Mark Twain Lecturing

Sam’s First Speech, Keokuk ~ 1856

As a young printer, Sam Clemens gave his first public speech in Keokuk, Iowa, on 17 January, 1856, at a meeting of the Typothetae, an association of master printers who celebrated annually on the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the patron of all printers.

He was boarding at Ivins House where a number of printers lived, some deciding to organize a feast for the occasion. It was later said that he was called upon near the end of proceedings to say a few words, at which he stood up and soon had the assemblage in fits of laughter.

In later years he would lecture in Keokuk, where his public speaking debut was long remembered.

Sandwich Islands Lectures ~ 1866

In 1866, after visiting Hawaii, Mark Twain returned to San Francisco to find that his newspaper letters from the islands had made him famous, such that he might earn some money by lecturing on the Sandwich Islands. Despite numerous misgivings, he arranged to speak at San Francisco’s largest venue, and was so convinced that the venture would fail that, on the flyer that advertised his lecture, he stated “The trouble begins at eight.”

However, on October 2nd 1866, he arrived at the hall to find it packed, and after a few moments of stage fright, he delivered his first lecture to an uproar of applause and laughter. This success prompted him to undertake his first lecture tour, between October 11th and December 10th, 1866, delivering 16 lectures throughout northern California and western Nevada.

In his Sandwich Island lectures he recounted the characteristics, customs, vices and virtues of the islanders in a halting, whimsical, yet serious demeanor, summing up with an apology to his audience for inflicting his lecture upon them, explaining that he needed the money. His style was far from professional, but apparently this was to the taste of his audience.

A critic in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin wrote: “He displayed not the polish of the finished lecturer – nor did he need it; the crude, quaint delivery was infinitely preferable.”

Another contemporary critic remarked of Twain’s performance, his “method as a lecturer was distinctly unique and novel. His slow, deliberate drawl, the anxious and perturbed expression of his visage, the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, …. All this was original; it was Mark Twain.”

Life on the Lecture Platform ~ 1868-72

Between travelling on the Quaker City to the Holy Land, and writing the Innocents Abroad, he lectured occasionally in and around New York City and Washington D.C. Early in 1868, he returned to San Francisco, retracing his first West Coast venues, this time lecturing on the Holy Land.

In mid-November 1868, he launched his first major lecture tour, with 42 venues, travelling through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, and ending in late March 1869. Wearied by so many engagements, he wrote to his family expressing his hatred for the lecturing life.

Later that year, James Redpath, a lecture circuit promoter and organizer of the Boston Lyceum Bureau, encouraged Twain to embark on a lecture tour from November 1869 to late January 1870 – a week before his marriage, visiting Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. A subsequent tour for Redpath ran from mid-October 1871 until February 1st 1872, on a circuit through Pennsylvania, Delaware, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.

By now, Mark Twain had earned sufficient income from lecturing to reject Redpath’s offer of yearly employment on the lecture platform, and would not lecture again in America until 1884.

Lecturing in England ~ 1873-74

George Dolby, who managed Charles Dickens’s American tours, managed two short lecture tours for Mark Twain in England in late 1873 and in early 1874.

On the first tour, he had 8 engagements from October 13th to November 29th, in venues in London and Liverpool. His engagements were so successful that a second tour was organised from December 1st to January 10th, during which he delivered 25 performances to packed houses in London, Liverpool and Leicester.

His platform repertoire included “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands”, “Roughing It on the Silver Frontier”, “The Guests”, “The Ladies” and “The Visitors.”

“Twins of Genius” ~ 1884-85

Mark Twain’s most extensive lecture tour in America was the culmination of an idea he had in 1880, to run his own tour accompanied by friends and fellow writers W.D. Howells, Thomas Aldrich and G.W. Cable.

As it happened, only Cable was available, and Twain enlisted Major James B. Pond as an agent to make the arrangements.

George Washington Cable was the author of The Grandissimes and other fiction about New Orleans. Together Twain and Cable were billed as “The Twins of Genius,” and took the stage for 104 performances in about 80 cities between November 5th 1884 and February 28th 1885, travelling through New York, Pennsylvania, parts of Canada, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.

They shared the program, and for the first several weeks Mark Twain usually included a brief excerpt from Huckleberry Finn, recounting Jim and Huck’s colloquies about investing in stock and “King Sollermun”, and also a number of old favorites from his platform pieces, including “The Jumping Frog,” “The Stammering Story,” and “The Golden Arm.”

