Talking Book

Twain’s Soiree


Oh my goodness, what an evening I’m coming home from. The flurry of its spirits circulates like warm blood in my head, and so, like a digestif, I’ve taken to pen to tame it.

It was my extraordinarily good fortune to secure two tickets to the 70th birthday fête of the inimitable Mark Twain. A lavish affair, taking up the whole of the Red Room at Delmonico’s down on Beaver St, in what used to be the heart of New Amsterdam.

Charles has not been too happy lately with our literary public. Perhaps the warm reception of his earlier stories came from a Northern public whose engagement with our Southern causes was only out of vanity. Now that his novels have taken on a serious gaze, revealing the color line in its true hues, those same individuals, as if looking too closely at the sun, turn their eyes away and shrink. These feel like dark days for him. I felt it my most honest imperative to secure Chestnutt a ticket, and perhaps cure his ill spirits.

The culinary accommodations were of the highest order. Chestnutt and I had a laugh at the presence of timbales périgordine, and both cocked our heads at the surprisingly delicious dish of Boston terrapin turtle — this dish elicited the warm feeling of New Orleans, fried in butter and cayenne and salt and pepper, braised in stock, thickened with cornstarch, and then nourished by the inclusion of sherry.

When we arrived at the tables, we found a foot-tall marble bust of Twain himself designated for the each of us. My old Atlantic college William Howells gave a jovial gesture about his when we first passed him on our way into the ballroom area where the orchestra was playing. We had intended to take these home as party favors, but the already-drunk editor Hills smashed Chestnutt’s keepsake when he careened into our table. I worried for Charles — with the exception of some of our servers, he sat as the only colored man in the room. Though he seemed to forgive this accident without much afterthought, the whole of the evening I saw on his face the look of a cauterized feeling of discomfort.

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