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13 January, 2012
Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 1: 1900 - 1907|
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The announcement of the seventieth birthday dinner had precipitated a
perfect avalanche of letters, which continued to flow in until the news
accounts of it precipitated another avalanche. The carriers' bags were
stuffed with greetings that came from every part of the world, from every
class of humanity. They were all full of love and tender wishes. A card
signed only with initials said: "God bless your old sweet soul for having
Aldrich, who could not attend the dinner, declared that all through the
evening he had been listening in his mind to a murmur of voices in the
hall at Delmonico's. A group of English authors in London combined in a
cable of congratulations. Anstey, Alfred Austin, Balfour, Barrie, Bryce,
Chesterton, Dobson, Doyle, Gosse, Hardy, Hope, Jacobs, Kipling, Lang,
Parker, Tenniel, Watson, and Zangwill were among the signatures.
Helen Keller wrote:
And you are seventy years old? Or is the report exaggerated, like
that of your death? I remember, when I saw you last, at the house
of dear Mr. Hutton, in Princeton, you said:
"If a man is a pessimist before he is forty-eight he knows too much.
If he is an optimist after he is forty-eight he knows too little."
Now we know you are an optimist, and nobody would dare to accuse one
on the "seven-terraced summit" of knowing little. So probably you
are not seventy after all, but only forty-seven!
Helen Keller was right. Mark Twain was not a pessimist in his heart, but
only by premeditation. It was his observation and his logic that led him
to write those things that, even in their bitterness, somehow conveyed
that spirit of human sympathy which is so closely linked to hope. To
Miss Keller he wrote:
"Oh, thank you for your lovely words!"
He was given another birthday celebration that month--this time by the
Society of Illustrators. Dan Beard, president, was also toast-master;
and as he presented Mark Twain there was a trumpet-note, and a lovely
girl, costumed as Joan of Arc, entered and, approaching him, presented
him with a laurel wreath. It was planned and carried out as a surprise
to him, and he hardly knew for the moment whether it was a vision or a
reality. He was deeply affected, so much so that for several moments he
could not find his voice to make any acknowledgments.
Clemens was more than ever sought now, and he responded when the cause
was a worthy one. He spoke for the benefit of the Russian sufferers at
the Casino on December 18th. Madame Sarah Bernhardt was also there, and
spoke in French. He followed her, declaring that it seemed a sort of
cruelty to inflict upon an audience our rude English after hearing that
divine speech flowing in that lucid Gallic tongue.
It has always been a marvel to me--that French language; it has
always been a puzzle to me. How beautiful that language is! How
expressive it seems to be! How full of grace it is!
And when it comes from lips like those, how eloquent and how limpid
it is! And, oh, I am always deceived--I always think I am going to
It is such a delight to me, such a delight to me, to meet Madame
Bernhardt, and laugh hand to hand and heart to heart with her. I
have seen her play, as we all have, and, oh, that is divine; but I
have always wanted to know Madame Bernhardt herself--her fiery self.
I have wanted to know that beautiful character.
Why, she is the youngest person I ever saw, except myself--for I
always feel young when I come in the presence of young people.
And truly, at seventy, Mark Twain was young, his manner, his movement,
his point of view-these were all, and always, young.
A number of palmists about that time examined impressions of his hand
without knowledge as to the owner, and they all agreed that it was the
hand of a man with the characteristics of youth, with inspiration, and
enthusiasm, and sympathy--a lover of justice and of the sublime. They
all agreed, too, that he was a deep philosopher, though, alas! they
likewise agreed that he lacked the sense of humor, which is not as
surprising as it sounds, for with Mark Twain humor was never mere fun-
making nor the love of it; rather it was the flower of his philosophy--
its bloom arid fragrance.
When the fanfare and drum-beat of his birthday honors had passed by, and
a moment of calm had followed, Mark Twain set down some reflections on
the new estate he had achieved. The little paper, which forms a perfect
pendant to the "Seventieth Birthday Speech," here follows:
I think it likely that people who have not been here will be
interested to know what it is like. I arrived on the thirtieth of
November, fresh from carefree & frivolous 69, & was disappointed.
There is nothing novel about it, nothing striking, nothing to thrill
you & make your eye glitter & your tongue cry out, "Oh, it is
wonderful, perfectly wonderful!" Yes, it is disappointing. You
say, "Is this it?--this? after all this talk and fuss of a thousand
generations of travelers who have crossed this frontier & looked
about them & told what they saw & felt? Why, it looks just like
And that is true. Also it is natural, for you have not come by the
fast express; you have been lagging & dragging across the world's
continents behind oxen; when that is your pace one country melts
into the next one so gradually that you are not able to notice the
change; 70 looks like 69; 69 looked like 68; 68 looked like 67--& so
on back & back to the beginning. If you climb to a summit & look
back--ah, then you see!
Down that far-reaching perspective you can make out each country &
climate that you crossed, all the way up from the hot equator to the
ice-summit where you are perched. You can make out where Infancy
verged into Boyhood; Boyhood into down-lipped Youth; Youth into
bearded, indefinite Young-Manhood; indefinite Young-Manhood into
definite Manhood; definite Manhood, with large, aggressive
ambitions, into sobered & heedful Husbandhood & Fatherhood; these
into troubled & foreboding Age, with graying hair; this into Old
Age, white-headed, the temple empty, the idols broken, the
worshipers in their graves, nothing left but You, a remnant, a
tradition, belated fag-end of a foolish dream, a dream that was so
ingeniously dreamed that it seemed real all the time; nothing left
but You, center of a snowy desolation, perched on the ice-summit,
gazing out over the stages of that long trek & asking Yourself,
"Would you do it again if you had the chance?"