Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXIII

Mark Twain — General Spokesman

Clemens did not confine his speeches altogether to matters of reform. At a dinner given by the Nineteenth Century Club in November, 1900, he spoke on the “Disappearance of Literature,” and at the close of the discussion of that subject, referring to Milton and Scott, he said:

Professor Winchester also said something about there being no modern epics like “Paradise Lost.” I guess he’s right. He talked as if he was pretty familiar with that piece of literary work, and nobody would suppose that he never had read it. I don’t believe any of you have ever read “Paradise Lost,” and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic — something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

Professor Trent also had a good deal to say about the disappearance of literature. He said that Scott would outlive all his critics. I guess that’s true. That fact of the business is you’ve got to be one of two ages to appreciate Scott. When you’re eighteen you can read Ivanhoe, and you want to wait until you’re ninety to read some of the rest. It takes a pretty well-regulated abstemious critic to live ninety years.

But a few days later he was back again in the forefront of reform, preaching at the Berkeley Lyceum against foreign occupation in China. It was there that he declared himself a Boxer.

Why should not China be free from the foreigners, who are only making trouble on her soil? If they would only all go home what a pleasant place China would be for the Chinese! We do not allow Chinamen to come here, and I say, in all seriousness, that it would be a graceful thing to let China decide who shall go there.

China never wanted foreigners any more than foreigners wanted Chinamen, and on this question I am with the Boxers every time. The Boxer is a patriot. He loves his country better than he does the countries of other people. I wish him success. We drive the Chinaman out of our country; the Boxer believes in driving us out of his country. I am a Boxer, too, on those terms.

Introducing Winston Churchill, of England, at a dinner some weeks later, he explained how generous England and America had been in not requiring fancy rates for “extinguished missionaries” in China as Germany had done. Germany had required territory and cash, he said, in payment for her missionaries, while the United States and England had been willing to settle for produce — firecrackers and tea.

The Churchill introduction would seem to have been his last speech for the year 1900, and he expected it, with one exception, to be the last for a long time. He realized that he was tired and that the strain upon him made any other sort of work out of the question. Writing to MacAlister at the end of the year, he said, “I seem to have made many speeches, but it is not so. It is not more than ten, I think.” Still, a respectable number in the space of two months, considering that each was carefully written and committed to memory, and all amid crushing social pressure. Again to MacAlister:

I declined 7 banquets yesterday (which is double the daily average) & answered 29 letters. I have slaved at my mail every day since we arrived in mid-October, but Jean is learning to typewrite & presently I’ll dictate & thereby save some scraps of time.

He added that after January 4th he did not intend to speak again for a year — that he would not speak then only that the matter concerned the reform of city government.

The occasion of January 4, 1901, was a rather important one. It was a meeting of the City Club, then engaged in the crusade for municipal reform. Wheeler H. Peckham presided, and Bishop Potter made the opening address. It all seems like ancient history now, and perhaps is not very vital any more; but the movement was making a great stir then, and Mark Twain’s declaration that he believed forty-nine men out of fifty were honest, and that the forty-nine only needed to organize to disqualify the fiftieth man (always organized for crime), was quoted as a sort of slogan for reform.

Clemens was not permitted to keep his resolution that he wouldn’t speak again that year. He had become a sort of general spokesman on public matters, and demands were made upon him which could not be denied. He declined a Yale alumni dinner, but he could not refuse to preside at the Lincoln Birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, February 11th, where he must introduce Watterson as the speaker of the evening.

“Think of it!” he wrote Twichell. “Two old rebels functioning there: I as president and Watterson as orator of the day! Things have changed somewhat in these forty years, thank God!”

The Watterson introduction is one of the choicest of Mark Twain’s speeches — a pure and perfect example of simple eloquence, worthy of the occasion which gave it utterance, worthy in spite of its playful paragraphs (or even because of them, for Lincoln would have loved them), to become the matrix of that imperishable Gettysburg phrase with which he makes his climax. He opened by dwelling for a moment on Colonel Watterson as a soldier, journalist, orator, statesman, and patriot; then he said:

It is a curious circumstance that without collusion of any kind, but merely in obedience to a strange and pleasant and dramatic freak of destiny, he and I, kinsmen by blood 153 for we are that — and one-time rebels — for we were that — should be chosen out of a million surviving quondam rebels to come here and bare our heads in reverence and love of that noble soul whom 40 years ago we tried with all our hearts and all our strength to defeat and dispossess — Abraham Lincoln! Is the Rebellion ended and forgotten? Are the Blue and the Gray one to-day? By authority of this sign we may answer yes; there was a Rebellion — that incident is closed.

153 [Colonel Watterson’s forebears had intermarried with the Lamptons.]

I was born and reared in a slave State, my father was a slaveowner; and in the Civil War I was a second lieutenant in the Confederate service. For a while. This second cousin of mine, Colonel Watterson, the orator of this present occasion, was born and reared in a slave State, was a colonel in the Confederate service, and rendered me such assistance as he could in my self-appointed great task of annihilating the Federal armies and breaking up the Union. I laid my plans with wisdom and foresight, and if Colonel Watterson had obeyed my orders I should have succeeded in my giant undertaking. It was my intention to drive General Grant into the Pacific — if I could get transportation — and I told Colonel Watterson to surround the Eastern armies and wait till I came. But he was insubordinate, and stood upon a punctilio of military etiquette; he refused to take orders from a second lieutenant — and the Union was saved. This is the first time that this secret has been revealed. Until now no one outside the family has known the facts. But there they stand: Watterson saved the Union. Yet to this day that man gets no pension. Those were great days, splendid days. What an uprising it was! For the hearts of the whole nation, North and South, were in the war. We of the South were not ashamed; for, like the men of the North, we were fighting for ‘flags we loved; and when men fight for these things, and under these convictions, with nothing sordid to tarnish their cause, that cause is holy, the blood spilt for it is sacred, the life that is laid down for it is consecrated. To-day we no longer regret the result, to-day we are glad it came out as it did, but we are not ashamed that we did our endeavor; we did our bravest best, against despairing odds, for the cause which was precious to us and which our consciences approved; and we are proud — and you are proud — the kindred blood in your veins answers when I say it — you are proud of the record we made in those mighty collisions in the fields.

What an uprising it was! We did not have to supplicate for soldiers on either side. “We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong!” That was the music North and South. The very choicest young blood and brawn and brain rose up from Maine to the Gulf and flocked to the standards — just as men always do when in their eyes their cause is great and fine and their hearts are in it; just as men flocked to the Crusades, sacrificing all they possessed to the cause, and entering cheerfully upon hardships which we cannot even imagine in this age, and upon toilsome and wasting journeys which in our time would be the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe five times over.

North and South we put our hearts into that colossal struggle, and out of it came the blessed fulfilment of the prophecy of the immortal Gettysburg speech which said: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We are here to honor the birthday of the greatest citizen, and the noblest and the best, after Washington, that this land or any other has yet produced. The old wounds are healed, you and we are brothers again; you testify it by honoring two of us, once soldiers of the Lost Cause, and foes of your great and good leader — with the privilege of assisting here; and we testify it by laying our honest homage at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, and in forgetting that you of the North and we of the South were ever enemies, and remembering only that we are now indistinguishably fused together and nameable by one common great name — Americans!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00