REIMAGINED CLASSIC STORIES

Twain Illustrated: Twain Presumes Too Much

Twain illustrated contains one reborn story—Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow—largely requiring rebirth because even the great Mark Twain could presume too much. The story is my adaptation of a speech he delivered in 1877 at a Boston banquet honoring esteemed American poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Twain presumed his audience was in a playful spirit that night as he prepared to deliver a speech that poked fun at literary giants Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Either the audience was not feeling playful, or maybe everyone was reluctant to laugh because all three poets were seated right there at the head table with Whittier. For neither the poets nor anyone else in the audience laughed, not even once, during the entire story. Master humorist Mark Twain had come to totally expect laughter, and lots of it, when he told a funny story. He claims he never fully recovered from the humiliation he felt that night at the banquet.

All tellers of funny tales start their presentations presuming the minds of their listeners are in a playful spirit, or at least easily persuadable that way. Nothing much will seem funny to a mind not ready or open to play. And this is where Twain must have made his mistake. Whereas his humorous lectures, which were scheduled and advertised in advance of his performances, drew audiences expecting to laugh at what they would hear from Twain, the audience at the banquet was there to honor an important American poet. They probably expected to hear the poet praised and lauded and nothing more. But they got much more than they expected when they heard Twain poke fun at three American poets who were even more esteemed than Whittier.

Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow is the title I gave the Twain speech when I adapted it for Twain Illustrated, a collection of three illustrated short stories for middle-school readers. Twain may have felt ongoing humiliation after his funny story flopped at the banquet, yet he lets the world know in his autobiography that he never stopped believing this speech was funny. I agree. If your minds are in a playful spirit, I think you will too. Here's an illustration from the story for you to enjoy.