In October 1883 the poet and critic Matthew Arnold arrived in New York on the Cunarder Servia to begin a lecture tour. The Sudanese revolutionary who called himself the Mandi was annihilating the army of his country’s Egyptian rulers. Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary had formed the Triple Alliance against France the year before. And Prince Alexander of Battenberg, who had seized power in Bulgaria in 1881, had just foiled a plot against him. Less dramatic than these events but much more interesting is the fact that Arnold boarded a train for Binghamton, New York, soon after his arrival, and he realized that the passenger seated next to him was James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet.”
Who has a soul so dead that he would not long to have been a fly on the wall of the dining car that day after those two struck up a conversation?
Riley is enshrined in an Ionic tomb on a promontory in Indianapolis above the simpler grave of President Benjamin Harrison, who lived in the city for 26 years. Harrison’s grandfather, William Henry Harrison, died of pneumonia in the White House on April 4, 1841, during his grandson’s presidency. On that same day, Matthew Arnold’s father, Thomas Arnold, was appointed as Regius professor of history at Oxford University—during the pontificate of Pope Gregory XVI, who did not approve of railways and thus would not have cared for the son’s mode of transportation.
Not all encounters on trains mark such a happy occasion for the arts as did that of Arnold and Riley. In 1960, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met on a train for the first time in ten years (they had attended primary school together), and their chat led to the formation of the choral group known as the Rolling Stones.
We know little of what Arnold said to Riley on the train. In wittiness it might have surpassed the chats in the celebrated Paris salon of Mme. Julie Recamier, who had a sofa named after her and who died on May 11, 1849, the very day of Riley’s birth. On that same date in 1920, the Chicago entrepreneur Alphonse “Al” Capone shot his mob coworker James “Big Jim” Colosimo. None of Capone’s intimate circle was a gifted conversationalist on the order of Arnold, Riley, or the habitués of Recamier’s salon. In fact, on at least one occasion the snappish Capone approached a man seated at table and bashed him to Hades with a baseball bat.
That sort of “table talk” was no substitute for wit, but even wit at table can be hurtful. History contains the record of many a deipnosophistic squabble. At a dinner party in London, the writer Arnold Bennett attempted to start a conversation with his table companion by complaining about the hanging of some pictures in the National Gallery in London. There was an icy silence, followed by the revelation that the fellow guest to whom Arnold was speaking was W.G. Constable, the gallery’s assistant director. And when T.S. Eliot was working at the London publishing firm of Faber & Faber, something agitated the tone of the conversation. We do not know what it was, but it inspired a memorable example of that literary coincidence known as the palindrome: One of the table guests, an American publisher, suddenly got up and left, muttering, “Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?” Al Capone never spoke thus.
In 1953, Winston Churchill hosted a dinner at 10 Downing Street for the Italian prime minister Aleide de Gasperi. Seated across from Mme. de Gasperi was Field Marshall Harold Rupert Alexander, the first earl of Tunis. Unaware that Alexander had commanded the Allied invasions of Sicily and the Italian coast in 1943 and had been commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in Italy in 1944 and 1945, Mme. de Gasperi asked him in halting English, “Where have you been in Italy?” “Oh, up and down, don’t you know, up and down,” Alexander gallantly responded. After brandy at that dinner, Churchill suffered a stroke, which he long kept secret but from which he never fully recovered. De Gasperi died the following year.
Only drones have a policy of not discussing politics and religion during dinner. If intelligent minds are present at table, the conversation will not always be peaceful. Meals that are good for the mind are not certain to be good for the digestion. Samuel Butler said that a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg. It could likewise be said that a dinner is only a conversationalist’s way of making more conversation. But the art of conversation is practically nonexistent these days, and wit is dead. If mind and heart are not in the table conversation, it is well to be excused from the supper altogether. There is a 2,000-year-old precedent for that.