Tag Archives: blackface

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.” 

John F. Scott, ed. New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868.

John F. Scott, ed. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868. Collection of the author.

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.

TroubleAtNineBut 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:

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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.[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 →

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Politics, Mark Twain, and Blackface

Mark Twain caused all kinds of trouble.  In fact, he reveled in it.

He famously advertised his lectures with the tag line, “The Trouble Begins at 8,” and was apparently delighted to share that line with his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels.  Both Twain and the minstrel troupe played around with variations—”The Insurrection Begins . . . ,” “The Orgies Commence . . .,” “The Inspiration will begin to gush . . . ,” “The Trouble Commences . . .”—but both used the more famous version for years without interruption.  One thing is sure.  The phrase was indelibly associated with both:  “trouble” was their trademark.

The San Francisco Minstrels were not what we expect when we think of blackface performance—at least, they weren’t what I expected when I first began researching them—for their popularity was based in part on their political satire.  They were satirists who believed that the only possible fodder for a sacred cow was a stick of dynamite, and while they did indeed parody black people, they parodied everyone; they were what John Strasbaugh calls “poly-ethnic offenders” or what Chris Rock terms “equal-opportunity offenders.”  And while some of their routines are ugly with racist underpinnings, other routines question these stereotypes as essential categories, challenging ridiculousness, corruption, and pretension wherever they see it.  A surprising amount of their material has little direct connection to race at all. Known for end-men Charley Backus’s and Billy Birch’s free-wheeling improvisation on current events, the San Francisco Minstrels attracted nineteenth-century audiences in much the same way that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert do today:  their satiric spin on current events, politics, and entertainment.

M. D. Landon once quipped that Charley Backus had been “censured by the Speaker of the California Legislature for making fun of his brother members.  This broke poor Charley’s heart and he joined a minstrel company so’s to be where no one would grumble when he indulged in a little pleasantry”[1]   Emma Benedict Shephard remembers that they “always managed to hit the public men or local politics in their questions and answers”[2] and Francis Smith,  that “the San Francisco Minstrels [Hall was] packed on Saturday afternoons with Wall Street brokers, roaring over the personal jokes, those never-to-be-forgotten end-men, Billy Birch and Charley Backus, had prepared for them overnight.”[3]

Twain famously wrote in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar that “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”  Charley Backus held a similar view.  When asked if he would like to run for Congress, the blackface actor quipped,  “No, indeed . . . I only have to play the fool a few hours on the stage, at night; but in Congress, I’d have to play that rôle all the time.”[4]  It’s pretty easy to see why Twain enjoyed their performance style.

So when in 1875, Thomas Nast published a political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly that bears the caption, “The Trouble Has Commenced – A Tale of Anxiety,” there is little doubt that his audiences would have gotten the reference.  The cartoon offers a caricature of Congressional debates over proposed Civil Rights legislation.  Congressman John Young Brown of Kentucky was vigorously attacking the Republican efforts to pass the bill during a lame-duck session.  Brown’s remarks got personal, and when Speaker of the House Blaine questioned his intent, Brown replied, “If I was to desire to express all that was pusillanimous in war, inhuman in peace, forbidding in morals, and infamous in politics, I should call it ‘Butlerizing.'”[5]

harpers the trouble has commenced nast

His insult was directed at Benjamin Butler, Congressman from Massachusetts and a former Union general notorious for his harsh occupation of New Orleans and his use of international law to argue that escaped slaves were “contraband” of war that he was not obliged to return to their owners, earning him the title of “Beast Butler.”  When censured by Speaker Blaine, Brown apologized, saying that he intended “no disrespect,” and with comic timing born of the political theatre, he added  “. . . Continue reading →

Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke

Editors’ note:  We are re-blogging this post from Sharon McCoy in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birthday: June 27th.  

Last year we  posted the poem “An Ante-bellum Sermon” from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life. This week’s poetry entry discusses the historical, literary, and cultural context of that collection and its core humor.  The bold red titles below indicate live links to those songsheets, audio files, or websites.

Dunbar can be difficult in many ways.  His dialect can seem heavy or (to some ears) stereotypical, especially once you know that he wrote for performers who appeared in blackface.  We often resist humor in poetry, but blackface offers special challenges that make it difficult for many to want to take Dunbar seriously as a poet.  Songs such as Evah Darkey is a King and Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd can be hard to stomach in the twenty-first century, and even his serious, beautiful dialect pieces such as  On Emancipation Day are packaged with lurid period sheet-music covers that wrench credibility.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

None of this was news to Dunbar.  But the era he was writing in offered special challenges in any case.  He was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, the son of former slaves, just three years after his home state sent a resolution to Congress refusing to ratify the 15th Amendment (prohibiting denial of suffrage on racial grounds).  Ohio ultimately relented, withdrew the resolution, and ratified the Amendment, but only when it was clear that it would become law in any case.  Emotions still ran strong and tensions high in the state whose antebellum “black laws” had rivaled Louisiana’s for their severity, and it is not surprising that a President from this tension-filled state, Rutherford B. Hayes, facilitated the end of federal Reconstruction.  Growing up African American in Ohio required a sense of humor.

Even after publishing two books of poetry before the age of 25, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator in order to survive, but during that time of economic depression, any job was a blessing.  And his poetry had captured the attention of the “dean” of American literature, William Dean Howells.  When Howells agreed in 1896 to write the introduction to Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life, the young poet must have been ecstatic.

But his sense of humor also came in handy.  We’ll look at Howells’s introduction and Dunbar’s response in a moment, because Dunbar’s choices are as funny as they are full of chutzpah. But first, we need to talk a little about the particular climate of the U.S. at that time.  Continue reading →