by Patricia Grandjean
Nov 24, 2010
10:16 AMBox Office
Happy Thanksgiving from Mark Twain
In keeping—sort of—with this week's holiday spirit, we thought we'd offer this excerpt from the just published Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 (University of California Press; $34.95)—the first in an projected series of three volumes that will present the complete, authoritative and uncensored life account by this American Master (and Connecticut icon) on the centennial of his death.
In January 1906, after reflecting on a speech he gave at an 1877 dinner hosted by the publishers of Atlantic Monthly—celebrating the 70th birthday of New England abolitionist and author John Greenleaf Whittier—Twain turns to the subject of his own 70th, which had fallen on Nov. 30, 1905. As that date happened to coincide with Thanksgiving, any public observance of Twain's birthday—particularly the one planned by his publisher, George Brinton McClellan Harvey, president of Harper and Brothers and editor of Harper's Weekly—had to be pushed aside. It should be noted that at the turn of the 20th century, Thanksgiving (as decreed by former President Abraham Lincoln and his successors) was typically celebrated the last Thursday of every November—it was not definitively established as the fourth Thursday of the month until Congress passed legislation on the matter in 1941.
As you will read, Twain was less than sanguine about this state of affairs:
"This talk about Mr. Whittier's seventieth birthday reminds me that my own seventieth arrived recently—that is to say, it arrived on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for—annually, not oftener—if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments. The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist—the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with thanks due. But, from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and the Governors of all the several states and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed at the old stand.
"The president and the Governors had to have my birthday—the 30th—for Thanksgiving Day, and this was a great inconvenience to Colonel Harvey, who had made much preparation for a banquet to be given to me on that day in celebration of the fact that it marked my seventieth escape from the gallows, according to his idea—a fact which he regarded with favor and contemplated with pleasure, because he is my publisher and commercially interested. He went to Washington to try to get the President to select another day for the national Thanksgiving, and I furnished him with arguments to use which I thought persuasive and convincing, arguments which ought to persuade him even to put off Thanksgiving Day a whole year—on the ground that nothing had happened during the previous twelvemonth except several vicious and inexcusable wars, and King Leopold of Belgium's usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo State, together with the Insurance revelations in New York, which seemed to establish the fact that if there was an honest man left in the United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his seventieth birthday. But the Colonel came back unsuccessful, and put my birthday celebration off to the 5th of December."
We have to admit, we're grateful that there was once an American writer with the stature (and effrontery) to claim that a national holiday should be changed in his honor.
May all our readers have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.Happy Thanksgiving from Mark Twain