in it as to go to sleep. I almost always go to sleep when I am excited.”
When the mine went bust, Twain had to find work. “Of course I might have suicided, but that was kind of disagreeable,” he drawled.

Twain took an offer from the Virginia City, Nev., Daily Enterprise for $25 a week. A writer was born.

“I had never edited anything, but if I had been offered the job of translating Josephus from the original Hebrew I would have taken it. … I would have thrown in as many jokes as I could for the money, and made him readable.”
Wrapping up the Mead’s Hall speech, Twain delivered one last kick to the moralists, uplifters and preachers he was pushing from the Mead’s Hall platform — and the American stage.

“And so I was fairly launched in literature, in the business of doing good,” Twain said. “I love to do good. It is our duty. I think when a man does good all the time his conscience is so clear. I like to do right and be good, thought there is a deal more fun in the other thing.”

Kevin Burnham as Mark Twain
On the Michigan Princess
6 p.m. Thursday, June 24
(517) 484-8802
$39 general public, $35 for Historical Society of Greater Lansing members michiganprincess.com
Also performing at
Meridian Historical Village
5113 Marsh Road, Okemos
7 p.m. Wednesday, July 7
(517) 347-7300