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

August 23, 1881

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Mark Twain Says He Cannot Deliver a "Light and Nonsensical Speech" While President Garfield is Dying
Autograph Letter Signed
4 pages | SMC 1693

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      Background

      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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      Elmira, Aug. 23/81.

      Dear Professor Norton :

      I have been in a wearing state of perplexity for eight or ten days, now, never [text is crossed out] quite knowing whether I might venture to write you I was coming or not. --

      [text is crossed out]  This was all on account of the President's condition.  But on Sunday the news was so good, & so very promising for the future that I judged everything was safe ; so I wrote a telegram saying I was coming, & then finished loading myself up with my speech.  We are away up here on a mountain-top, some miles from the town.  I sent down my telegram in the 

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      morning, & away it went; but not by telegraph ; for it was found that the wires do not reach to Ashfield.  I ordered a sleeping-section for Albany in to-night's train, & made other preparations.  And then, of course 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 appaling [sic].  I had to 

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      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, [text is crossed out]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 [text is crossed out] simply be to add the one pang more than people could bear, -- I just felt that.

      So I sent that second dispatch down, last night, begging you to let me remain absent -- with orders to date it this morning & send it unless the news from Washington should be very good & reassuring -- which it was not, so they sent it along 

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      without inquiring further of me.  I hope it reached you ; I did my very best ; for I ordered that it be sent as near to you as the telegraph could carry it, & then be hurried the rest of the way by private messenger on a swift horse.  I sent it by way of Hartford because I knew the Western Union people there would do their level best in the matter.

      This world is a world of perplexities.  Supposing I was going to Ashfield, I made some business appointments in Hartford & Boston, which I shouldn't otherwise have made : & I have got to keep them, I suppose, whether or no.

      I hope you & Mr. Curtis will try to forgive me ; for I never would have failed of my promise for what I deemed an insufficient reason, I do assure you.

      Truly Yours

      S.L. CLEMENS.