Twain & the Pilgrims

December 11: The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on this day in 1620.

The symbolism of the event has been borrowed for many occasions, often in support of the 'true patriot' theme. James Russell Lowell's poem "The Present Crisis" (1845), one of his many attempts to advance the abolitionist cause, frames the slavery debate as a question of national first principles: "Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time? / Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that make Plymouth Rock sublime?" Lowell's answer, presented in his closing stanza, is that every age or crisis requires a reapplication of the iconoclastic Plymouth spirit:

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;

They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;

Lo, before us gleam her campfires? We ourselves must Pilgrims be,

Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,

Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted key.

Mark Twain's "Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims" speech was delivered in 1881, at the New England Society's annual meeting on the anniversary of the Plymouth Rock landing. Last of the evening's speakers, Twain begins by braking rather than jumping on the Pilgrim bandwagon: "What do you want to celebrate those people for?" In protest, and speaking as "a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri," Twain claims a different lineage, linking himself to various groups—Indians, Quakers, African-American slaves—which had been persecuted or disenfranchised by the Pilgrim forefathers and principles. Twain closes by urging his audience, many of them of proud Pilgrim stock, to change their ways, if not their gene-pool:

Disband these New England societies, renounce these soul-blistering saturnalia, cease from varnishing the rusty reputations of your long-vanished ancestors—the super-high-moral old iron-clads of Cape Cod, the pious buccaneers of Plymouth Rock—go home, and try to learn to behave! However, chaff and nonsense aside, I think I honor and appreciate your Pilgrim stock as much as you do yourselves, perhaps; and I endorse and adopt a sentiment uttered by a grandfather of mine once—a man of sturdy opinions, of sincere make of mind, and not given to flattery. He said: "People may talk as they like about that Pilgrim stock, but, after all's said and done, it would be pretty hard to improve on those people; and, as for me, I don't mind coming out flatfooted and saying there ain't any way to improve on them—except having them born in Missouri!"


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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