How Mark Twain Nearly Became the Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving

click to enlarge How Mark Twain Nearly Became the Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving

On November 30, 1905, Mark Twain turned 70. That blessed occasion was marked by interviews with fawning reporters, equally fawning newspaper articles and plans for an elaborate birthday dinner at Delmonico's, then the fanciest restaurant in New York City.

Unfortunately, November 30 that year happened to fall on the final Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day. This would interfere considerably with plans for Twain's birthday party, since guests would be expected to be at home eating turkey with their families.

There was only one thing to do: George Harvey, Twain's editor at the North American Review, traveled to Washington, DC, to petition President Theodore Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to another, more convenient day.

The whole story is revealed for the first time, in Twain's own words, in the newly-published surprise best-seller The Autobiography of Mark Twain.

To be fair, Twain's objections to Thanksgiving were moral as well as personal -- though his reasoning sounds a lot like that of a college freshman who has recently discovered there is injustice in the world.

[My birthday] arrived on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for--annually, not oftener--if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments. 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, with the thanks due. But, from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us.

And so Harvey was dispatched to Washington.

[Harvey] went to Washington to try 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, arguments which ought to persuade him even to put off Thanksgiving Day a whole year--on the ground that nothing had happened during the previous twelvemonth except several vicious and inexcusable wars, and King Leopold of Belgium's usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo State, together with the Insurance revelations in New York, which seemed to establish the fact that if there was an honest man left in the United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his seventieth birthday.

Sadly, Roosevelt was unmoved. The celebration -- of Twain, not of giving thanks -- was postponed a week, till December 5. 170 of Twain's dearest literary friends gathered at Delmonico's where they all ate a lot, listened to many testimonial speeches (including a congratulatory note from the President, who had apparently decided to forgive Twain for his attempt to sabotage Thanksgiving) and received souvenir plaster busts of the great man.

Twain himself gave a lengthy speech in which he revealed the secret to his longevity -- "it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake" -- and reflected upon the circumstances of his first birthday, which took place in his birthplace of Florida, Missouri.

Well, everybody came swarming in. It was the merest little bit of a village-hardly that, just a little hamlet, in the backwoods of Missouri, where nothing ever happened, and the people were all interested, and they all came; they looked me over to see if there was anything fresh in my line. Why, nothing ever happened in that village-I-why, I was the only thing that had really happened there for months and months and months; And although I say it myself that shouldn't, I came the nearest to being a real event that had happened in that village in more than two years.

With a start like that, who could blame him for wanting to move a national holiday?

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