August 23, 1881

Mark Twain Says He Cannot Deliver a “Light and Nonsensical Speech” While President Garfield is Dying

Autograph Letter Signed
4 pages
SMC 1693
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) explains he cannot deliver a “light & nonsensical speech” while fatally wounded President Garfield is dying. He was ready to leave for Ashfield, address in hand, when,

Bad news began to come from
Washington again; so bad, indeed, & so utterly hopeless, that we began to look, hourly, for the President's death. This house, like all others in the land, became a house of mourning. The idea of making a light & nonsensical speech, to possibly appear in print in the midst of columns of heart-break walled in from top to bottom with the black bars of mourning for the head of the nation was appalling. I had to annul my program - there was no other way. And besides, if this dreary uncertainty continued, even though the President still lived, I knew I should have no heart to talk nonsense, or the people to listen to it. And for me to appear there in Ashfield & conform myself to the sorrowful circumstances, with a speech framed in unison with them, would simply be to add the one pang more than people could bear, - I just felt that. 

But the world, Clemens continues, is one of perplexities. Having thought he would be traveling to Ashfield, he had made business appointments in Hartford and Boston, and those, the President dying or not, he cannot break. He begs forgiveness for the cancelled lecture - but he would never have failed of his promise for an insufficient reason.

Garfield, who was as shot by a deranged lawyer in a Washington railway station on July 2nd, lingered for weeks as doctors tried to find and remove the bullet in his back. He ultimately succumbed to infection caused by the doctors’ unsterilized probing and died on September 19, 1881.
Autograph Letter Signed (“S.L. Clemens"), 4 pages, octavo, Elmira, New York, August 23, 1881. To Charles Eliot Norton.
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