Saturday, November 23, 2019

Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

“The Dinner at Delmonico’s in Honor of Mark Twain’s Seventieth Birthday.” Drawing by illustrator Sydney Adamson (fl. 1892–1914) for Harper’s Weekly. A 32-page supplement in the December 23, 1905, issue of the magazine included, along with a two-page spread of Adamson’s illustration, the texts of the speeches and full-page photographs of the guests at the event.
Until 1941, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation establishing the celebration of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of each November, Americans marked the holiday on the last Thursday of November, in accordance with a proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Thus, on Thursday, November 30, 1905, Mark Twain’s seventieth birthday coincided with Thanksgiving. It was a quiet day for the author; he had lunch with his friends Emile and Henry Rogers—the latter a famous industrialist who built up Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller and who boasted descent from the Mayflower Pilgrims. Twain spent the rest of his birthday in his Fifth Avenue townhouse preparing a speech for the upcoming dinner that would make headlines in newspapers across the nation—an event that, because of the holiday, celebrated the seventieth birthday of America’s most famous writer five days after the fact.

When Colonel George Harvey, Twain’s editor and the president of Harper & Brothers, first suggested a birthday celebration, Twain imagined a small gathering of friends, perhaps in a nearby tavern or beer hall. Instead, Harvey planned a feast at New York’s most prestigious restaurant, Delmonico’s, and (as biographer Albert Bigelow Paine put it), “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.”

For his autobiography Twain spun a fanciful yarn concerning how the dinner came to be held on December 5 rather than on his actual birthday:
[Colonel Harvey] 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.
Twain's autobiography also presents his mordant view of Thanksgiving as a commemoration of New England colonists “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; hence 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 the 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.
A reader new to Mark Twain’s politics and satire might be tempted to dismiss such sentiments as the contrarianism of an old curmudgeon—but he had been making similar statements for decades. “The observance of Thanksgiving Day—as a function—has become general of late years,” he wrote in Following the Equator (1897). “The Thankfulness is not so general. . . . Two-thirds of the nation have always had hard luck and a hard time during the year, and this has a calming effect upon their enthusiasm.”

Even earlier, in 1881, he agreed to give a speech at the newly formed New England Society of Philadelphia. Organizations for the descendants of European settlers had been springing up in various American cities; the New England societies all held annual dinners on December 22 (the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock), and they often found common cause opposing the influx of more recent immigrants of other ethnic groups. The organizers must have known what they would be getting when they asked Mark Twain to be their featured speaker; he was already infamous for his irreverence. The president of the society jokingly explained Twain’s presence with the acknowledgment that, although the evening’s guest lived in Connecticut, “he was never exactly born in New England, nor, perhaps, were any of his ancestors.”
He is not technically, therefore, of New England descent. Under the painful circumstances in which he has found himself, however, he has done the best he could—he has had all his children born there, and has made of himself a New England ancestor. He is a self-made man. More than this, and better even, in cheerful, hopeful, helpful literature he is of New England ascent.
And then came the speech, which we present in full below. Twain spoke last, “after a number of other toasts to New England and the ‘sons’ who had gathered to pay homage to the legacy of the ‘fathers,’” writes Stephen Railton (the scholar responsible for the invaluable Mark Twain in His Times website). In addition to poking fun at both the society’s existence and the dinner’s purpose, “Twain's speech was the only one to notice all the other native sons and daughters who had been excluded from the Society’s version of America: native Americans, slaves, women, and other ‘Others.’ . . . As humor, this ‘protest’ shocked and entertained its audience—at the same time.”

Notes: William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson were Quakers who came to Boston in 1639 to preach in defiance of a Massachusetts Bay Colony law that made such activities punishable by death. They were imprisoned, Robinson was whipped, and they were banished from the colony. Ignoring the order, they continued to preach in and around the Boston area and were hanged in 1659. Elizabeth Hooton, another Quaker, came to Massachusetts in 1661; she was twice imprisoned and expelled from the colony. She returned a third time the next year with a license from the king permitting her to settle, but she was imprisoned again for preaching, then whipped and expelled. In subsequent years she endured the same treatment once in Rhode Island and at least seven more times in Massachusetts, imprisoned, punished and expelled on each occasion.

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I rise to protest. I have kept still for years, but really I think there is no sufficient justification for this sort of thing. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.