THE NIGHT THE LITERARY STARS FELL INTO ALIGNMENT
By Bob Vickrey
Word had spread quickly that a formal dinner scheduled at the Brunswick Hotel in Boston would bring together some of the greatest American literary figures of the day under one roof.
The Boston Daily Globe had leaked the story that among the attending guests would be the distinguished writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
There were also rumors that Samuel Clemens, the most famous writer of the day, might be among the guests attending that evening.
The year was 1877. The occasion was a party honoring poet John Greenleaf Whittier on his 70th birthday. The dinner was being hosted by the publishing house Hurd & Houghton and its newly acquired periodical, the Atlantic Monthly.
This was the second of “The Atlantic” dinners that had been given in recent years. The last one had taken place at the Parker House Hotel in downtown Boston three years earlier.
There was considerable political maneuvering among the invited guests leading up to the Whittier dinner. The birthday honoree ultimately played only a small role in the festivities even while ostensibly remaining the central focal point of the evening. There were egos aplenty to be appeased, and planning this event was a logistical nightmare for the unlucky person placed in charge of configuring the seating arrangement.
The dinner had been planned in an attempt by Hurd & Houghton to entice some of the Atlantic contributors to publish their books with its company. It seems that when James R. Osgood had sold his periodical to the publishing house, the deal did not necessarily include the services of all of its contributors who wrote for the Atlantic. Henry James, Bret Harte, and Clemens, were writers the company hoped could be swayed to publish their books with Hurd & Houghton in the future.
The attendees gathered at 6:30 p.m. on a cold December evening and were served generous portions of champagne before being seated at the U-shaped table. Messrs Longfellow and Holmes took the outside seats at the front table, while Mr. Emerson, company President George Harrison Houghton, Atlantic editor William Dean Howells, and the evenings’ special guest, Mr. Whittier, occupied the interior seats.
Mr. Clemens chose to sit on the outside wing of the table where he could better address the group without other ‘stars’ sitting anywhere in the vicinity. The pseudonymous Mark Twain had never been known to shy from the spotlight in whichever room he happened to be stationed.
A seven-course dinner was served, including entrees such as: “Filet of Beef, larded, Sauce Financiere.” If that dish didn’t suit guests’ palates, the dining room staff offered the ‘game’ entrée of “Broiled Partridge on Toast.”
The festive, but seemingly endless oratorical portion of the evening did not even begin until well after ten that night when the doors were finally opened to the ‘lady guests’ who had waited in a nearby drawing room. By then, the all-men’s group was quite stuffed and well-sated with the plethora of food and libations consumed in the first four hours of this marathon dinner.
There were many versions of what happened the rest of the evening depending on who was giving the report. Clemens offered his account which later was found to be more fiction than truth. He said that he had done a ‘burlesque’ which involved imitations of Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, which his friend Howells said “fell dead on its hands” and that the audience had been “turned to stone and horror.”
(Clemens and his pal Howells concocted and embellished the legend even more by the turn of the century. However, the Boston press reported that Clemens speech had been delightful and received both laughter and applause.)
Perhaps the memorable moment of the evening occurred right after Clemens took his seat and young Henry Bishop followed him on the program. As Bishop began his prepared speech, he was so overcome with shock that he attempted to avoid facing the “deities” at the front table—Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier. Nevertheless, in his embarrassment, he could barely manage a sentence before his knees buckled and he slumped helplessly to the floor.
For his part, Emerson read Ichabod, which was Whittier’s poem about betrayal. There were underlying messages in the poem he had purposefully chosen because there were veiled themes of disloyalty which had subtly infused the gathering of old friends that evening.
Speeches and recitations of prose and poetry continued long into the night in what some called a “stupefying deluge.”
Clemens brooded quietly at his seat because he had expected a repetition of the grand dinner he had remembered at the Parker House three years earlier. There had been only half the number of guests at the 1874 dinner compared to the sixty in the room at the Brunswick.
Several of the distinguished guests at the head table became weary of the ongoing speeches, and one-by-one slipped quietly from the room.
It was not until after one o’clock the next morning that Clemens and Howells returned to their accommodations at their favored Parker House to sip drinks and create their own version of what had happened the previous evening. Friends said that the post-dinner reunion of the two long-time acquaintances was truly the reason they had attended the dinner in the first place.
George Harrison Houghton had enjoyed the fine spirit of the event, and the next day wrote Clemens a letter complimenting him on what he had considered to be a delightful farce.
What few observers had realized at the time was that Houghton had accomplished his ultimate goal by assembling America’s greatest writers in one room, and thereby insuring the city of Boston and the Providence of New England of maintaining its status as the hub of the publishing world for many years to come.
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern daily newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and Ft.Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, Ca.