It was 1871 and Bethlehem was booming. Bethlehem Iron Company’s rails were so popular that railroads across the country were using them regularly. A few years before, they had even traveled around Cape Horn to California when they were used by the Central Pacific Railroad to forge its ties with the Union Pacific in the creation of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Trains connected the thriving industrial Borough of South Bethlehem with the rest of the east coast. By the 1870s it was possible for Bethlehemites to step aboard a train in the town, travel to New York or Philadelphia for a doctor’s appointment, and return the same day. Lehigh University, if not quite the academic powerhouse that it later became, was already attracting students from distant places on the east coast and even a small number from overseas. If some among the older Moravian part of Bethlehem found its sometimes brawling sibling on the south side of the Lehigh River a bit too raw for their taste, it was certainly not true for all of them. It was the older brother of J. Fred Wolle, whose position as an official with Bethlehem Iron provided the funds that enabled his brother to study in Europe, which would eventually lead to the founding of Bethlehem’s Bach Choir.
But it was not just in industrial might that the town was showing its mettle. As far back as the late 1850s it had become a popular cultural venue for the area. Concert pianists and classical music groups were making it a regular stop on their tours of eastern Pennsylvania. In the fall of 1871, the most popular venue for performers was known as the Moravian Day School Hall. That year it included concerts by the popular Mendelsohn Club of Boston. As a musical group that provided for those outside the major cities access to the music of this popular composer, it opened the cultural horizons of the hinterlands.
Not all the attractions appearing at the Moravian Day School Hall were quite as highbrow as the Mendelsohn Club of Boston. In that category might be placed a young writer from Missouri of humorous satirical books and stories who went by the penname Mark Twain. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was just emerging on the American literary scene that year. Born in 1835 in Missouri, he grew up in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri. It was here that he would turn it into the town of St. Petersburg and populate it with slightly fictionalized characters like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that are immortal to this day.
But few people in the 1860s and 1870s would have suspected this role in his future. Twain left school at the age of 11 when his father, an attorney, died. He became a printer for a time in local newspaper before heading off to the big cities, educating himself in the public libraries in the evenings. In the late 1850s he became a pilot on a Mississippi River steamboat and got “a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one -limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles.”
The outbreak of the Civil War ended civilian Mississippi river traffic and Twain’s career as a pilot. After what he later called a two-week enlistment in the Confederate Army, he headed to Nevada with his brother. His journey west to mining camps gave him material for his later popular book in 1872 called “Roughing It.” His first literary success came in 1865 with the publication of his humorous tall tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in a New York weekly. A year later he traveled to Hawaii and wrote letters home to a San Francisco newspaper that became the source of future lectures.
In 1867 he toured Europe and the Middle East with a group of Americans. His humorous satire was published in 1869 under the title “Innocents Abroad.” In this time period Twain married Oliva Langdon and moved to Hartford, Connecticut. It was in the fall of 1871 that he began his lecture tour of the Lehigh Valley. Lectures by authors had been around as far back as the ancient past but were revived in the 19th century by British author Charles Dickins. His recitations of his “A Christmas Carol” were very popular. It spread to America rapidly.
Twain’s appearance on the stage in 1871 was among his earliest. He was not at all the accomplished, dramatic, white-coated speaker many will recall from the reenactment by Hal Holbrook a number of years ago. A photograph taken of Twain that year shows a relatively young man with a high pompadour hair style and bushy dark moustache. The date set for Twain’s Bethlehem lecture was October 16th, 1871. The day before, “The Bethlehem Daily Times” announced it to the community:
“This evening the most humorous of modern writers will make his bow to a Bethlehem audience. There is a natural curiosity to see the man whose writings have been read by every man who is able to read, and the impression made upon the public is such that considerable interest is felt as to what their author will say when he comes to speak. Then the citizens of Bethlehem are anxious to patronize the Y.M. Christians Association , who give these entertainments, not for the purpose of making money, but to give the people of this town an opportunity of hearing some of the most celebrated platform speakers and musicians of the day. Secure seats at once.”
The next day’s newspaper had a review of Twain’s appearance. It would be great to be able to say it was a laugh- a- minute laugh fest. Unfortunately, it was anything but. The author noted that as a writer and humorist Twain was a success, but “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 review went on to note that he merely repeated lines and jokes from “Innocents Abroad” which “everybody who would be likely to attend a lecture has read; and we don’t think Mark added anything to them, in point of fact by the manner in which he got them off verbally.”
But ”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.
The reviewer ended on an upbeat note, or tried to. “We were willing to pay the price of admission, even if it had been announced that he would mount the platform to be looked at and not open his mouth to speak. So, we were all satisfied, but not instructed nor exactly entertained.”
Damming with faint praise might be one way to describe the review. One wonders what Twain must have thought as he saw that afternoon’s paper a few hours before he was to appear on October 17TH in Allentown. It turned out it was an even bigger bomb than Bethlehem. “Flat failure” was how the papers described it. On the 18th a telegram from the author arrived at the Reading lecture committee that was sponsoring his tour. It had come from Wilkes-Barre, where he was supposed to appear that evening. It read in part:
“Sickness in my family calls me home immediately. I am sorry to fail in my contract, and can only throw myself upon your kindness, as I cannot come. I will lecture for you any night between the 5th and 10th of February.”
Twain would later become one of the best known and sought after speakers and raconteurs, both nationally and internationally, having world-wide tours and hailed as no less a figure than William Faulkner as “the true father of American literature.” But so far as can be easily discovered he never appeared again on a stage in the Lehigh Valley.