However, he was dissatisfied with the program and redesigned it during the Christmas break, making the evasion scene from Huckleberry Finn, in which Tom and Huck set out to free Jim, the highlight of his performance.


On the 29th of December, the second leg of the tour opened in Pittsburgh and he delivered his revised program to a clamorous audience. In a letter to his wife, he said that “it went a-booming” – “it’s the biggest card I’ve got in my whole repertoire.” But he had misgivings, and one night in Canada, as he and Cable were making their way back to their hotel after the show, Twain turned to his companion, reflecting “I am demeaning myself. I am allowing myself to be a mere buffoon. It’s ghastly. I can’t endure it any longer.”

His distaste for the lecturing business was only tempered by the financial and marketing value it held for him. Soon after the tour, Huckleberry Finn was published in the United States.

Most of Mark Twain’s public addresses over the next decade were unpaid and informal.

Following the Equator ~ 1895-96

When his publishing company went bankrupt in 1894, Mark Twain was forced to take the lecture platform again, saying “honor is a harder task master than the law.” He accepted an invitation from Carlyle G. Smythe, an Australian impresario, to lecture in the British colonies. This tour was the most ambitious of his life, taking him to 140 venues, and around the world. Major James B. Pond managed the first leg of the tour across North America.

On July 14, 1895, Mark Twain, Livy and Clara, left Elmira New York, travelling with Major James B. Pond and his wife, for five weeks across North America, lecturing in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Manitoba, Montana, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. His performances were advertised simply as “Mark Twain Reading and Talking.”

Though he started the tour in poor health and wary of the long journey, by the time he reached the Pacific, after 23 performances in 22 American and Canadian cities, he was in high spirits. From Vancouver, British Columbia, in August, 1895, he wrote to the San Francisco Examiner:

‘Lecturing is gymnastics, chest-expander, medicine, mind healer, blues destroyer, all in one. I am twice as well as I was when I started out. I have gained nine pounds in twenty eight days, and expect to weigh six hundred before January. I haven’t had a blue day in all the twenty-eight. My wife and daughter are accumulating health and strength and flesh nearly as fast as I am. When we reach home two years hence, we think we can exhibit as freaks.’

Mark Twain, Livy and Clara, sailed from Vancouver on August 16, 1895, across the Pacific Ocean, bound for Australia.

Mark Twain toured eight weeks in Australia, six in New Zealand, eight in India and seven in South Africa. Everywhere he went, he found receptive and enthusiastic audiences. He was bouyed by his success but worn down by the travel and frequent engagements.

The tour officially ended on July 15th 1896, in Capetown, from where Twain, Livy and Clara, embarked for England. The round-the-world tour, and his subsequent book about the trip Following The Equator, would clear his debts.

As a basis for his lectures throughout the world tour, Mark Twain used a comic sermon on building up one’s moral character by committing all 462 possible sins. This allowed him to illustrate his lectures with numerous anecdotes drawn from his various careers, in any combination that suited.

His repertoire included the story of “Grandfather’s Old Ram,” the “Mexican Plug,” stealing an unripe watermelon, the christening story, the “Whistling Stammerer”, and usually as an encore, the “Golden Arm.” Sometimes, he enacted the scene from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck resolves to “go to hell” for his friend Jim, while other times he used a scene from Tom Sawyer Abroad.

Major Pond offered him $50,000 plus expenses if he would do another lecture tour of 125 venues in America, but Twain could not be tempted.

Though he considered his lecturing days at an end, he continued to give speeches and public readings on numerous occasions. Over the following years he addressed some 200 societies, clubs, benefits and banquets.

Lectures, Public Readings, and Speeches …

Mark Twain took to the lecture platform, initially, as a means to earn a living, but although his extraordinary performances were widely admired, he came to view lecturers as mere entertainers, and even buffoons. Financial pressures drove him repeatedly to the platform, at first for the income, but increasingly as a vehicle to market his writing. Though he wearied of lecturing, he never tired of addressing an audience and spinning a yarn, and so time and again he would deliver a speech and perform public readings to societies and clubs, to businessman and children alike, and often as a service to help an organisation raise funds.

Mark Twain’s last speaking engagement was in June 1909, at a girl’s college in Baltimore, where he gave a speech during the graduation ceremonies. During his lifetime, he delivered almost 1,000 lectures and speeches.

For a complete chronology of Mark Twain’s known speeches, public readings and lectures, visit: