Mark Twain’s “The Strangest Thanksgiving Sentiment Ever Penned”

Mark Twain
Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens

The following interview appeared in the New York World Sunday Magazine on November 26, 1905.  Mark Twain, as one might expect, is humorous and pointed on a number of topics. But it’s the choice of topics that surprise in their timeliness.   He admits that Americans may well eat too much, and recommends his new diet of 3 or 4 smaller meals per day. He eschews exercise (“I may not need it. I never fail to run upstairs”) and labels of laziness (“The average man whom we call lazy is probably not lazy at all, but is simply storing up energy”).  As to what he’s thankful for: he spares a few choice words for Leopold II.

The magazine was a supplement to the New York World, which enjoyed its heyday under Joseph Pulitzer in New York’s good ol’ yellow journalism days, battling for circulation numbers with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American.  The World even sent investigative reporter Nellie Bly on a world-record breaking trip around the world as a publicity stunt to gain readers. I’m told that the New York Observer modeled itself after the World. Maybe we’ll see Jared Kushner heating up the old hot air balloon one of these days…

The occasion for the following interview was Twain’s 70th birthday, which happened to fall that year on Thanksgiving, and took place five years before his death.  (Before FDR, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the final Thursday of November.) Twain also submitted a Thanksgiving op-ed piece to the Washington Times the next day, if you just can’t get enough Twainsgiving.  Enjoy!

What I Am Thankful For

by Mark Twain
a.k.a. Samuel Clemens

Interview with W. O. Inglis

Greatest of American Huomorists,
Who Will be 70 Years Old on Thanksgiving Day,
Who Has Just Conquered Dyspepsia by Eating Three Meals a Day (Instead of One),
Who Tells Why He Is Thankful for Many Things,


Who Writes to Readers of The World the Strangest Thanksgiving Sentiment Ever Penned.

Mark Twain’s Remarkable Thanksgiving Message.

We have much to be thankful for: most of all, (politically), that America’s first-born son, sole & only son, love-child of her trusting innocence & her virgin bed, King Leopold of the Undertakers, has been spared to us another year, & that his (& our) Cemetery Trust in the Congo is now doing a larger business in a single week than it used to in a month fifteen years ago.

Mark Twain.

This remarkable sentiment was given to me by Mr. Clemens at the end of an interview. His seventieth birthday will be celebrated next Thursday, and, because his life is an additional reason why the American people should feel grateful, he was asked by The Sunday World Magazine to say why we should all be thankful at this particular season.

Mere black words on white paper cannot give the force with which Mr. Clemens uttered the denunciation of King Leopold, whom most people recall in a vague way as the destroyer of Congo negroes and promoter of Parisian orgies. The outburst came as a surprise, for the conversation up to that point had been quite general. No one could think of Mr. Clemens as seventy years old who had seen the burning eyes of the man or heard the slow, irresistible roll of his sonorous voice as he denounced the King of the Belgians for his traffic in human flesh.

We were sitting in the library of Mr. Clemens’s home, a stately, spacious old mansion in lower Fifth avenue. The white-haired humorist had been in a delightful mood, now pacing up and down the long room as he talked, again allowing himself a few moments of luxury in a great easy chair before he resumed the busy walk. He had been speaking of Thanksgiving days in general. It is difficult to give an adequate idea of the charm of an interview with Mark Twain. The man breathes the spirit of hospitality, and upon every subject that comes up his quick mind plays with all the brilliance and illuminative power of a searchlight.

The surprising thing about him is the absence of an appearance of age. When one interviews a man about his seventieth birthday one expects to find a certain venerableness. But in Mark Twain the venerableness is lacking.

His erect, supple, well-knit figure and springy step would be creditable to a man of forty. The clear, healthy pink and white of his complexion are unmarred by wrinkles. His hazel eyes are as keen and searching as ever. The great shock of grizzled hair is not yet white, the thick, red-brown mustache is heavily splashed with gray.

“How do you keep so well?” was the question that inevitably suggested itself at the beginning.

“That’s only a recent phase,” Mr. Clemens replied. “I was until lately subject to the annoyance of attacks of acute indigestion. Never could tell when the miserable, nagging thing was going to pounce upon me and torture me. Midday or 3 o’clock in the morning was all the same to it. I can see now the trouble was due to my habit, of thirty years’ standing, of eating only one meal a day.

“Last summer a dear friend said to me: ‘Why don’t you give up your one-meal-a-day plan? It’s enough to give a statue indigestion! You’ll notice that doctors tell their patients to eat many times a day, a little at a time. Try it yourself, and you’ll get well.’

“I’d have tried anything. As long as I can remember I’ve been willing to risk any scheme that any one said was good for me. And this time I tried the right one. Three small meals a day, sometimes four, made a wonderful change. The indigestion and the pangs disappeared. The family, returning after an absence of only three weeks, were astonished at the cure. I’m feeling better than I have felt in years.

“Perhaps we Americans eat too much. If we do, I am convinced that the proper cure lies in dividing the food supply into several small meals a day rather than in overloading the digestive machinery at one fell swoop.”

“How about your exercise?” I asked.

“No exercise at all,” said Mr. Clemens. “For weeks at a time I did not leave my home up in the mountains. Often I lay in bed all day and wrote. It’s a great luxury to arrange your desk in bed and write as long as you like. I’ve spent whole weeks that way. You see, I’m in no hurry for publication. It pleases me to do a certain amount of work every day. I keep some of the manuscript for years. If after lying unread for three, four or five years, it comes up to the standard I have set, then I publish it; if not, it drops into the waste basket. I write to please myself. No editor is so hard to satisfy as one’s own standard.”

“But don’t you feel the lack of exercise?” I persisted.

“No,” replied Mr. Clemens. “Perhaps I am exceptionally lucky. I may not need it. I never fail to run upstairs. That is exercise enough, I find. You know, it’s a great mistake to say a fellow is lazy because he doesn’t like to rush around and be active in your own kind of activity. The average man whom we call lazy is probably not lazy at all, but is simply storing up energy which he will burn up in some form of work which doesn’t happen to appeal to us.

“What a mistake we make in setting up two arbitrary definitions of effort and calling one work and the other play. You can’t measure effort in that way. Whatever a man likes most to do, the thing into which he puts all his energy heartily without ever thinking whether he is doing enough or too much — that thing is play to him, no matter whether he works at it by way of diversion or to earn his living.

“Look at the idle men and women who live in luxury and give all their energy to what they call amusement. Are they really amused by all their labor or are they tired out, depressed, bored to death?”

Mr. Clemens was walking up and down the long library, smoking a black cigar. In his earnest talk he kept forgetting the cigar and every little while he had to stop and relight it. So each match he struck marked the beginning of a paragraph.

“They apply the same cast-iron conventional rule to everything,” he went on. “For years they have regarded me as a trifler, one who is always ready with a joke on any subject. I tell you, there never lived in this world a more serious man than I.”

Now, here was a remarkable confession from one who has long been regarded as the greatest humorist in the world. Much has been said and written about the Mark Twain drawl. It is not a drawl. Mr. Clemens takes time to arrange his ideas, hammering them into the exact form he wants, as a good workman hammers metal. Therefore, as he is one of those who think while they talk — rare beings! — the words Mr. Clemens utters march forth slowly and carefully, each falling without haste into its place. Mark Twain’s voice, by the way, is as sonorous and robust as when it delighted thousands from the lecture platform.

“What is it that strikes a spark of humor from a man?” Mr. Clemens continued. “It is the effort to throw off, to fight back the burden of grief that is laid on each one of us. In youth we don’t feel it, but as we grow to manhood we find the burden on our shoulders. Humor? It is nature’s effort to harmonize conditions. The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth.

“I will not give you,” he said, suddenly becoming grave, “any humorous trifling for this great and solemn day, for I am anxious not to hurt the feelings of any one to whom this day, with its deep and serious memories, appeals. But I will say this” — and here Mr. Clemens read the denunciation of Leopold.

