Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Little Dinner With Thackeray

An essay by George William Curtis

A Little Dinner With Thackeray

Title:     A Little Dinner With Thackeray
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Mr. Lester Wallack in his reminiscences speaks of Thackeray, whom he knew in New York, and recalls with admiration his simple and hearty ways. Wallack says that as he returned from acting at his father's theatre, then at the corner of Broadway and Broome Street, to his lodgings in Houston Street, he used to pass Thackeray's quarters, who was living with the late William D. Robinson in Houston Street, and if he saw a light in the window he went in, and the gentlemen finished the night together. He says that Thackeray had a boy's enjoyment of the stories that the late-comer told, and although the guest does not say it, the reader easily imagines that had he been in Thackeray's place he would have shared Thackeray's pleasure in the gayeties of his guest. Thackeray had the tastes of the town, and Charles Marlowe and My Awful Dad were sure to bring their own welcome.

Wallack also alludes to a dinner which Thackeray gave at the old Delmonico's, at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, at the end of his first visit to this country. He had been most warmly received, and he had given universal delight by his lectures upon the English Humorists. The charm of these lectures is evident in the reading, but the pleasure of hearing them is quite indescribable. They were delivered in Dr. Chapin's old church, upon the east side of Broadway just below Prince Street, to an exceedingly intelligent and sympathetic audience, who knew their enjoyment to be the highest kind of literary pleasure. The thorough appreciation of the men whom he described, the sweet and sinewy simplicity of his English, of which he was a twin master with Hawthorne, the constant play of his kindly humor, and manly pathos and sympathy, with his rich voice and massive, magnetic presence, his melodious and refined inflection in speaking, and his quiet, easy, colloquial manner, thrusting thumbs and forefingers in his waistcoat-pockets--all these, pleasing to the mind and sense, made him the pleasantest of lecturers, and still enchant the memory of those

"happy evenings all too swiftly sped."

Just before he sailed upon his return to England he gave the dinner at Delmonico's of which Wallack speaks, to repay many civilities, and assembled a miscellaneous party of twenty or thirty guests. They were men of various distinction, "everybody being somebody," as one of the guests remarked while he glanced around the table. Thackeray was in high spirits, and when the cigars were lighted he said that there should be no speech-making, but that everybody, according to the old rule of festivity, should sing a song or tell a story. Lester Wallack's father, James Wallack, was one of the guests, and with a kind of shyness, which was unexpected but very agreeable in a veteran actor, he pleaded earnestly that he could not sing and knew no story. But with friendly persistence, which yet was not immoderate, Thackeray declared that no excuse could be allowed, because it would be a manifest injustice to every other modest man at table, and put a summary end to the hilarity. It was to be a general sacrifice, a round-table of magnanimity. "Now, Wallack," he continued, "we all know you to be a truthful man. You can, of course, since you say so, neither sing a song nor tell a story. But I tell you what you can do, and what every soul at this table knows you can do better than any living man--you can give us the great scene from the 'Rent Day.'"

There was a burst of enthusiastic agreement, and old Wallack, smiling and yielding, still sitting at the table in his evening dress, proceeded in a most effective and touching recitation from one of his most famous parts. It was curious to observe from the moment he began how completely independent of all accessories the accomplished actor was, and how perfectly he filled the part as if he had been in full action upon the stage. It is only this effect that the Easy Chair recalls, but it was not to be forgotten. No enjoyment of it was greater, and no applause sincerer than those of Thackeray, who presently sang his "Little Billee" with infinite gusto. The song and story went round, as Lester Wallack records, but the by-play of the dinner, which is often the best part of such a banquet, was different for each of the guests. The Easy Chair recalls one incident which was a striking illustration of the masterly and phenomenal assurance of a well-known figure in the Bohemian circles of New York at that time, but whom it must veil under the name of Uncle Ulysses.

By the side of the Chair sat a poet, whom also it must protect by the name of Candide, for a simpler and sincerer literary man never lived. It was in the time, as Thackeray was fond of saying, _Planco Consule_, which in this instance means in the time of the old _Putnam's Monthly Magazine_. The number for the month had been just published, and Candide had contributed to it his "Hesperides," a charming poem, although the reader will not find that title in his works. He and the Easy Chair were speaking of the magazine, when Uncle Ulysses, who had never met Candide, and knew him only by name, dropped into the chair beyond him, and at a convenient moment made some pleasant remark to the Easy Chair across Candide, who sat placidly smoking. "By-the-bye," said Uncle Ulysses presently, "what a good number of _Putnam_ it is this month! But, my dear Easy Chair, can you tell me why it is that all our young American poets write nothing but Longfellow and water? Here in this month's _Putnam_ there is a very pretty poem called 'Hesperides.' Very pretty, but nothing but diluted Longfellow."

This was said to the Easy Chair most unsuspiciously across the author of the poem, and the moment it was uttered, the Easy Chair, to prevent any further disaster, broke in and said, "Yes, it is a delightful poem, written by our friend Candide, who sits beside you. Pray let me introduce you. Mr. Candide, this is Uncle Ulysses."

Candide turned, evidently swelling with anger, and the Easy Chair was extremely uncertain of the event, when Uncle Ulysses, with exquisite urbanity and a look of surprise and pleasure, held out his hand, and said: "Mr. Candide, this is a pleasure which I have long anticipated. I am very much honored in making your acquaintance, and I was just speaking to the Easy Chair of your delightful poem just published in _Putnam_. I congratulate you with all my heart."

Candide, astonished but perplexed, and yielding to the perfect _bonhomie_ of Uncle Ulysses, half involuntarily put out his hand, which our uncle shook warmly, and in five minutes his fascinating tongue had charmed Candide so completely that the Easy Chair is confident that the good poet always supposed that in some extraordinary manner he had misunderstood Uncle Ulysses's remark touching the imitative tendency of young American poets.

So one reminiscence produces an ever-widening ripple of reminiscences. Those which circle about the recollection of Thackeray in this country are very many, but generally unrecorded. They linger, and appear occasionally in allusions like those of Lester Wallack. But whenever they are told they pay homage to the humorist. They recall his constant, sturdy, kindly simplicity and kindliness. Wallack speaks of a certain boyish or boy-like quality in Thackeray. It was certainly there. He had the utmost sympathy with boys, and one of his gay caricatures of himself represents him at a Christmas pantomime standing with two boys behind the rest of the audience, he towering aloft and seeing everything over other people's heads, while his poor little comrades, far down about his knees, ruefully see nothing. But you know that if no other seat could be found, the good giant would soon have them upon his shoulders, and all would be boyishly happy together. "They think I am a grinning surgeon with a scalpel," said the tender-hearted man. But those who have not found and felt the heart are yet to learn to know Thackeray.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: A Little Dinner With Thackeray