Mark Twain’s 43rd Thanksgiving

In 1905, Thanksgiving Day fell on the 30th of November, which also happened to be Sam Clemens’s 70th birthday. In his autobiography, he claims an effort was made “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.” Among these was that “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.” This, perhaps, gives a good sense of Clemens’s mood as the holiday approached.

Twain argued nothing had happened in the preceding year worth giving thanks for, citing “several vicious and inexcusable wars,” scandalous “revelations” of financial fraud, and the “usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo State” as evidence “that if there was an honest man left in the United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his seventieth birthday.” President Roosevelt, who Twain had already begun habitually savaging in in both public and private writings, was, predictably, not persuaded by an argument founded upon a dismal view of the country during his administration, though he did send a flattering if contrite letter to be read at Twain’s party, which was postponed until the 5th of December.

Twain appears to have spent the momentous day largely alone in his townhouse in New York City. He lunched with his close friends, Emilie and Henry Rogers, then retired to work on his speech for the upcoming banquet. That speech, with its comical asides about smoking, drinking, and diet, became one of the most celebrated works from Twain’s late phase, possessing the deadpan sarcasm and ironic self-assurance associated with his stage persona.

But Twain discarded several passages written for the occasion, likely begun on Thanksgiving evening, which are more reflective of the dark writing associated with his “widower” period. These would be published posthumously as a short essay, “Old Age.” “I arrived on the thirtieth of November, fresh from a care-free and frivolous 69,” he wrote, “and was disappointed.”

Old Age, white-headed, the temple empty, the idols broken, the worshippers 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, centre of a snowy desolation, perched on the ice-summit, gazing out over the stages of that long trek and asking yourself “would you do it again if you had the chance?”

Happy Thanksgiving. Maybe, don’t spend too much of it alone. “When others drink,” as Twain told partygoers a few days later, “I like to help.” And, also, if you can help it, don’t think so much about current events. “I have lived a severely moral life,” Twain said, “But it would be a mistake for other people to try that, or for me to recommend it.” Instead, y’know, have a cigar, “frolick with mince-meat pie after midnight,” and take it easy. “I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting,” Twain said, “My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.”