Whittier and the Rude Birthday Guest

Boston’s fashionable Hotel Brunswick, Boylston Street at the corner of Clarendon, was the setting of John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday party.


John Greenleaf Whittier celebrated his 70th birthday Dec. 17, 1877.

There’s always one. That party guest who—because of the free flow of liquor, poor upbringing or owing to some kind of personality defect—humiliates the host and ruins the party.

It’s even more embarrassing when it’s an expensive, highbrow affair at a posh venue with a guest list that would be the envy even of the White House.

Well, it happened to Haverhill’s favorite son, John Greenleaf Whittier on the occasion of the famous poet’s 70th birthday party Dec. 17, 1877, at Boston’s fashionable Hotel Brunswick on Boylston Street at the corner of Clarendon.

One can only imagine the preparations for the event. The staff carefully dusting the ornate chandeliers, pressing table linens, polishing silver and rubbing the china and glassware until they sparkled—each place setting a masterpiece—within view of the distinctive columns of the Victorian hotel. The Boston Globe described the setting:

“The beautiful dining hall in the new wing of the hotel was the scene of the festivities, the tables being laid with over 60 covers. On the walls were a portrait of Whittier, wreathed in English ivy, and an oil painting of his Amesbury home. The tables were beautifully decorated with flowers.” This was, after all, the age of formality. The Brunswick was the epitome of taste and style. Everything would be perfect except for the yet unknown chaos to be wrought by one obnoxious guest.

Formal invitations had gone out long before. “The Publishers of The Atlantic Monthly request the pleasure of your company at dinner on Monday, 17th inst.—the 70th birthday of John Greenleaf Whittier—at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, at 6.30 P. M., to meet the Contributors to The Atlantic Monthly.”

The guests were arriving. At the head table would be seated Charles Dudley Warner, William D. Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Oscar Houghton, Whittier, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Dozens of other luminaries were present including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist and soldier; Edwin Percy Whipple, essayist and critic; Francis H. Underwood, founder and first associate editor of The Atlantic in 1857; Samuel L. “Mark Twain” Clemens, who had written “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” just the year before; James Hammond Trumbull, who wrote the history of Connecticut; and many others.

Who among these august gentlemen couldn’t hold his liquor? One would think the scalawag lurking in the wings certainly must have been a crasher.

A Posh Dinner Party Begins in Earnest

A menu from Hotel Brunswick, Boston

A menu from Hotel Brunswick, Boston

The menu was a masterpiece in itself. Promptly at 7 p.m. began the serving of oysters on shell, followed by a choice of soups—consomme printanier royal or puree of tomatoes au croutons—and on and on through boiled chicken, halibut a la Navarine, potatoes a la hollandaise, saddle of English mutton a la Pontoise and more. All of this before the serving of entrees: filet of beef, vol au vent of oysters a la Americaine or squabs en compote a la Francaise. Somewhere between courses began the serving of Champagne, Mumm’s Dry Verzenay or Roederer Imperial. Maybe, the troublemaker to follow had one too many glasses.

After three hours of dining and drinking, the speeches began.

“The object of this gathering is to celebrate the arrival of the Atlantic at its 20th birthday, and secondly, to celebrate the arrival of our distinguished guest at his 70th birthday. His presence here is more eloquent than any words of mine,” said Houghton, according to an account the next day in the Boston Globe. After brief remarks, Houghton introduced Whittier, causing attendees to rise and cheer the Haverhill-born Quaker.

“I can only say that I am very glad to meet with my friends of the Atlantic, a great many contributors to which I have only known through their writings, and that I thank them for the reception they have given me,” Whittier said. Noting his voice is of “a timorous nature and rarely to be heard above the breath,” Whittier called upon his friend Longfellow to read his latest poem.

Editor and poet Richard Henry Stoddard was next to read his salute to Whittier:

Long have I known, in books, this Friend of Friends,

Our Quaker Poet, whom we feast tonight;

Whose life hath been a battle for the right,

Fought for the public good, not private ends.

