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To Have the Honor of Meeting

As the winter deepens and darkens, the people who have time and money to waste, and who are always seeking opportunities for squandering both, find none so gracious and graceful as giving dinners to other people who have time and money to waste. The prime condition of such dinners is that neither host nor guest shall need them. The presence of a person who actually wanted meat and drink would imply certain insuperable disqualifications. The guest must have the habit of dining, with the accumulated indifference to dinners and the inveterate inability to deal peptically with them which result from the habit of them. Your true diner must be well on in middle life, for though the young may eat and drink together and apparently dine, it is of the gray head difficultly bowed over the successive courses, and the full form of third youth straining its silken calyx and bursting all too richly out above it, that the vision presents itself when one thinks of dinners and diners.

After all the exclusions are made, dinner is still a theme so large that one poor Easy Chair paper could not compass it, or do more than attach itself here and there to its expanse. In fact, it was only one kind of dinner we had in mind at the beginning, and that was the larger or smaller public dinner. There the process of exclusion is carried yet a step further, and the guests are all men, and for the most part elderly men. The exceptional public dinners where women are asked need not be counted; and at other public dinners they do not seem eager to throng the galleries, where they are handsomely privileged to sit, looking down, among the sculptured and frescoed arabesques, on the sea of bald heads and shirt-fronts that surge about the tables below, and showing like dim, décolleté angels to the bleared vision raised to them from the floor. As they are not expected to appear till the smoking and speaking have begun, they grow fainter and fainter through the clouds of tobacco and oratory, and it is never known to the diners whether they abuse the chary hospitality of coffee and ices offered them in their skyey height, where from time to time the sympathetic ear may hear them softly gasping, gently coughing.

It is a pity that none of these witnesses of a large public dinner has recorded her bird's-eye impression of it at the interesting moment when their presence is suffered or desired. All those gray or bald heads, and all those bulging shirt-fronts, must look alike at the first glance, and it can be only to carefuler scrutiny that certain distinctions of projecting whiskers and mustaches pronounce themselves. The various figures, lax or stiff in their repletion, must more or less repeat one another, and the pudgy hands, resting heavily on the tables' edges or planted on their owners' thighs, must seem of a very characterless monotony. The poor old fellows ranked in serried sameness at the tables slanted or curved from the dais where the chairman and the speakers sit must have one effect of wishing themselves at home in bed.

What do they really think of it, those angels, leaning over and looking down on it? Does it strike them with envy, with admiration? Does it seem one of the last effects of a high and noble civilization? To their "finer female sense," what is the appeal of that evanescing spectacle, as the noise of the cheering and the laughing and the clapping of hands rises to them at some more rocket-like explosion of oratory? Is the oratory mainly of the same quality to those supernal intelligences as the fading spectacle? None of them has said, and we may have still the hope that the whole affair may have seemed to them the splendid and graceful ceremonial which it appears in the illustrations of the next day's papers.

The speaking is perhaps not always so good as it seems to the mellowed tolerance of the listener, when it begins after all those courses of meat and drink, but not perhaps always so bad as he thinks it when, the morning following, he wakes "high sorrowful and cloyed," and has not yet read the reports of it. In confidence, however, it may be owned that it is apt rather to be bad than good. If what has led up to it has softened the critical edge of the listener, it has not sharpened the critical edge of the speaker, and they meet on the common ground where any platitude passes, where a farrago of funny stories serves the purpose of coherent humor, where any feeble flash of wit lights up the obscurity as with an electric radiance, where any slightest trickle or rinsing of sentiment refreshes "the burning forehead and the parching tongue" like a gush of genuine poetry. The mere reputation of the speaker goes a great way, almost the whole way; and, especially if he is a comic speaker, he might rise up and sit down without a word and yet leave his hearers the sense of having been richly amused. If he does more, if he really says something droll, no matter how much below the average of the give and take of common talk, the listener's gratitude is frantic. It is so eager, it so outruns utterance, that it is not strange the after-dinner speech should be the favorite field of the fake-humorist, who reaps a full and ever-ripened harvest in it, and prospers on to a celebrity for brilliancy which there is little danger of his ever forfeiting so long as he keeps there.

