Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890
Mark Twain was born 184 years ago, on November 30, 1835. And several times during his lifetime, his birthday coincided with Thanksgiving.
In his writings and public speeches, Mark Twain viewed Thanksgiving and the traditions surrounding the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock with his usual skepticism. When he was invited to a banquet of an association of the descendants of European settlers in Massachusetts, he opened his uproariously irreverent speech with the question, “What do you want to celebrate those people for?”
Certain members of the press didn’t know what to make of him. “Mark Twain stood in one corner uttering drolleries which caused his auditors to guffaw in a manner highly reprehensible in staid and sober citizens,” the reporter for one paper huffed disapprovingly.” Yet, he nearly always managed to win over his audiences while he implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) insulted and criticized them.
As for Thanksgiving: he was ambivalent. He readily reminded his readers and listeners that not everyone, either during the colonial era or in the present, had reason to be thankful for how things were going in their lives. And, for even those who did, Twain argued it seemed “too one-sided. No one ever seems to think of the Deity’s side of it; apparently no one concerns himself to inquire how much or how little He has had to be thankful for during the same period; apparently no one has had good feeling enough to wish He might have a Thanksgiving day too. There is nothing right about this.”
For our Story of the Week selection, then, we present “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,” the speech Mark Twain gave to the Philadelphia chapter of the New England Society.