Mark Twain was nearing seventy, the scriptural limitation of life, and the returns were coming in. Some one of the old group was dying all the time. The roll-call returned only a scattering answer. Of his oldest friends, Charles Henry Webb, John Hay, and Sir Henry Irving, all died that year. When Hay died Clemens gave this message to the press:
I am deeply grieved, & I mourn with the nation this loss which is irreparable. My friendship with Mr. Hay & my admiration of him endured 38 years without impairment.
It was only a little earlier that he had written Hay an anonymous letter, a copy of which he preserved. It here follows:
DEAR & HONORED SIR — I never hear any one speak of you & of your long roll of illustrious services in other than terms of pride & praise —& out of the heart. I think I am right in believing you to be the only man in the civil service of the country the cleanness of whose motives is never questioned by any citizen, & whose acts proceed always upon a broad & high plane, never by accident or pressure of circumstance upon a narrow or low one. There are majorities that are proud of more than one of the nation’s great servants, but I believe, & I think I know, that you are the only one of whom the entire nation is proud. Proud & thankful.
Name & address are lacking here, & for a purpose: to leave you no chance to make my words a burden to you and a reproach to me, who would lighten your burdens if I could, not add to them.
Irving died in October, and Clemens ordered a wreath for his funeral. To MacAlister he wrote:
I profoundly grieve over Irving’s death. It is another reminder. My section of the procession has but a little way to go. I could not be very sorry if I tried.
Mark Twain, nearing seventy, felt that there was not much left for him to celebrate; and when Colonel Harvey proposed a birthday gathering in his honor, Clemens suggested a bohemian assembly over beer and sandwiches in some snug place, with Howells, Henry Rogers, Twichell, Dr. Rice, Dr. Edward Quintard, Augustus Thomas, and such other kindred souls as were still left to answer the call. But Harvey had something different in view: something more splendid even than the sixty-seventh birthday feast, more pretentious, indeed, than any former literary gathering. He felt that the attainment of seventy years by America’s most distinguished man of letters and private citizen was a circumstance which could not be moderately or even modestly observed. The date was set five days later than the actual birthday — that is to say, on December 5th, in order that it might not conflict with the various Thanksgiving holidays and occasions. Delmonico’s great room was chosen for the celebration of it, and invitations were sent out to practically every writer of any distinction in America, and to many abroad. Of these nearly two hundred accepted, while such as could not come sent pathetic regrets.
What an occasion it was! The flower of American literature gathered to do honor to its chief. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed permeated with his presence, and when Colonel Harvey presented William Dean Howells, and when Howells had read another double-barreled sonnet, and introduced the guest of the evening with the words, “I will not say, ‘O King, live forever,’ but, ‘O King, live as long as you like!’” and Mark Twain rose, his snow-white hair gleaming above that brilliant assembly, it seemed that a world was speaking out in a voice of applause and welcome. With a great tumult the throng rose, a billow of life, the white handkerchiefs flying foam-like on its crest. Those who had gathered there realized that it was a mighty moment, not only in his life but in theirs. They were there to see this supreme embodiment of the American spirit as he scaled the mountain-top. He, too, realized the drama of that moment — the marvel of it — and he must have flashed a swift panoramic view backward over the long way he had come, to stand, as he had himself once expressed it, “for a single, splendid moment on the Alps of fame outlined against the sun.” He must have remembered; for when he came to speak he went back to the very beginning, to his very first banquet, as he called it, when, as he said, “I hadn’t any hair; I hadn’t any teeth; I hadn’t any clothes.” He sketched the meagerness of that little hamlet which had seen his birth, sketched it playfully, delightfully, so that his hearers laughed and shouted; but there was always a tenderness under it all, and often the tears were not far beneath the surface. He told of his habits of life, how he had attained seventy years by simply sticking to a scheme of living which would kill anybody else; how he smoked constantly, loathed exercise, and had no other regularity of habits. Then, at last, he reached that wonderful, unforgetable close:
Threescore years and ten!
It is the scriptural statute of limitations. After that you owe no active duties; for you the strenuous life is over. You are a time-expired man, to use Kipling’s military phrase: You have served your term, well or less well, and you are mustered out. You are become an honorary member of the republic, you are emancipated, compulsions are not for you, nor any bugle-call but “lights out.” You pay the time-worn duty bills if you choose, or decline if you prefer — and without prejudice — for they are not legally collectable.
The previous-engagement plea, which in forty years has cost you so many twinges, you can lay aside forever; on this side of the grave you will never need it again. If you shrink at thought of night, and winter, and the late homecomings from the banquet and the lights and laughter through the deserted streets — a desolation which would not remind you now, as for a generation it did, that your friends are sleeping and you must creep in a-tiptoe and not disturb them, but would only remind you that you need not tiptoe, you can never disturb them more — if you shrink at the thought of these things you need only reply, “Your invitation honors me and pleases me because you still keep me in your remembrance, but I am seventy; seventy, and would nestle in the chinmey-corner, and smoke my pipe, and read my book, and take my rest, wishing you well in all affection, and that when you in your turn shall arrive at Pier 70 you may step aboard your waiting ship with a reconciled spirit, and lay your course toward the sinking sun with a contented heart.”
The tears that had been lying in wait were not restrained now. If there were any present who did not let them flow without shame, who did not shout their applause from throats choked with sobs, the writer of these lines failed to see them or to hear of them. There was not one who was ashamed to pay the great tribute of tears.
Many of his old friends, one after another, rose to tell their love for him — Brander Matthews, Cable, Kate Douglas Riggs, Gilder, Carnegie, Bangs, Bacheller — they kept it up far into the next morning. No other arrival at Pier 70 ever awoke a grander welcome.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00