By me to him his old-time hater sends

Greeting and love—I represent the South.

She puts her heartiest words into my mouth,

And through a Democrat makes her amends.

Brave Whittier, whom I never met till now,

Accept my homage for thy honest song;

Receive a winter chaplet for they brow—

O may that brow, time-honored, wear it long!

New England prides herself on manly men,

And much on thee, true follower of Penn.

After Three Hours of Champagne Drinking…

Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Finally, a speaker was called to the podium from among the tables. No one reported an obvious drunken walk from the table to the dais so perhaps this man wasn’t so much alcohol-fueled as suffering from an assault on his ego. After all, he had not been considered worthy of sitting at the head table. The Globe reporter, however, observed the speaker began to address the crowd in a “drawling, stammering way.”

The speaker, whom we now know was apparently invited, told of meeting a California miner 13 years earlier. The miner told him he had been visited by none other than three of the men who sat at the head table.

“Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap, red-headed. Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon; he weighed as much as three hundred, and had double chins all the way down to his stomach. Mr. Longfellow was built like a prize-fighter. His head was cropped and bristly, like as if he had a wig made of hair-brushes. His nose lay straight down his face, like a finger with the end joint tilted up.” The miner said Emerson, Holmes and Longfellow dropped in uninvited at his home, but nonetheless criticized the shanty and demanded he serve them food and wine.

Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Oliver Wendell Holmes.

According to the story, the New England writers took out a deck of cards and began gambling. Before long a fight broke out. “Longfellow claps his on his revolver, and I went under a bunk. There was going to be trouble; but that monstrous Holmes rose up, wobbling his double chins, and says he, ‘Order, gentlemen; the first man that draws, I’ll lay down on him and smother him!’ All quiet on the Potomac, you bet!” During the verbal exchange, the miner reports, Emerson takes credit for writing Whittier’s poem, “Barbara Frietchie.”

“The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ‘Barbara Frietchie,’” the miner quotes Emerson.

Imagine the audience’s reaction to a speaker insulting not only three of the foremost writers of the age…and Whittier, himself, but the distinguished guests were sitting mere feet away. “Mr. Emerson seemed a little puzzled about it, but Mr. Longfellow laughed and shook,” the Globe reported, adding “Mr. Whittier seemed to enjoy it keenly.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The stammering speaker finally admits, “In my enthusiasm I may have exaggerated the details a little, but you will easily forgive me that fault, since I believe it is the first time I have ever deflected from perpendicular fact on an occasion like this.”

The damage was done. At least it was over. Or was it? Oh oh, the media! Reporters heard every word. What if this gets out?

It did.

“It would have read queer enough as a humorous sketch, but delivered, as it was, in the august presence of the men in whose lives there is nothing to suggest such an adventure in the remotest manner, it must have excited far other than humorous emotions,” wrote the Cincinnati Commercial. “…the instincts of a gentleman would have forbidden its presentation in a character-sketch so coarse and absurd in every incident.”

The Denver Daily Rocky Mountain News wrote the following month, “After all, though, the principal objection to his remarks on the memorable occasion under discussion is not that they offended Boston, but that they were pointless enough to offend every intelligent reader.”

Nearly 30 years later, the speaker who so horrified the nation, admitted he had erred. In response to a letter he received, he recounted the story of the miner and the response he received.

“I struggled along, and entered upon that miner’s fearful description of the bogus Emerson, the bogus Holmes, the bogus Longfellow, always hoping—but with a gradually perishing hope—that somebody would laugh, or that somebody would at least smile, but nobody did. I didn’t know enough to give it up and sit down, I was too new to public speaking, and so I went on with this awful performance, and carried it clear through to the end, in front of a body of people who seemed turned to stone with horror. It was the sort of expression their faces would have worn if I had been making these remarks about the Deity and the rest of the Trinity; there is no milder way in which to describe the petrified condition and the ghastly expression of those people. When I sat down it was with a heart which had long ceased to beat. I shall never be as dead again as I was then. I shall never be as miserable again as I was then.”

He signed the letter, “Mark Twain.”