Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine



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 lived.”

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 understand it.

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 69.”

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?”

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