Marking Mark Twain

November 30: Mark Twain was born on this day in 1835. Based on a convergence of Twain anniversaries in 2010—his 175th birthday, the 100th anniversary of his death, the 125th anniversary of the publication of Huckleberry Finn (U.S. edition)—some campaigned to have President Obama designate this "The Year of Mark Twain." As this did not happen, perhaps the author's seventieth birthday bash, held on this day in 1905 at New York's Delmonico's Restaurant, will stand as the high water mark in Twain birthday celebrations.

 

One hundred and seventy-five of Twain's distinguished friends were there, to HEAR WHY HE LIVED SO LONG (the headline in the New York Times report of the occasion), and to take home a foot-high plaster bust of the author. In his speech, Twain attributed his health and longevity to several hard-earned (and oft-repeated) principles—"to go to bed when there wasn't anybody left to sit up with," and "never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake"—and to his morality, as carefully cultivated as his taste for scotch:

Morals are an acquirement—like music, like a foreign language, like piety, poker, paralysis—no man is born with them. I wasn't myself, I started poor. I hadn't a single moral. There is hardly a man in this house that is poorer than I was then. Yes, I started like that—the world before me, not a moral in the slot. Not even an insurance moral. I can remember the first one I ever got.... It was an old moral, an old second-hand moral, all out of repair, and didn't fit, anyway. But if you are careful with a thing like that, and keep it in a dry place, and save it for processions, and Chautauquas, and World's Fairs, and so on, and disinfect it now and then, and give it a fresh coat of whitewash once in a while, you will be surprised to see how well she will last and how long she will keep sweet, or at least inoffensive....

Twain then takes aim at two of his favorite targets, Yankee imperialists and Christian missionaries, two groups which, he liked to suggest, never acquired a taste for morality.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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