The fake-humorous speaker has an easier career than even the fake-eloquent speaker. Yet at any given dinner the orator who passes out mere elocution to his hearers has a success almost as instant and splendid as his clowning brother. It is amazing what things people will applaud when they have the courage of one another's ineptitude. They will listen, after dinner, to anything but reason. They prefer also the old speakers to new ones; they like the familiar taps of humor, of eloquence; if they have tasted the brew before, they know what they are going to get. The note of their mood is tolerance, but tolerance of the accustomed, the expected; not tolerance of the novel, the surprising. They wish to be at rest, and what taxes their minds molests their intellectual repose. They do not wish to climb any great heights to reach the level of the orator. Perhaps, after all, they are difficult in their torpidity.

The oratory seems to vary less throughout any given dinner than from dinner to dinner, and it seems better or worse according as the dinner is occasional or personal. The occasional dinner is in observance of some notable event, as the Landing of the Pilgrims, or the Surrender of Cornwallis, or the Invention of Gunpowder, or the Discovery of America. Its nature invites the orator to a great range of talk; he may browse at large in all the fields of verbiage without seeming to break bounds. It rests with him, of course, to decide whether he will talk too long, for the danger that he may do so cannot be guarded from the outside. The only good after-dinner speaker is the man who likes to speak, and the man who likes to speak is always apt to speak too much. The hapless wretch whom the chairman drags to his feet in a cold perspiration of despair, and who blunders through half a dozen mismated sentences, leaving out whatever he meant to say, is not to be feared; he is to be pitied from the bottom of one's soul. But the man whose words come actively to the support of his thoughts, and whose last word suggests to him another thought, he is the speaker to be feared, and yet not feared the worst of all. There is another speaker more dreadful still, who thinks as little standing as sitting, and whose words come reluctantly, but who keeps on and on in the vain hope of being able to say something before he stops, and so cannot stop.

The speaking at the occasional dinner, however, is much more in the control of the chairman than the speaking at the personal dinner. The old fashion of toasts is pretty well past, but the chairman still appoints, more or less, the subject of the speaker he calls up. He may say, if the dinner is in honor of the Invention of Gunpowder, "We have with us to-night a distinguished soldier who has burned a good deal of gunpowder in his time; and I am sure we should all like to hear from General Jones something of his experience with the new smokeless explosives." Or if it is the Discovery of America they are commemorating, he may call to his feet some representatively venerable citizen, with a well-earned compliment to his antiquity, and the humorous suggestion that he was personally knowing to the landing of Columbus. Then General Jones, or the venerable citizen, will treat at his pleasure of any subject under heaven, after having made his manners to that given him by the chairman and professed his unfitness to handle it.

At the personal dinner, the speaker must in decency stick for a while at least to his text, which is always the high achievement of the honored guest, in law, letters, medicine, arms, drainage, dry-goods, poultry-farming, or whatever. He must not, at once, turn his back on the honored guest and talk of other things; and when sometimes he does so it seems rude.

The menu laid before the diner at this sort of dinner may report a variety of food for the others, but for the honored guest the sole course is taffy, with plenty of drawn butter in a lordly dish. The honored guest is put up beside the chairman, with his mouth propped open for the taffy, and before the end he is streaming drawn butter from every limb. The chairman has poured it over him with a generous ladle in his opening speech, and each speaker bathes him with it anew from the lordly dish. The several speakers try to surpass one another in the application, searching out some corner or crevice of his personality which has escaped the previous orators, and filling it up to overflowing. The listeners exult with them in their discoveries, and roar at each triumph of the sort: it is apparently a proof of brilliant intuition when a speaker seizes upon some forgotten point in the honored guest's character or career and drenches it with drawn butter.

