The Maharajah of Hannibal, Missouri

Mark Twain stories are two-a-dime and many of them apocryphal. It’s a delight, therefore, to come across one that may previously have been overlooked.

Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was accorded several academic honours in later life. In 1888 Yale College awarded him the degree of Master of Arts and in 1901 made him a Doctor of Literature. In 1902 the University of Missouri followed suit and then, in 1907, Oxford University conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Letters. “I don’t know why they should give me a degree like that,” he said, “I never doctored any literature. I wouldn’t know how.”

The ceremony took place in the Sheldonian Theatre. The authorities had taken the opportunity to dot several i’s and cross several t’s simultaneously, so Mark Twain found himself in good company. The US politician and newspaper editor Whitelaw Reid, the English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling and the Salvation Army’s General William Booth, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns and the French sculptor Auguste Rodin were all to be honoured on the same day. The ceremony was presided over by Lord Curzon, Chancellor of Oxford and a former Viceroy of India.

The American educator and author of children’s stories, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was invited to attend the ceremony by the Master of Balliol. It was Wiggin who by chance met Charles Dickens in 1868 when she was a young girl. Dickens was travelling in the railroad car next to hers, which Kate only discovered when the train halted at a station and Dickens alighted for a few minutes. When travel resumed, Kate slipped unnoticed into the same carriage merely to observe her hero from a distance, but ended up in deep conversation with the great writer. She published her account of the meeting in a slender book called A Child’s Journey with Dickens (1912).

It is to Wiggin that we owe an anecdote about Mark Twain that she recounts in her autobiography My Garden of Memory (1923). In the Sheldonian she had observed a “foreign personage in glittering dress, his brown skin and dark eyes heightened in effect by a magnificent turban from which hung a sapphire the size of a robin’s egg. An Indian potentate, of course, but which one?” It turned out to be the Maharajah of Bikanir, to whom Wiggin was introduced at the luncheon at All Souls’ College that followed the ceremony.

The Maharajah asked Wiggin, as an American and an author, to introduce him to Mark Twain, whose work he knew and admired. Wiggin had met Twain on several occasions and she describes him as being on great form, “His wonderful white hair glistening in the sun, and the Oxford gown with its brilliant hood setting off his fine head and face.”

The potentate and the author conversed. “I like the degree well enough,” Twain confided to the Maharajah, “but I’m crazy about the clothes! I wish I could wear ’em all day and all night. Think of the gloomy garb I have to walk the streets in at home, when my whole soul cries out for gold braid, yellow and scarlet sashes, jewels and a turban! If there’s a dearth of Maharajahs any time in India, just cable me, sir, and I’ll take the next train.”

The Maharajah’s reply went unrecorded.

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