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Twain's ire flared in Worcester; Humorist visited city on tour in 1871.

Byline: Andi Esposito

WORCESTER - By the end of the night, Mark Twain cared little for Worcester.

He confessed as much to his wife, Olivia Clemens, in a letter written from his hotel room after the lecture. Twain complained that the 1,700 people at his hourlong performance in Mechanics Hall were "the staidest, puritanical people you ever saw." They couldn't be roused even with "a hundred thousand yoke of oxen."

So upset was Twain by the audience that he added, "By George, the next time I come here I mean to put some cathartic pills in my lecture."

Nothing about his Lyceum lecture that night pleased the humorist and writer. He even railed against the event chairman's decision to sit on the stage behind him, "a thing I detest," wrote Twain. "He is the last one that can air his good clothes and his owlish mug on my platform. I will have no more of this."

Wednesday is the 140th anniversary of Twain's Worcester lecture, one stop in a grueling series of 77 lectures he undertook through 14 states in the East and Midwest, traveling mostly by rail, from October 1871 to February 1872. He was 35, married, living in Hartford and had published "Innocents Abroad" in 1869.

Mechanics Hall still stands, a venue that since 1857 has been the place Worcester comes to hear the famous speak and perform. Among its luminaries were Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Kit Carson Jr. and Teddy Roosevelt. And Twain himself, though long dead, seems ever more alive today in the controversy ignited by the 2011 issue of a sanitized "Huckleberry Finn" and in the jagged reminiscences of his new autobiography, which, by his own instruction was not to be published until 100 years after his death - presumably so those skewered would suffer no pain. On bookstore shelves late last year, it has sold more than 410,000 copies.

His was the second lecture in the Lyceum course that season at Mechanics Hall. The crowd awaiting Twain's appearance on the gas-lit stage in the Great Hall the night of Nov. 9, 1871, anticipated a humorist - a relief from Lyceum subjects such as women's rights and temperance - but they also would have known him as an already-successful author. Published in 1869, "Innocents Abroad" was highly popular at the time and remains Twain's biggest seller.The audience was likely mixed socially, typical on the lecture circuit in larger cities, and filled with young women "because they could go unaccompanied," said Tom F. Wright, a lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

"They would bring their diaries to Mechanics Hall, open them on their knees and write what they were hearing. It was socially sanctioned," said Mr. Wright, who is at work on a book about Lyceum culture in America and organized a September symposium on the subject for the American Antiquarian Society.

Most were season ticket holders, but "several hundred seats" were for sale at the door for 25 cents, according to an ad for the event. The Great Hall sat 2,200 in 1871, so Twain didn't pack it. Seats were narrower than today and benches held patrons in the balcony, said Robert M. Kennedy, Mechanics Hall executive director.

"The configuration of the hall was much as it is today," he said. "The floor was the same, and the stage is the original stage."Twain appeared in Worcester when the Lyceum movement was in transition, according to Mr. Wright.

Inspired by mechanics institutes - educational endeavors set up for working men and the community to share knowledge at night in space that had nothing to do with religion or politics - the American Lyceum movement began in Millbury in 1826, said Mr. Wright. It "soon became an entertainment network, and speakers throughout the country would tour, from Ralph Waldo Emerson at the most intellectual level, to people talking about temperance and reform."

In places like Mechanics Hall "you could gain contact with the wider world, new ideas and the chief intellectuals of the day," said Mr. Wright.

Popular speakers, including Twain on this tour, were arranged by Boston-based James Redpath's Boston Lyceum Bureau. In cities, they stayed in hotels secured by the Lyceum committee. But in small towns "notables of the community would take the person into their house," said Mr. Wright. Twain detested home stays.

After the Civil War, the Lyceum drifts toward more vaudevillian lectures, said Mr. Wright. "In the 1870s, the circuit had become far more theatrical and less rarified."

A boy typesetter who later learned to pilot river steamboats, Twain launched himself as a journalist in the Nevada territory and California. He was sent by a newspaper to report on the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii. The experience was fodder for his first lecture tour, which began Oct. 2, 1866, in San Francisco.

