When he was forty, and the nation was exactly a century old, Mark Twain concocted a project in conjunction with The Atlantic Monthly which came to nothing until now. There's a story in that.
"Very often, of course," Twain wrote in "How to Tell a Story," "the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it."
Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.
Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.
Twain, far more than Ward, was a master of such deadpan trickery. Once, at a gala banquet, Twain delivered a toast to Ulysses S. Grant that seemed to be a long, drawn-out insult. He paused "for a sort of shuddering silence" (as he wrote exultantly to his wife, Livy), and then he delivered the snapper. Grant cracked up. "The audience saw that for once in his life he had been knocked out of his iron serenity," Twain wrote Livy. "The house came down with a crash."
Another time he came onstage and just stood there, expressionless, as if he weren't even aware that he was supposed to be the speaker, and realized that he could hold people silent on the edges of their seats for about as long as he wanted to without uttering a word. "An audience captured in that way," he wrote home, "belongs to the speaker, body and soul."
But that's not the only silent verdict an audience can render. A few days before the 1876 presidential election Twain's enduringly clueless older brother, Orion Clemens, who had declared himself an abolitionist back in the 1850s, suddenly went over to the other party, and was given a chance to speak at a Democratic rally. Twain said in a letter to his friend William Dean Howells, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, that Orion "wrote me jubilantly of what a ten-strike he was going to make with that speech."
All right—but think of his innocent & pathetic candor in writing me something like this, a week later: "I was more diffident than I had expected to be, & this was increased by the silence with which I was received when I came forward, so I seemed unable to get the fire into my speech which I had calculated upon, and presently they began to get up & go out, & in a few minutes they all rose up & went away."
How could a man uncover such a sore as that & show it to another? Not a word of complaint, you see—only a patient, sad surprise.
Twain, too, could be sadly surprised on a rostrum. In 1877 he mortified Howells and himself by his insufficiently reverent attempt to pull the venerable legs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—honored guests at a banquet sponsored by The Atlantic. After Howells rose to assure the gathering that here was a humorist who was never offensive, Twain proceeded to spin out a long, straight-faced western yarn in which Longfellow, Holmes, and Emerson seemed to appear as ruffians. Then came the pause, and then the snapper, and then ... none of the honorees laughed. (Emerson was not even paying much attention.) The audience sat, Howells said, in "silence, weighing many tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment."
But we're getting ahead of our story. When Twain conceived the project that is just now coming to partial fruition, it was around the Ides of March in 1876. He proposed to Howells that they round up "a good & godly gang" of authors—including the pre-eminent Boston Brahmins James Russell Lowell and Holmes, the recently lionized mining-camp colorist Bret Harte (from Albany, New York), and the young Henry James—who would each write a story based on one "skeleton" plot devised by Twain. The stories would appear serially in The Atlantic, the nation's foremost bastion of literary standards. Throughout the rest of that year Twain urged Howells to get this unlikely project off the ground. Howells sent out feelers (though, evidently, not to anyone so august as Holmes or Lowell; Howells had taken Twain to meet Lowell two years earlier, and Lowell had not been impressed, except that something about Twain's nose gave fuel to Lowell's belief that all humanity was descended from the Jews). "The difficulty" about the stories, as Howells put it, was "to get people to write them."
At that very moment history was holding its breath. Two projects of enormously greater importance than Twain's skeleton novelette were in abeyance. Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden were engaged in a presidential race whose muddled outcome would have to be resolved by dealmaking in and out of the House of Representatives. And Twain got stuck halfway through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—lost interest, and said he might burn the manuscript.
Two great, and not unrelated, turning points in American history and culture. The result of the election of 1876 would be seen as a betrayal of the verdict of the Civil War. Tilden won the popular vote, owing in good measure to the intimidation of southern blacks, who would have voted Republican, and Hayes won the electoral vote, by 185-184—if you counted the contested results in the states where the votes were never going to be recounted impartially. An Electoral Commission was formed; it voted for Hayes, strictly along party lines. Tilden's Democrats in the House mounted a filibuster, so Hayes's Republicans agreed to remove from the South the federal troops that were enforcing Reconstruction. The party of Lincoln thus relinquished its commitment to advancing the rights and opportunities of emancipated African-Americans. The 1876 election has often been cited in connection with our recent chad-splitting presidential imbroglio, whose outcome has led to apprehension or anticipation that affirmative action, a fruit of the civil-rights movement, will be abandoned as a federal goal. If Reconstruction had worked as planned, we wouldn't have needed a civil-rights movement a hundred years after the war.