December 17, 2010

John Greenleaf Whittier's 70th birthday

John Greenleaf Whittier was born in the family homestead in Haverhill, Massachusetts on December 17, 1807. As was traditional in the 19th century, his 70th birthday party in 1877 was a major event — in more ways than one.

The party was thrown by the Atlantic Monthly at Boston's Brunswick Hotel. Guests included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Charles Eliot Norton, Richard Henry Stoddard, and about fifty others. Speeches were presented in Whittier's honor, and Oliver Wendell Holmes presented a poem. Perhaps out of place among these New England literary giants was Mark Twain — who ended up stealing the show.

Twain, invited by his friend and Atlantic editor William Dean Howells, presented a speech intended to be humorous. He described a man he met while traveling who had recently hosted Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow. According to Twain, the man referred to Emerson as "a seedy little bit of a chap," while Holmes was "as fat as a balloon... and had double chins all the way down to his stomach," while Longfellow had "cropped and bristly" hair "as if he had a wig made of hair brushes." The three men start quoting obscure passages of poetry to the man, who clearly does not understand.

The man tells Twain that he now plans to move, saying, "I ain't suited to a littery atmosphere." Twain responds by telling him they must not have been the true "gracious singers" but imposters. When the newspapers reported the speech as an "attack," Twain sent letters of apology to Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow and Whittier. Longfellow responded that the newspapers were responsible for the "mischief" and that everyone else recognized the "bit of humor." Longfellow concluded: "It was a very pleasant dinner, and I think Whittier enjoyed it very much." No response from Whittier regarding Twain's speech is known.

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