The Trouble Begins at Nine?: Mark Twain, “A Speech on Women,” and Blackface Minstrelsy
“Trouble,” as I may have said once or twice, was Twain’s trademark.
On 11 January 1868, Mark Twain was asked to give a speech (printed in full below) responding to a toast at the Washington Correspondents’ Club. The toast: “Woman, the pride of the professions and the jewel of ours.”
The speech was well received and widely re-published in newspapers — and also in an 1868 book called Brudder Bones Book of Stump Speeches, and Burlesque Orations, which contains a variety of humorous speeches and sketches from the blackface stage, variety houses and the lecture circuit, all indiscriminately mixed together. Twain, though, is given special recognition in the text, being referred to as “the celebrated humorist.”
While Twain was initially tickled both by his speech and its coverage in the press — and even sent a copy to his own mother, who apparently loved it — he later worried about whether the speech was too vulgar in places. In the various reprints, it would seem that some editors agreed with him, as they omitted bits here and there. Their choices are interesting.
The Washington Star version (13 January 1868), for example, mildly says that Twain “responded” to the toast. It omits an off-color reference to wives cuckolding their husbands and bearing others’ children and an appreciative tribute to Eve in the pre-fig-leaf days.
Brudder Bones, on the other hand, offers that Twain “was called upon to respond to a toast complimentary to women, and he performed his duty in the following manner.” The book changes that “manner” a bit, by striking the final, conciliatory paragraph that puts all “jesting aside” with a toast honoring each man’s mother. Brudder Bones also omits Twain’s stated desire to “protect” women, apparently not seeing this as necessary or appropriate, or perhaps funny. Like the Star, the minstrel show version omits the reference to women’s infidelity and the children that arise from it, but reprints in full the appreciation of Eve, which celebrates female beauty and sexuality.
But for Twain enthusiasts and scholars, Brudder Bones also includes another item of interest. It is well known that Twain advertised his lectures with various versions of the phrase “The Trouble Begins at Eight.” And his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels, also used variations of the same phrase to advertise their shows for almost two decades, an association Twain seemed to enjoy — and certainly never complained about. Brudder Bones, though, confirms that both Twain and the San Francisco Minstrels likely had an earlier source for that particular phrasing. The 1868 book includes a sketch written and performed by blackface minstrel, entrepreneur, and promoter Charley White — De Trouble Begins at Nine, as played at the American Theatre, 444 Broadway. This theatre burned to the ground on 15 February 1866, according to theatre historian George Odell (VIII.84).
So . . . the trouble actually began at nine — nine to ten months before Twain’s inspired first use of a variation of the phrase.
And now, let’s take a look at the mild trouble Twain stirred up about women at the Correspondents’ Club, trouble that he felt that “they had no business” reporting “so verbatimly.” For those who appreciate Twain’s later 1601, this “trouble” will seem tame indeed, but it does have its charms:
A Speech on Women by Mark Twain
Washington Correspondents’ Club, 11 February 1868
MR. PRESIDENT: I do not know why I should have been singled out to receive the greatest distinction of the evening — for so the office of replying to the toast to woman has been regarded in every age. [Applause.] I do not know why I have received this distinction, unless it be that I am a trifle less homely than the other members of the club. But, be this as it may, Mr. President, I am proud of the position, and you could not have chosen any one who would have accepted it more gladly, or labored with a heartier good-will to do the subject justice, than I. Because, sir, I love the sex. [Laughter.] I love all the women, sir, irrespective of age or color. [Laughter.]
Human intelligence cannot estimate what we owe to woman, sir. She sews on our buttons [laughter], she mends our clothes [laughter], she ropes us in at the church fairs — she confides in us; she tells us whatever she can find out about the little private affairs of the neighbors ; she gives us good advice — and plenty of it — she gives us a piece of her mind, sometimes — and sometimes all of it ; she soothes our aching brows; she bears our children — ours as a general thing. In all the relations of life, sir, it is but just, and a graceful tribute to woman to say of her that she is a perfect brick.1 [Great laughter.]
Wheresoever you place woman, sir — in whatever position or estate — she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world. [Here Mr. Twain paused, looked inquiringly at his hearers and remarked that the applause should come in at this point. It came in. Mr. Twain resumed his eulogy.] Look at the noble names of history! Look at Cleopatra! — look at Desdemona! — look at Florence Nightingale! –look at Joan of Arc! –look at Lucretia Borgia! [Disapprobation expressed. “Well,” said Mr. Twain, scratching his head doubtfully, “suppose we let Lucretia slide.”] Continue reading →
Teaching with Humor
Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building. Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.
And those are just the instructors.
The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.
And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.
Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters. It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept. But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor. It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.
Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006). Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005). The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).
A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.” Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom. As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community. Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target. This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities. You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.
Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either. It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it. More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.
I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research. Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.
Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence. I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet? But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:
After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences. As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there. When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around. And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.
Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them. While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts. But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid. Humor can help. So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . Continue reading →
I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death. Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock. Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin — in the South, it’s a bit more literal.
Like chiggers, for instance. Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here. Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it. And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.
Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.
“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.
“There’s a spider in here!”
“That’s okay. Spiders are our friends. They eat the truly icky bugs. No worries!”
“Mom! Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”
And not just a spider.
Into the (Personal) Archives: How to Manage a Husband (1919)
My mom once told me that the secret to a happy marriage is to do all of your construction projects while your husband is at work. She knew well what she was talking about — over the years, she cut into walls to create built-in cabinets; she put up new shelves in rich and vibrant woods and hung hinged doors on other shelves that she wanted covered. All construction debris was cleared neatly away, though, each day before my father got home — and this year marked their 65th year together.
What my mom never had to tell me, though, is that the real key to a long and happy relationship is a sense of humor. Life is far too important to take seriously.
When my father passed away last month, among his things we found a treasure that his mother had saved from her wedding shower on June 5, 1919. The gifts to her included a collection of spices in tins to start her kitchen in her new household — and a book of personal and spicy advice, written in acrostics, called How to Manage a Husband. By the Experienced and the Inexperienced. When I started reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got to the “T” in “Edith,” I knew that the women of that long-ago post-war generation were no different. I’ll never think of my seemingly serious and elegant grandmother in quite the same way again.
Eat everything prepared and
Invite no quarrels
Tie him to a tree if unmanageable
Help in everything
Make the ice cream
Receive his friends
Never give up
Never leave him
Love him a little more
Serve him plenty of food
Hang him if necessary
Attract no one else
Get up early in the mornings
Educate him to help with the work
Okay, so I did a double-take on this one. “Hang him if necessary”? One hopes that Nellie was one of the “inexperienced” . . . . Continue reading →