If it were possible to reproduce on this paper his earnestness, his horror of the tyrant’s murderous acts, the depth of indignation, and accusation in his menacing voice, a million readers would arise and demand that the murderer be put on trial.

“I hope,” said Mr. Clemens “that the American people will bring retribution to this unclean, lying murderer who is taking lives day by day in order that he may clutch more and more of the tainted money he wastes. I hope that this Thanksgiving sentiment of mine will sink into the minds of The World’s readers, make them think, make them act. In giving it to you I am trying not to do something that will please one, but to do something that will damage that wholesale murderer, that greedy, grasping, avaricious, cynical, bloodthirsty old goat!

“Think of it. Here sits a King in luxury and debauchery, placidly ordering thousands of innocent human creatures driven to death, tortured, crippled, massacred in order that his foul revenues may he increased! If only we could bring home that picture to the minds of the American people how they would rise to destroy that aged, brutal trafficker in human flesh!

“We read the other day of the awful Boston dress-suit-case murder mystery, and as we read of it every decent man was eager to conduct a private, personal auto da fe for the incarnate fiends who wantonly slaughtered that poor girl, butchered her and sought by scattering her tortured body to hide their crime. The horror of the thing thrilled us because it was so close to our homes.

“Yet in these days the steamship and the electric cable have made the whole world one neighborhood. We cannot sit still and do nothing because the victims of Leopold’s lust for gold are so many thousands of miles away. His crimes are the concern of every one of us, of every man who feels that it is his duty as a man to prevent murder, no matter who is the murderer or how far away he seeks to commit his sordid crime.

“I wish The World would produce the two cartoons I give you, for they summarize better than any words of mine can tell the exact condition of the case.

“When mankind first heard the accusation that Congo negroes were being whipped, slashed, murdered or mutilated by having hands or feet cut off because they did not bring in enough rubber for Leopold’s collectors, the news was so appalling that it could not be believed. Normal minds instinctively rejected such atrocities as impossible.

“The accusation became louder, more people talked of these crimes. Some notice had to be taken of the clamor. It was easy for Leopold and his agents to pooh-pooh the charge, to say it was due to the envy of discontented, jealous missionaries whom they had offended.

“But the cry grew louder and louder and could not be stifled. And then the accusers began to present documents, awful human documents, gathered with the photographic camera. Leopold could no longer brush away the accusation by crying ‘Lies! Lies! All lies!’

“Thank God for the camera, for the testimony of the light itself, which no mere man can contradict. The light has been let in upon the Congo, and not all the outcries of Leopold can counteract its record of the truth. Publicity is the weapon with which we shall fight that murderer and conquer him and punish him.

“The cartoons I give you expose at one glance the specious fraud of Leopold’s protestations and his panic now that he finds the record of the photographic camera confirming the charge of wholesale murder against him.

“I wish I could show to every American, to every decent, humane man in the world the photographs of these poor creatures starved to mere skeletons by Leopold’s order, beaten with lashes, murdered in cold blood. And, worse still, the many cases of little children whose hands and feet are cut off to punish their parents because they have not brought in enough rubber.

“We are sad when we hear of some one going blind; but can anything be more helpless, more hopeless, than one of these little creatures, forever unable to walk, unable even to feed itself. Think of all that this mutilation means!

“The cemeteries of New England send $800,000 every year to maintain missions in remote places of the earth, to spread faith among those who sit in darkness — yet should not something be done to rescue these poor people, so long murdered in darkness? I say the ‘cemeteries of New England’ because most of the contributions for foreign missions come from New England, and you will find that about $600,000 of the $800,000 comes from estates of dead men.

“And there is a picture not easy to forget — the hungry money-grabber, eagerly piling one dollar upon another as long as his strength remains, no matter how he acquires it; so jealous of his wealth that he will risk his life sooner than part with it; yet hoping by a bequest of perhaps one-tenth of his grabbings, which he gives from the grave, to purchase a little forgetfulness from the Almighty! He takes from his heirs in the hope of shielding himself from the consequences of a lifetime spent in despoiling mankind.”

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