Your birthday shall always be a Thanksgiving Day to me
Helen Keller writes to Mark Twain as he turns 70
Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!
In 1905, Mark Twain was faced with a problem: his 70th birthday, on 30th November, was to fall on Thanksgiving Day—a particularly disastrous clash as his publishers were planning an impossibly lavish party at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York for their favourite author, and apparently no date other than the 30th would do. So Twain, worried that his invitees would have other plans on that date, did what we all would have done: he sent his friend and publisher, George Harvey1, to the White House to ask US President Theodore Roosevelt if he could simply move Thanksgiving. Nudge it down the calendar. No one would care, he thought, not when they heard the news.
Needless to say, Roosevelt refused. Instead, he wrote a brief congratulatory letter to Twain and it was read at the postponed party2 on 5th December. But it’s a different letter that I want to share with you. A better one. Shortly after the gathering, Twain received mail from deafblind author and activist Helen Keller, whom he had met a decade earlier when she was just 14. They had bonded instantly that day, and since then had written to each other often. But few of their letters were as touching as this one.
My dear Mr. Clemens,
I have just finished reading a most interesting account of the Thanksgiving dinner that was given in honor of your birthday more than a week ago in New York. Although I am somewhat in the rear of the great procession which brought you its tribute of love and admiration, yet you will accept my little handful of flowers, gathered in the garden of my heart, will you not? They are not intended so much for the great author, whom the world has crowned with its choicest blossoms, as for the kind, sympathetic, noble man, the best of friends and champions with the heart of Santa Claus, who makes others good and happy.
Your birthday shall always be a Thanksgiving Day to me. Indeed, I have thanked you a thousand times for the bright laugh that is like a drop of honey in things bitter that we must all taste before we learn to know good from evil, and to distil sweetness and peace from deprivation and sorrow. I thank you, too, for the flash and tingle along the veins when your fiery words smite the wrong with lightning of just anger. Again, I thank you for the tears that soften the heart and make it compassionate and full of kindness. Your message to the world has been one of courage and brightness and tenderness, and your fellowmen make a feast on your seventieth birthday, and give thanks for the many days that you have lived among them.
And you are seventy years old? Or is the report exaggerated like that of your death? I remember, when I saw you last, at the house of dear Mr. Hutton in Princeton, you said,
“If a man is a pessimist before he is forty-eight, he knows too much. If he is an optimist after he is forty-eight, he knows too little.”
Now, we know you are an optimist, and nobody would dare to accuse one on the “seven-terraced summit” of knowing little. So probably you are not seventy after all, but only forty-seven!
But, whether you are seventy or forty-seven, we love you and wish you God speed! and the fulfilment of every desire that can bring you peace and joy. Should you really attain to that Alpine height of seventy years, you shall still hear the voice of affection that springs upwards, like a flame, and carries warmth and comfort to the lonely climber who has met with bereavement and sorrow on his skyward pilgrimage.
Mrs. Macy and her husband join me in sending you sincere love and admiration.
Twain’s party was full-on. A 40-piece orchestra played throughout. Each of the 170 guests went home with a foot-high bust of Twain. The menu was illustrated with pictures of Twain working in his various occupations. The event was deemed so important that a full write-up appeared in the New York Times the next day, with photos of each table and a drawing of the room.