"He describes a feeling of real trepidation as he steps on the stage for the first time," said Kerry Driscoll, an English professor and Twain scholar at St. Joseph College in West Hartford. But "he radiated in the sound of people's laughter, of being able to elicit that raucous merriment."

A subsequent assignment took Twain to the Holy Land and Europe and he returned to a lecture series based on the American vandal.

"It was the first luxury cruise in America; it was the end of the Civil War and there was wealth, discretionary income for travel" and the emergence of the "boorish tourist," said Ms. Driscoll. "And Twain was one of them. He likens those tourists to the Vandals - to the barbarians who sacked Rome; they chiseled their initials into Greek temples and took souvenirs from the Parthenon."

Twain had audiences "eating out of the palm of his hand," she said.

"He was very deadpan. He would come out on the stage, slouching, hands in pockets and look befuddled. He'd walk to the footlights, peer at the audience and not say anything for one, two, three minutes, as if he were thinking, `What am I doing here?' The longer he did this, it would make the audience nervous, then one by one they would laugh. Once that laughter broke the ice, he would begin. It was very meandering, digressive, stream of consciousness, always delivered with a straight face. So there was a sense of disparity between the outrageous tall tales he was spinning and the delivery."

In the next-day review of his Worcester performance, the Evening Gazette digressed on his stage manner: "To look at him as he came forward on the platform and leaned upon the desk, looking intently from point to point in the hall, as if searching for someone, and occasionally shading his eyes with his hand to assist his vision, he seemed much more like a melancholy searcher for that which was lost than a funny man."

If Twain concluded his lecture was not well received (the reviewer, too, was lukewarm on whether the audience liked it or not), part of the fault lay with him. Some nights he was brilliant; others not. Often the fulcrum was the material. That night his subject was advertised as "Some Uncommonplace People I Have Chanced to Meet," but Twain abandoned it to speak on Artemus Ward, the pseudonym by which the beloved late Charles Farrar Browne was known.

Ward, with whom Twain was compared and had caroused with in Nevada, "was wildly popular" as a humorist and lecturer, said Ms. Driscoll. Twain might have turned to Ward anecdotes as he was writing his book, "Roughing It," and thinking nostalgically about the West.

Twain had a lifelong habit of jotting down notes each night about his audience and his performance, said Ms. Driscoll. "It may have been an off night for him. The schedule was absolutely grueling. He gave 25 Artemus Ward speeches consecutively from the end of October to December, so maybe he was tired of the material."

But she reminds Worcester that Twain "loved hyperbole" and that exaggeration was his greatest tool. "I don't think what he said was a slam against Worcester, but he is in the land of the Puritans, and he didn't elicit the kind of response he had hoped for."

Within a month of Mechanics Hall, Twain was giving a new lecture based on his "Roughing It" manuscript.

Twain lectured extensively in the U.S. and Europe for a decade. Later, he involved himself with business ventures, inventions and writing. But public speaking, whether for money to offset his debts, as after-dinner entertainment or to benefit worthy causes, remained an elixir Twain dipped into for 40 years.

He gave his last public speech in 1909, 11 months before he died.

The public loved Twain. "He spoke with a very slow Missouri drawl; it was not quick paced or high energy," said Ms. Driscoll. "He was a raconteur, a storyteller, spinning things out on his own time. They enjoyed the spectacle of one non sequitur after another, of not knowing where he would go or end up with these stories.

"They enjoyed the jokes, but also the ride he took them on."

Contact Andi Esposito by email at aesposito@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTOS; MAP; CHART

CUTLINE: (1) A Puck illustration of a Mark Twain lecture. (2) Mark Twain in the early 1870s. (3) Mechanics Hall circa 1885. Twain performed there in 1871. (MAP) On the road with Mark Twain (CHART) Mechanics Hall luminaries

PHOTOG: (3) Photo courtesy of Mechanics Hall (MAP) T&G Staff
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 6, 2011
Words:1576
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