Monday, July 4, 2011

Mark Twain's Independence Day Peroration

While attending a family reunion in Keokuk, Iowa, in July 1886, Mark Twain was enlisted for some Independence Day speechifying. The festivities actually took place on July 3rd, and Twain's remarks were duly reported in the Keokuk Weekly Constitution (July 7, 1886):
"Ladies and gentlemen: I little thought that when the boys woke me with their noise this morning that I should be called upon to add to their noise. But I promise not to keep you long. You have heard all there is to hear on the subject, the evidence is all in and all I have to do is to sum up the evidence and deliver the verdict. You have heard the Declaration of Independence with its majestic ending, which is worthy to live forever, which has been hurled at the bones of a fossilized monarch, old King George the III, who has been dead these many years, and which will continue to be hurled at him annually as long as this republic lives. You have heard the history of the nation from the first to the last--from the beginning of the revolutionary was, past the days of its great general, Grant, told in eloquent language by the orator of the day. All I have to do is to add the verdict, which is all that can be added, and that is, 'It is a successful day.' I thank the officers of the day that I am enabled to once more stand face to face with the citizens that I met thirty years ago, when I was a citizen of Iowa, and also those of a later generation. In the address to-day, I have not heard much mention made of the progress of these last few years--of the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and other great inventions. A poet has said, 'Better fifty years of England than all the cycles of Cathay,' but I say 'Better this decade than the 900 years of Methuselah.' There is more done in one year now than Methuselah ever saw in all his life. He was probably asleep all those 900 years. When I was here thirty years ago there were 3,000 people here and they drank 3,000 barrels of whisky a day, and they drank it in public then. I know that the man who makes the last speech on an occasion like this has the best of the other speakers, as he has the last word to say, which falls like a balm on the audience--though this audience has not been bored to-day--and though I can't say that last word, I will do the next best thing I can, and that is to sit down."
Some thirty years prior, in 1856-7, Twain had contributed several travel dispatches to the Keokuk Post under the name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. These were notable for Twain's early experimentation with writing in the vernacular., the source of the above passage, contains an abundance of interesting Twainiana.

To supply the requisite noise that Twain alludes to at the beginning of his speech, the following video by Jeremiah Warren depicts the launches of several celebratory rockets that have been affixed with a wide-angle camera. Twain himself was an early adopter of new technologies, notably the typewriter, and refers in the speech to the progress made possible by several major inventions of the day--the telephone, telegraph, and phonograph.

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