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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
CCXXIV. The Sixty-Seventh Birthday Dinner
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|It was on the evening of the 27th of November, 1902, I at the
Metropolitan Club, New York City, that Col. George Harvey, president of
the Harper Company, gave Mark Twain a dinner in celebration of his sixty-
seventh birthday. The actual date fell three days later; but that would
bring it on Sunday, and to give it on Saturday night would be more than
likely to carry it into Sabbath morning, and so the 27th was chosen.
Colonel Harvey himself presided, and Howells led the speakers with a
poem, "A Double-Barreled Sonnet to Mark Twain," which closed:
Still, to have everything beyond cavil right,
We will dine with you here till Sunday night.
Thomas Brackett Reed followed with what proved to be the last speech he
would ever make, as it was also one of his best. All the speakers did
well that night, and they included some of the country's foremost in
oratory: Chauncey Depew, St. Clair McKelway, Hamilton Mabie, and Wayne
MacVeagh. Dr. Henry van Dyke and John Kendrick Bangs read poems. The
chairman constantly kept the occasion from becoming too serious by
maintaining an attitude of "thinking ambassador" for the guest of the
evening, gently pushing Clemens back in his seat when he attempted to
rise and expressing for him an opinion of each of the various tributes.
"The limit has been reached," he announced at the close of Dr. van Dyke's
poem. "More that is better could not be said. Gentlemen, Mr. Clemens."
It is seldom that Mark Twain has made a better after-dinner speech than
he delivered then. He was surrounded by some of the best minds of the
nation, men assembled to do him honor. They expected much of him--to
Mark Twain always an inspiring circumstance. He was greeted with cheers
and hand-clapping that came volley after volley, and seemed never ready
to end. When it had died away at last he stood waiting a little in the
stillness for his voice; then he said, "I think I ought to be allowed to
talk as long as I want to," and again the storm broke.
It is a speech not easy to abridge--a finished and perfect piece of
after-dinner eloquence,--[The "Sixty-seventh Birthday Speech" entire is
included in the volume Mark Twain's Speeches.]--full of humorous stories
and moving references to old friends--to Hay; and Reed, and Twichell, and
Howells, and Rogers, the friends he had known so long and loved so well.
He told of his recent trip to his boyhood home, and how he had stood with
John Briggs on Holliday's Hill and they had pointed out the haunts of
their youth. Then at the end he paid a tribute to the companion of his
home, who could not be there to share his evening's triumph. This
peroration--a beautiful heart-offering to her and to those that had
shared in long friendship--demands admission:
Now, there is one invisible guest here. A part of me is not
present; the larger part, the better part, is yonder at her home;
that is my wife, and she has a good many personal friends here, and
I think it won't distress any one of them to know that, although she
is going to be confined to her bed for many months to come from that
nervous prostration, there is not any danger and she is coming along
very well--and I think it quite appropriate that I should speak of
her. I knew her for the first time just in the same year that I
first knew John Hay and Tom Reed and Mr. Twichell--thirty-six years
ago--and she has been the best friend I have ever had, and that is
saying a good deal--she has reared me--she and Twichell together--
and what I am I owe to them. Twichell--why, it is such a pleasure
to look upon Twichell's face! For five and twenty years I was under
the Rev. Mr. Twichell's tuition, I was in his pastorate occupying a
pew in his church and held him in due reverence. That man is full
of all the graces that go to make a person companionable and
beloved; and wherever Twichell goes to start a church the people
flock there to buy the land; they find real estate goes up all
around the spot, and the envious and the thoughtful always try to
get Twichell to move to their neighborhood and start a church; and
wherever you see him go you can go and buy land there with
confidence, feeling sure that there will be a double price for you
before very long.
I have tried to do good in this world, and it is marvelous in how
many different ways I have done good, and it is comfortable to
reflect--now, there's Mr. Rogers--just out of the affection I bear
that man many a time I have given him points in finance that he had
never thought of--and if he could lay aside envy, prejudice, and
superstition, and utilize those ideas in his business, it would make
a difference in his bank-account.
Well, I liked the poetry. I liked all the speeches and the poetry,
too. I liked Dr. van Dyke's poem. I wish I could return thanks in
proper measure to you, gentlemen, who have spoken and violated your
feelings to pay me compliments; some were merited and some you
overlooked, it is true; and Colonel Harvey did slander every one of
you, and put things into my mouth that I never said, never thought
of at all.
And now my wife and I, out of our single heart, return you our
deepest and most grateful thanks, and--yesterday was her birthday.
The sixty-seventh birthday dinner was widely celebrated by the press, and
newspaper men generally took occasion to pay brilliant compliments to
Mark Twain. Arthur Brisbane wrote editorially:
For more than a generation he has been the Messiah of a genuine
gladness and joy to the millions of three continents.
It was little more than a week later that one of the old friends he had
mentioned, Thomas Brackett Reed, apparently well and strong that birthday
evening, passed from the things of this world. Clemens felt his death
keenly, and in a "good-by" which he wrote for Harper's Weekly he said:
His was a nature which invited affection--compelled it, in fact--and
met it half-way. Hence, he was "Tom" to the most of his friends and
to half of the nation . . . .
I cannot remember back to a time when he was not "Tom" Reed to me,
nor to a time when he could have been offended at being so addressed
by me. I cannot remember back to a time when I could let him alone
in an after-dinner speech if he was present, nor to a time when he
did not take my extravagance concerning him and misstatements about
him in good part, nor yet to a time when he did not pay them back
with usury when his turn came. The last speech he made was at my
birthday dinner at the end of November, when naturally I was his
text; my last word to him was in a letter the next day; a day later
I was illustrating a fantastic article on art with his portrait
among others--a portrait now to be laid reverently away among the
jests that begin in humor and end in pathos. These things happened
only eight days ago, and now he is gone from us, and the nation is
speaking of him as one who was. It seems incredible, impossible.
Such a man, such a friend, seems to us a permanent possession; his
vanishing from our midst is unthinkable, as was the vanishing of the
Campanile, that had stood for a thousand years and was turned to
dust in a moment.
The appreciation closes:
I have only wished to say how fine and beautiful was his life and
character, and to take him by the hand and say good-by, as to a
fortunate friend who has done well his work and gees a pleasant