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Friday, August 5, 2011

Silence as a weapon: the two most embarrassing speeches Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce ever gave

Within a year of settling his family in London in 1872, Ambrose Bierce published two collections of his San Francisco writings, dozens of his stories and sketches were featured in Tom Hood’s famous Victorian comic paper Fun, two columns (“The Town Crier” and “The Passing Show”) appeared regularly in the British magazine Figaro, and he sent a series (“Letter on England”) back home to the Alta California newspaper. He had become such a sensation that when Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller, and Bierce were honored at a dinner at the White Friars Club in Mitre Court, Fleet Street, in the winter of ’73, it was Bierce who got top billing, hailed as “one of the most original and daring humorists this age has produced.”

This clearly nettled Twain. Seven years Twain’s junior, Bierce had begun his writing career in California just as Twain was leaving; now it was Bierce, not Twain, who was being asked to speak. To acknowledge their connection, Bierce launched into his often-told account of their first meeting five years earlier in the offices of the News-Letter in San Francisco, just a few months after Bierce joined the staff. Richard O’Connor recounts the meeting in his biography of Bierce:
The lank, red-headed Twain strolled in and looked around the outer office with disdain.

“Young man,” Twain drawled, himself in his early thirties, “this room is so nude I should think you and the owner would be ashamed of yourselves.”

Bierce kept on working.

“Young man,” Twain said, “where is the owner?”

“Somewhere around town,“ Bierce replied. “He’ll be back shortly.”

“Young man,” said Twain, glowering at Bierce, “are you sure he is not in that next room drunk?”

Bierce insisted that he wasn’t covering up for his employer , that publisher Frederick A. Marriott would return soon, and asked if there was anything he could do for the caller.

“I’ve come to repay Marriott a loan,” Twain explained.

“You could leave the money with me.”

“Young man,” Twain demanded, staring intently at Bierce. “look me in the eye and speak as if you were talking to your God. If I gave you that money, are you sure your employer would ever see it?”

That broke the ice, and Twain chatted amiably until Marriott returned.
However, as Bierce retold the story of the meeting, the audience looked to Twain for his reaction—and saw him sitting stone-faced, looking off into the distance, presumably bored. Twain’s response was not lost on Bierce, who faltered in his delivery and sat down to funereal silence. According to biographer Carey McWilliams, Bierce never spoke in public again.

But he had his revenge. Almost exactly four years later, it was Twain’s turn to suffer a similar fate. The occasion was the seventieth birthday dinner for John Greenleaf Whittier at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston. Among the sixty attendees were such literary legends as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Always trying a new twist, Twain had created for his toast what his biographer Ron Powers calls “the first celebrity roast.”

In a “frame-tale” Twain had himself knocking on a miner’s door in Nevada and finding that he was the fourth “littery man” to call in twenty-four hours, the previous ones being Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, only in the miner’s description: “Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap,” “Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon,” “Mr. Longfellow was built like a prize-fighter. . . They had been drinking.” Twain had grossly misjudged his audience. He recalls in his Autobiography how “the audience turned to stone with horror” and that he sat down to “an awful silence, a desolating silence. . . Even the Boston Massacre did not produce a like effect.”

Bierce couldn’t resist joining the barrage of outrage, writing from San Francisco a “Comment on a Famous Faux Pas” in The Argonaut of January 5, 1878:
Mark Twain’s Boston speech, in which the great humorist’s coltish imagination represented Longfellow, Emerson, and Whittier [sic] engaged at a game of cards in the cabin of a California miner, is said to have so wrought upon the feelings of “the best literary society” in that city that the daring joker is in danger of lynching. I hope they won’t lynch him; it would be irregular and illegal, however roughly just and publicly beneficial. Besides, it would rob many a worldly sheriff of an honorable ambition by dispelling the most bright and beautiful hope of his life.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs; Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890 (includes the Whittier Birthday Speech)


  1. Long intrigued by Bierce, and fascinated how his little poem, which urged a bullet on its way "To stretch McKinley on his bier" in 1900, helped to sink Hearst's presidential ambitions after, in fact, a bullet stretched McKinley on his bier in 1901.

  2. Old Ambrose had a beautiful way with a punchline, didn't he?


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