Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mark Twain in Kalamazoo

In December 1871, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) came to town to give a talk before the Young Men's Library Association as well as an assemblage of the public from Kalamazoo and the surrounding area. His proposed subject was Artemas Ward, the assumed name of a humorist by the name of Charles Farrar Browne. However, Clemens decided to change the program and spoke a little about his experiences as recounted in his recently released book, “Roughing It.” He had been on the lecture circuit and was probably tired of the old Artemas Ward schtick by then.

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpbh.04761.  It was taken by Matthew Brady in Feb 1871.
Opinions differed as to whether the audience got their money's worth or should have had their admission remitted. The Kalamazoo Gazette [Kalamazoo Gazette, 12-22-1871, P3] described the spectators as being rapt, on the edge of their seats one moment and rolling with laughter the next. The Kalamazoo Telegraph [Kalamazoo Telegraph, 12-18-1871, p4, col.1] correspondent, on the other hand, felt that the audience had been imposed upon for having such a disjointed collection of stories fed to them as a “lecture.” Ironically, a Google search for the Artemas Ward speech of Mark Twain came up with one newspaper article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle [11-22-1871] that described it as follows: “On the whole, the lecture. . . was actually nothing but a discursive and pleasant bundle of stories, bound together by a cord of quaint fancy.”

Union Hall, where the lecture was held, was packed, even including the aisles. As there was no reserved seating, many arrived early to secure a seat and according to the Gazette, “it became a grab game.” Both news outlets stated that no lecturer visiting Kalamazoo had drawn a larger crowd except for John B. Gough, a noted temperance orator.

The Gazette described the mix of stories adding “these, interspersed with a description of the country, so minute, so picturesque, and yet no doubt so true, that one could almost imagine himself standing where the narrator had stood, and gazing across the sandy and forsaken plain, or with him peering into the clear and placid waters of Lake Tahoe. One moment he would be dealing with a description of scenery that would rise to the loftiest heights of grandeur, the next, his humor would break out as it seemed, involuntarily, and instead of the listening, wrapt, [sic] enchanted audience of the moment before, would be one swayed in the convulsions of laughter.”

The Telegraph railed that “the substitute for a lecture which Mr. Clemens foisted upon his audience was an insult to their intelligence and capacity” and that “no lecturer we regret to say, ever more completely disappointed his hearers.” The Telegraph continued that “Mr. Clemens had no right to impose upon his hearers any such desultory trash as they were subjected to.” The Telegraph correspondent must have known that his sentiments were not shared by the Gazette reporter and ended his diatribe saying Mr. Clemens “should have given the lecture he contracted to deliver, or something equally good, in its stead, and not put us off with a rambling, disconnected talk about a hackneyed subject, sans wit, sans information, sans sense. It is the duty of the press to expose such impositions, and if other journals remain silent, we shall not.”

Mark Twain's visit certainly drew a large crowd, but whether his lecture left his audience wishing to obtain a copy of his latest book or wanting a refund seems open to debate. One thing is clear of the opinions of the Telegraph and the Gazette, never the twain shall meet. It is possible that the Telegraph reporter was expecting an informative lecture. Though he stated he had read and enjoyed Twain's books I doubt he would have appreciated the Artemas Ward “lecture” any more than the one he heard. I suspect those that merely wanted an entertaining evening, without a preconceived notion of what a “lecture” should be, were rewarded.

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