MONMOUTH, Ill. — Living in a college town like Monmouth has its perks — among them the opportunity to hear an impressive array of distinguished lecturers. That was certainly the case in 1869, when Monmouth College’s Quaternion Society (a joint organization of its four literary societies) invited bestselling author and humorist Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain — to speak in Monmouth.
The lecture was held in the new Hardin’s Hall, located on the north side of the 100 block of East First Avenue. Built in 1865 by hardware merchant Chancy Hardin, it was at the time the only public auditorium in Monmouth. Details of the Monmouth lecture were not recorded in the local newspapers, but because of Twain’s fame, they can be effectively reconstructed through preserved documents.
On the evening Twain spoke — January 8, 1869 — he was in the middle of an extensive lecture tour that would span more than 40 cities. His topic was “The American Vandal Abroad,” and the tour was a promotion for his upcoming book, The Innocents Abroad. Twain wrote out his lectures, then committed them to memory and delivered them as soliloquies, seldom diverting from the original text — except to insert occasional local references. Transcriptions of the “Vandal” lecture exist from at least three sources, so we have a pretty good idea of what the Monmouth audience heard.
We also can reconstruct visuals of the talk, thanks to a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, who described Twain’s appearance in Chicago’s Library Hall the previous evening:
“Blessed with long legs, he is tall, reaching five feet ten inches in his boots; weight, 167 pounds; body lithe and muscular; head round and well set on considerable neck, and feet of no size within the ken of a shoemaker, so he gets his boots and stockings always made to order. Next to Grant, he wears the belt for smoking. He smokes tobacco. Drink never crosses the threshold of his humorous mouth. Fun lurks in the corners of it. The eyes are deep-set and twinkle like stars in a dark night. The brow overhangs the eyes, and the head is protected from the weather by dark and curling locks. The face is eminently a good one, a laughing face, beaming with humor and genuine good nature. He looks as if he would make a good husband and a jolly father.”
The reporter also described Twain’s delivery:
“His manner is peculiar; he hangs round loose, leaning on the desk, or flirting round the corners of it; then marching and counter-marching in the rear of it, marking off ground by the yard with his tremendous boots…His voice is a long monotonous drawl, well adapted to his style of speaking. The fun invariably comes in at the end of a sentence, after a pause. When the audience least expects it, some dry remark drops and tickles the ribs…”
Anyone familiar with the book The Innocents Abroad can imagine how Twain’s recounting of his recent travel adventure kept the audience in stitches. Two years earlier, he had boarded the steamship Quaker City at New York for a five-month trip to Europe and the Holy Land. The trip was funded by the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, which planned to publish his travel dispatches. The cruise, which was the idea of bankrupt shipping magnate Charles Duncan, had been marketed by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher’s Congregational Church in Brooklyn, and its passengers were conservative, religious, nouveau riche Americans, who were just the crowd that Twain enjoyed lampooning. Technology had recently made transatlantic travel relatively quick and cheap, and middle-class Americans jumped at the chance of taking the grand tour of Europe, once reserved for only the very wealthy. Being Americans, they lacked Old World social graces and were eager to snap up travel souvenirs, even if it meant desecrating historic monuments — thus earning the title “vandals.”
According to Roy Morris Jr., author of American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (Harvard University Press, 2015), Twain kept a running tally of the number of religious relics they were shown: “a piece of the True Cross in every church they went into, a keg’s worth of nails from said cross, three separate crowns of thorns, and enough bones of the martyred St. Denis ‘for them to duplicate him, if necessary.’” As for Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” Twain reported that “Simon looks seedy; John looks sick, and half of the other blurred and damaged apostles have a general expression of discouragement about them.”
When the Quaker City returned to New York after having traveled 20,000 miles and visited eight countries and three islands, Twain was approached by a Connecticut publisher and asked to write a “humorously inclined” book about the cruise. He had already lined up a staff job with a U.S. senator, but agreed to the offer, assuming the price was right. He turned down a $10,000 flat fee and instead insisted on a 5 percent royalty on each book sold — a wise decision. In those days, books were sold in advance by subscription, and Twain’s soaring celebrity insured the publication would be a financial success — becoming the best-selling book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
By June 1868, Twain had finished the 192,000-word manuscript, provisionally titled The New Pilgrim’s Progress, but several frustrating delays pushed back its publication date. To pass the time and increase his profits, he signed with James Redpath’s Boston Lyceum Bureau for a speaking tour of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states. Beginning in Cleveland on Nov. 17, 1868, and ending in Pennsylvania on March 20, 1869, he spoke in 41 cities for a fixed fee of $100 per lecture.
While the tour proved profitable for Twain, it was not without its downside. Not only was it grueling (the train ride from Chicago to Monmouth, for example, took nine hours), but his rising celebrity also caused him to be set upon by well-wishers and favor seekers at every turn. He complained about this to his fiancée, Olivia Langdon, in a letter he wrote from his suite in the Sherman House in Chicago, which he told her was the tenth letter he had to write after that night’s performance. Even more difficult for Twain was being away from Olivia; he confessed that he was in a hurry to get to Monmouth, where he knew a letter from her would be waiting.
Still, Twain was young — only 33 — so he did have stamina, and he also drew energy from the laughter of his audiences — an advantage missing from merely writing humor. Like today’s stand-up comedians, he derived important feedback from his listeners that helped him to hone his wit.
But his lectures were not just funny. They were masterpieces of literary imagination that entranced his listeners, just as his novels did his readers. For example, here is how he described coming upon Greek ruins after climbing the hill of the Acropolis in the middle of the night:
Here and there in lavish profusion were gleaming white statues of men and women, propped against blocks of marble, some of them armless, some without legs, others headless, but all looking mournful and sentient and startlingly human! They rose up and confronted the midnight intruder on every side; they stared at him with stony eyes from unlooked-for nooks and recesses; they peered at him over fragmentary heaps far down the desolate corridors; they barred his way in the midst of the broad forum, and solemnly pointed with handless arms the way from the sacred fane; and through the roofless temple the moon looked down and banded the floor and darkened the scattered fragments and broken statues with the slanting shadows of the columns!
Twain also understood that his Victorian audiences (including Monmouth’s serious Presbyterians) demanded a morally instructive talk. He ended his Vandal lecture with a message that would be particularly appropriate in 2018: “I am glad the American Vandal goes abroad. It does him good. It makes a better man of him. It rubs out a multitude of his old unworthy biases and prejudices…Contact with men of various nations and many creeds teaches him that there are other people in the world besides his own little clique, and other opinions are worthy of attention and respect as his own.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.