To what good end do men so flatter and befool one of their harmless fellows? What is there in the nature of literary or agricultural achievement which justifies the outrage of his modest sense of inadequacy? It is a preposterous performance, but it does not reach the climax of its absurdity till the honored guest rises, with his mouth filled with taffy, and, dripping drawn butter all over the place, proceeds to ladle out from the lordly dish, restored to its place before the chairman, a portion for each of the preceding speakers. He may not feel quite like doing it. In their fierce rivalry of adulation, some of them, in order to give fresh flavor to the taffy, may have mingled a little vinegar with it. One may have said that the bantams of the honored guest were not perhaps as small as some other bantams, but that the colossal size of his shanghais was beyond parallel. Another may have hinted, for the purpose of superiorly praising his masterly treatment of the pip, that the diet of his hens was not such as to impart to their eggs the last exquisite flavor demanded by the pampered palate of the epicure. Another yet may have admitted that the honored guest had not successfully grappled with the great question of how to make hens lay every working-day of the year, and he may have done this in order to heighten his grand climax that the man who teaches a hen to lay an egg with two yolks where she laid eggs of but one yolk before is a greater benefactor to the human race than all the inventors of all the missiles of modern warfare. Such a poultry-farmer, he may have declared, preparatory to taking his seat amid thunders of applause, is to other poultry-farmers what the poet who makes the songs of a people is to the boss who makes their laws. This sentiment may have been met with a furore of acceptance, all the other guests leaning forward to look at the honored guest and concentrate their applause upon him, as they clapped and cheered, and one fine fellow springing to his feet and shouting, "Here's to the man who made two-yolk eggs grow where one-yolk eggs grew before."

Yet these artfully studied qualifications of the cloying sweet may have been all of the taste of wormwood to the honored guest, who cared nothing for his easy triumph with shanghais and the pip and these two-yolk eggs, but prided himself on his bantams and his hen-food, and was clinging to the hope that his discoveries in the higher education would teach hens to observe the legal holidays if they could not be taught to lay on every working-day, and was trusting to keep his measure of failure a secret from the world. It would not do, however, to betray anything of his vexation. That would be ungracious and ungrateful, and so he must render back taffy for taffy, drawn butter for drawn butter, till the whole place sticks and reeks with it.

Of course, the reader—especially if he has never been asked to a personal dinner of this sort—will be saying that the fault is not with the solemnity or its nature, but with the taste of those who conduct the ceremony. He will no doubt be thinking that if he were ever made the object of such a solemnity, or the chairman, or the least of the speakers, he would manage differently. Very likely he will allege the example of the Greeks, as we have it recorded in the accounts of the banquet offered to Themistocles after the battle of Salamis, and the supper given to Æschylus on the hundredth performance of the Œdipus of Sophocles.

The supper has always been considered rather a refinement upon the banquet, in taste, as it was offered to the venerable poet not upon the occasion of any achievement of his own, but in recognition of the prolonged triumph of his brother dramatist, in which it was assumed that he would feel a generous interest. The banquet to Themistocles was more in the nature of a public rejoicing, for it celebrated a victory due as much to the valor of all the Greeks as to the genius of the admiral; and it could, therefore, be made more directly a compliment to him. Even under these circumstances, however, the guest of the evening occupied an inconspicuous place at the reporters' table, while he was represented on the chairman's right by the bust of Poseidon, hastily modelled for the occasion by Praxiteles, and dedicated to Themistocles, who was a plain man, but whose portrait, even if he had been handsome, it was thought would not have looked well in such a position at a time when portrait-statuary was unknown. The only direct allusion to him was in the opening toast, "The Dewey of Our Day," which was drunk sitting, the guests rising from their recumbent postures in honor of it. The chairman's opening address was almost wholly a plea for the enlargement of the Athenian navy: the implication that the republic had been saved, in spite of its inefficient armament, was accepted as the finest possible compliment to the guest of the evening. The note of all the other speeches was their exquisite impersonality. They got further and further from the occasion of the evening, until the effort of Demosthenes closed the speaking with a scathing denunciation of the machine politicians who had involved the Athenians in a war with Persia to further the interests of Sparta. It was held that this was the noblest tribute which could be paid to the genius of the man who had brought them safely out of it. As the company broke up, Diogenes with his lantern approached Themistocles, who was giving the reporters copies of the speech he had not been asked to deliver, and, after examining his countenance with a sigh of disappointment, accompanied him home as far as his own tub; Athens at that time being imperfectly lighted, and the reform government having not yet replaced the street names wantonly obliterated under the régime of the Thirty Tyrants.

