October 2, 2010

Mark Twain's magnificent marketing

were in contemplation for this occasion,
but the idea has been abandoned.

Thus read a handbill for the first professional lecture offered by Mark Twain. Held at an opera house in San Francisco on October 2, 1866, advertisements also noted that the doors opened at 7 p.m., but "the trouble begins at 8."

Samuel Clemens had only adopted the pseudonym "Mark Twain" about two years earlier, but quickly cemented his place as a teller of humorous but interesting tales. The 30-year old's topic for October 2 was "Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands." Though he had given a small number of lectures before, this was the first time he was compensated. The audience was charged a modest admission fee; Clemens assumed few people would show up (perhaps the inspiration for his sly marketing scheme).

Instead, he was surprised to see a completely packed house — and was suddenly struck with stage fright. He overcame his fear, however, and presented his lecture successfully. He repeated the same lecture many times that year, even as late as 1873. In one version of the text, he began like this:

Ladies and gentlemen: The next lecture in this course will be delivered this evening, by Samuel L. Clemens, a gentleman whose high character and unimpeachable integrity are only equalled by his comeliness of person and grace of manner. And I am the man! I was obliged to excuse the chairman from introducing me, because he never compliments anybody and I knew I could do it just as well.

As biographer Connie Ann Kirk wrote, "That night launched a career that would bail Clemens out of financial straits more than once in his life." By 1895, he had presented over 1,000 lectures and speeches (not all in the United States).

*Some information for this post comes from The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain (2005) by Alex Ayres. See also Connie Ann Kirk's Mark Twain: A Biography (2004) for a fascinating discussion of his lecture technique and showmanship.


  1. I so enjoy these descriptions of lectures given by nineteenth-century literary figures, including Twain, Poe, Emerson, and an oft-reluctant Thoreau.

  2. Mark Twain was one of a kind. He was ahead of his time, and he will always be one of my favorite American authors.

    My favorite Mark Twain quote:

    Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.