Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLXVII

Views and Addresses

[As I am beginning this chapter, April 16, 1912, the news comes of the loss, on her first trip, of the great White Star Line steamer Titanic, with the destruction of many passengers, among whom are Frank D. Millet, William T. Stead, Isadore Straus, John Jacob Astor, and other distinguished men. They died as heroes, remaining with the ship in order that the women and children might be saved.

It was the kind of death Frank Millet would have wished to die. He was always a soldier — a knight. He has appeared from time to time in these pages, for he was a dear friend of the Clemens household. One of America’s foremost painters; at the time of his death he was head of the American Academy of Arts in Rome.]

Mark Twain made a number of addresses during the spring of 1908. He spoke at the Cartoonists’ dinner, very soon after his return from Bermuda; he spoke at the Booksellers’ banquet, expressing his debt of obligation to those who had published and sold his books; he delivered a fine address at the dinner given by the British Schools and University Club at Delmonico’s, May 25th, in honor of Queen Victoria’s birthday. In that speech he paid high tribute to the Queen for her attitude toward America, during the crisis of the Civil Wax, and to her royal consort, Prince Albert.

What she did for us in America in our time of storm and stress we shall not forget, and whenever we call it to mind we shall always gratefully remember the wise and righteous mind that guided her in it and sustained and supported her — Prince Albert’s. We need not talk any idle talk here to-night about either possible or impossible war between two countries; there will be no war while we remain sane and the son of Victoria and Albert sits upon the throne. In conclusion, I believe I may justly claim to utter the voice of my country in saying that we hold him in deep honor, and also in cordially wishing him a long life and a happy reign.

But perhaps his most impressive appearance was at the dedication of the great City College (May 14, 1908), where President John Finley, who had been struggling along with insufficient room, was to have space at last for his freer and fuller educational undertakings. A great number of honored scholars, statesmen, and diplomats assembled on the college campus, a spacious open court surrounded by stately college architecture of medieval design. These distinguished guests were clad in their academic robes, and the procession could not have been widely different from that one at Oxford of a year before. But there was something rather fearsome about it, too. A kind of scaffolding had been reared in the center of the campus for the ceremonies; and when those grave men in their robes of state stood grouped upon it the picture was strikingly suggestive of one of George Cruikshank’s drawings of an execution scene at the Tower of London. Many of the robes were black — these would be the priests — and the few scarlet ones would be the cardinals who might have assembled for some royal martyrdom. There was a bright May sunlight over it all, one of those still, cool brightnesses which served to heighten the weird effect. I am sure that others felt it besides myself, for everybody seemed wordless and awed, even at times when there was no occasion for silence. There was something of another age about the whole setting, to say the least.

We left the place in a motor-car, a crowd of boys following after. As Clemens got in they gathered around the car and gave the college yell, ending with “Twain! Twain! Twain!” and added three cheers for Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd’nhead Wilson. They called for a speech, but he only said a few words in apology for not granting their request. He made a speech to them that night at the Waldorf — where he proposed for the City College a chair of citizenship, an idea which met with hearty applause.

In the same address he referred to the “God Trust” motto on the coins, and spoke approvingly of the President’s order for its removal.

We do not trust in God, in the important matters of life, and not even a minister of the Gospel will take any coin for a cent more than its accepted value because of that motto. If cholera should ever reach these shores we should probably pray to be delivered from the plague, but we would put our main trust in the Board of Health.

Next morning, commenting on the report of this speech, he said:

“If only the reporters would not try to improve on what I say. They seem to miss the fact that the very art of saying a thing effectively is in its delicacy, and as they can’t reproduce the manner and intonation in type they make it emphatic and clumsy in trying to convey it to the reader.”

I pleaded that the reporters were often young men, eager, and unmellowed in their sense of literary art.

“Yes,” he agreed, “they are so afraid their readers won’t see my good points that they set up red flags to mark them and beat a gong. They mean well, but I wish they wouldn’t do it.”

He referred to the portion of his speech concerning the motto on the coins. He had freely expressed similar sentiments on other public occasions, and he had received a letter criticizing him for saying that we do not really trust in God in any financial matter.

“I wanted to answer it,” he said; “but I destroyed it. It didn’t seem worth noticing.”

I asked how the motto had originated.

“About 1853 some idiot in Congress wanted to announce to the world that this was a religious nation, and proposed putting it there, and no other Congressman had courage enough to oppose it, of course. It took courage in those days to do a thing like that; but I think the same thing would happen to-day.”

“Still the country has become broader. It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read the ‘Age of Reason’.”

“So it did, and yet that seems a mild book now. I read it first when I was a cub pilot, read it with fear and hesitation, but marveling at its fearlessness and wonderful power. I read it again a year or two ago, for some reason, and was amazed to see how tame it had become. It seemed that Paine was apologizing everywhere for hurting the feelings of the reader.”

He drifted, naturally, into a discussion of the Knickerbocker Trust Company’s suspension, which had tied up some fifty-five thousand dollars of his capital, and wondered how many were trusting in God for the return of these imperiled sums. Clemens himself, at this time, did not expect to come out whole from that disaster. He had said very little when the news came, though it meant that his immediate fortunes were locked up, and it came near stopping the building activities at Redding. It was only the smaller things of life that irritated him. He often met large calamities with a serenity which almost resembled indifference. In the Knickerbocker situation he even found humor as time passed, and wrote a number of gay letters, some of which found their way into print.

It should be added that in the end there was no loss to any of the Knickerbocker depositors.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05