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Not all reporters were kind in reviewing Mark Twain

Published April 17. 2010 09:00AM

In 1909, Mark Twain was quoted as saying: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'"

That prediction by the famous American author, satirist and public speaker came true. Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Conn., one day after the comet's closest approach to Earth.

Upon hearing of Twain's death, President William Howard Taft gave a prediction that would also ring true.

"Mark Twain gave pleasure - real intellectual enjoyment - to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come," Taft said. "His humor was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has created an enduring part of American literature."

A writer for the Tamaqua Courier shared the president's views after hearing of Twain's death.

"He will live so long as the people read, as long as people have a sense of humor and when people don't have that, the world won't be worth living in. People love to read Mark Twain because he knew how to portray characters with whom we are familiar."

Although the local writer admitted never seeing Twain, he - as did millions of others through the years - felt a special kinship with Twain's writings.

"We've been laughing at Twain's sayings for years and years and we have gotten to look upon him as a friend," he said. "We still feel that he sits beside us when we read."

There were likely some people from the local area who travelled to the Lehigh Valley on Oct. 17, 1871, to hear Twain lecture at the Moravian Day School Hall in an appearance sponsored by the Y. M. C. Association of Bethlehem. Twain's subject that evening in Bethlehem was "Reminiscences of some uncommonplace characters I have chanced to meet."

At the time of his Bethlehem appearance, Twain was 36 years old and at a highly productive time in his life. He was already a wealthy man and his name was known around the globe.

Not all of the newspaper reviewers of the day, however, saw Twain as an American literary icon.

"As everybody knows, Mark Twain has traveled a good deal, and has met a great many people. He has a happy way of telling about them in writing; indeed, Mark Twain, as a writer, is a great success," one Lehigh Valley writer stated. "As a lecturer, we feel bound to say that, though not an entire failure, he is far from being instructive in his remarks or entertaining in his manner."

The writer explained that Twain's lecture was made up almost entirely of humorous incidents from his "Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress," the travel literature which chronicled Twain's pleasure cruise through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of religious pilgrims in 1867. It was the best-selling of Twain's works during his lifetime.

Even though Twain was not of great physical stature and did not have an imposing voice, he still enjoyed rock-star-like status with audience members that night in Bethlehem.

"Everybody wanted to see 'Mark Twain,' and they saw him; (but only a small portion of the audience heard him, because he spoke in such a low tone of voice;) and with that sight most of them were satisfied - ourselves included," the critic wrote. "We had never seen Mr. Clemens; we wanted to see him; we knew that good writers seldom make good lecturers; we were willing to pay the price of admission to see him, even if it had been announced that he would mount the platform to be looked at, and would not open his mouth to speak. So we were all satisfied, but not instructed nor exactly entertained."

The writer stated that if a person came to hear "Mark Twain" lecture, then he would have been disappointed. But if he went to "hear him talk in his familiar, dry way, then he would have been satisfied, pleased and delighted."

Still, a Lehigh Valley newspaperman said Twain's lecture appearance in the Lehigh Valley was said to be "one of the largest which has ever been collected under one roof in Bethlehem."

"The best and biggest part of Bethlehem's intelligent population were present," the writer said. "It was a most pleasant occasion, of a kind which should be greatly multiplied in every community."

On hearing of Mark Twain's death, the Tamaqua writer's tribute was moving.

"It is something to have lived as Mark Twain lived, something to leave the world knowing that you have made your name immortal," he stated. "More than that, it is something to know that the characters that were erected in the workshop of your brain live in the minds of the people and are beloved by them.

"No, Mark Twain is not dead," he wrote in that April 30, 1910, opinion piece." "He only sleeps. He will soon awaken to tell me another new story. And until he does that we will find pleasure in the old ones."

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