At the supper to Æschylus the tablets of the menu were inscribed with verses from the elder poet ingeniously chosen for their imaginable reference to the masterpiece of the younger, whose modesty was delicately spared at every point. It was a question whether the committee managing the affair had not perhaps gone too far in giving the supper while Sophocles was away from Athens staging the piece at Corinth; but there was no division of opinion as to the taste with which some of the details had been studied. It was considered a stroke of inspiration to have on the speaker's left, where Sophocles would have sat if he had been present at a supper given to Æschylus, the sitting figure of Melpomene, crowned with rosemary for remembrance. No allusion was made to Æschylus during the evening, after his health had been proposed by the chairman and drunk in silence, but a great and exquisite surprise was reserved for him in the matter of the speeches that followed. By prior agreement among the speakers they were all ostensibly devoted to the examination of the Œdipus and the other dramas of Sophocles, which in his absence were very frankly dealt with. But the unsparing criticism of their defects was made implicitly to take the character of appreciation of the Æschylus tragedies, whose good points were all turned to the light without open mention of them. This afforded the aged poet an opportunity of magnanimously defending his younger confrère, and he rose to the occasion, beaming, as some one said, from head to foot and oozing self-satisfaction at every pore. He could not put from him the compliments not ostensibly directed at him, but he could and did take up the criticisms of the Sophoclean drama, point by point, and refute them in the interest of literature, with a masterly elimination of himself and his own part in it. A Roman gentleman present remarked that he had seen nothing like it, for sincere deprecation, since Cæsar had refused the thrice-offered crown on the Lupercal; and the effect was that intended throughout—the supreme honor of Æschylus in the guise of a tribute to Sophocles. The note of the whole affair was struck by the comic poet Aristophanes, whom the chairman called upon to make the closing speech of the evening, and who merely sat up long enough to quote the old Attic proverb, "Gentlemen, there are many ways to kill a dog besides choking him to death with butter," and then lay down again amid shrieks of merriment from the whole company.

There is, perhaps, a middle course between the American and Athenian ways of recognizing achievement in the arts or interests, or of commemorating great public events. This would probably derive from each certain advantages, or at least the ancient might temper the modern world to a little more restraint than it now practises in the celebration of private worth, especially. The public events may be more safely allowed to take care of themselves, though it is to be questioned whether it is well for any people to make overmuch of themselves. They cannot do it without making themselves ridiculous, and perhaps making themselves sick of what little real glory there is in any given affair; they will have got that so inextricably mixed up with the vainglory that they will have to reject the one to free themselves from the humiliating memory of the other.

There is nothing that so certainly turns to shame in the retrospect as vainglory, and this is what the personal dinner is chiefly supposed to inspire in the victim of it. If he is at all honest with himself, and he probably is before he can have done anything worthy of notice, he knows perfectly well that he has not merited all if any of the fond flatteries with which he is heaped, as he sits helpless with meat and drink, and suffers under them with the fatuous smile which we all have seen and which some of us have worn. But as the flatterers keep coming on and on, each with his garland of tuberoses or sunflowers, he begins to think that there must be some fire where there is so much smoke, and to feel the glow of the flame which he is not able exactly to locate. He burns in sympathy with his ardent votaries, he becomes inevitably a partner in his own apotheosis. It is the office of the sad, cold morrow, and the sadder and colder after-morrows, to undo this illusion, to compress his head to the measure of his hat, to remove the drawn butter from his soul.

They may never wholly succeed, but this is not probable, and it is not against a permanent folie des grandeurs that we need seek to guard the victim of a personal dinner. We have, indeed, so much faith in the ultimate discretion of the race that we should be quite willing to intrust the remarkable man himself with the office of giving himself a public dinner when he felt that his work merited signal recognition. In this way the whole affair could be kept within bounds. He could strike the note, he could set the pace, in his opening address; and, having appointed the speakers, with a full knowledge of their honesty and subordination, he could trust the speeches to be sane and temperate. In calling the speakers successively up, he could protest against anything that seemed excessive eulogy in the words already spoken, and could invite a more modest estimate of his qualities and achievements in the speeches to follow.

William Dean Howells