Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXXIV

The Sixty-Seventh Birthday Dinner

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, 161 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:

161 [The “Sixty-seventh Birthday Speech” entire is included in the volume Mark Twain’s Speeches.]

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 journey.

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