“Only the Mary Ann…”

An excerpt from a speech Mark Twain gave at a dinner in his honour hosted by Lord Mayor John Japp at the Liverpool Town Hall, 10 July 1907:

Home is dear to us all, and now I am departing to my own home beyond the ocean. Oxford has conferred upon me the highest honor that has ever fallen to my share of this life’s prizes.¹ It is the very one I would have chosen, as outranking all and any others, the one more precious to me than any and all others within the gift of man or state. During my four weeks’ sojourn in England I have had another lofty honor, a continuous honor, an honor which has flowed serenely along, without halt or obstruction, through all these twenty-six days, a most moving and pulse-stirring honor – the heartfelt grip of the hand, and the welcome that does not descend from the pale-gray matter of the brain, but rushes up with the red blood from the heart. It makes me proud and sometimes it makes me humble, too.

Many and many a year ago I gathered an incident from Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. It was like this: There was a presumptuous little self-important skipper in a coasting sloop engaged in the dried-apple and kitchen-furniture trade, and he was always hailing every ship that came in sight. He did it just to hear himself talk and to air his small grandeur. One day a majestic Indiaman came plowing by with course on course of canvas towering into the sky, her decks and yards swarming with sailors, her hull burdened to the Plimsoll line² with a rich freightage of precious spices, lading the breezes with gracious and mysterious odors of the Orient. It was a noble spectacle, a sublime spectacle! Of course the little skipper popped into the shrouds and squeaked out a hail, “Ship ahoy! What ship is that? And whence and whither?” In a deep and thunderous bass the answer came back through the speaking-trumpet, “The Begum, of Bengal – 142 days out from Canton – homeward bound! What ship is that?” Well, it just crushed that poor little creature’s vanity flat, and he squeaked back most humbly, “Only the Mary Ann, fourteen hours out from Boston, bound for Kittery Point – with nothing to speak of!”³ Oh, what an eloquent word that “only,” to express the depths of his humbleness!

That is just my case. During just one hour in the twenty-four – not more – I pause and reflect in the stillness of the night with the echoes of your English welcome still lingering in my ears, and then I am humble. Then I am properly meek, and for that little while I am only the Mary Ann, fourteen hours out, cargoed with vegetables and tinware; but during all the other twenty-three hours, my vain self-complacency rides high on the white crests of your approval, and then I am a stately Indiaman, plowing the great seas under a cloud of canvas and laden with the kindest words that have ever been vouchsafed to any wandering alien in this world, I think; then my twenty-six fortunate days on this old mother soil seem to be multiplied by six, and I am the Begum, of Bengal, 142 days out from Canton – homeward bound!

¹Twain was awarded a Doctorate of Letters by the University on 26 June 1907.

Mark Twain Receiving Honorary Degree from Oxford

²A line on the hull indicating the maximum safe draft.

³Kittery Point is not actually mentioned in Richard Dana’s book, but Twain’s good friend William Dean Howells had a summer home there.

 

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