Mark Twain Writes a Rapturous Letter to Walt Whitman on the Poet’s 70th Birthday (1889)


May 31, 1889, Walt Whitman’s sev­en­ti­eth birth­day, occa­sioned a cel­e­bra­tion of the poet in his home­town of Cam­den, New Jer­sey, with a sev­er­al course din­ner called “The Feast of Rea­son” fol­lowed by a pro­gram called “The Flow of Soul,” a suc­ces­sion of tes­ti­mo­ni­al speech­es and read­ings by promi­nent politi­cians and a few minor lit­er­ary fig­ures. Whit­man him­self was in ill health, but he man­aged to attend dur­ing dessert, deliv­er a brief response, then stay for over two hours after­ward (see the event’s orig­i­nal pro­gram, with menu, here). While the event itself, writes Ed Fol­som in the Walt Whit­man Quar­ter­ly Review, was intend­ed as a “local cel­e­bra­tion of Camden’s most famous per­son­al­i­ty,” the occa­sion prompt­ed admir­ers world­wide to send birth­day wish­es by wire and let­ter. Some of the famous lit­er­ary fig­ures who wrote includ­ed John Adding­ton Symonds, William Dean How­ells, John Green­leaf Whit­ti­er, and Mark Twain.

Twain’s let­ter (first page above) is not only a deeply heart­felt appre­ci­a­tion of the great­est liv­ing Amer­i­can poet, it is also, as Let­ters of Note puts it, “a love let­ter to human endeav­or.” Twain enu­mer­ates with awe the astound­ing tech­no­log­i­cal advances Whit­man has wit­nessed in his life­time, from steam pow­er to pho­tog­ra­phy to elec­tric light. The let­ter is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the opti­mism of the age—so per­fect­ly cap­tured a lit­tle over a decade lat­er in Hen­ry Adams’ mem­oir chap­ter “The Dynamo and the Vir­gin.” Twain, hard­ly a reli­gious man, evinces an almost rap­tur­ous faith in progress, con­clud­ing with a Bib­li­cal allu­sion and a some­what obscure ref­er­ence to an apoc­a­lyp­tic figure—“him for whom the earth was made”—who would appear in thir­ty years time. One can’t help but think, in hind­sight, of Yeats’ 1919 occult med­i­ta­tion on the loss of that Vic­to­ri­an cer­tain­ty in “The Sec­ond Com­ing.” As Marc L. Roark observes at The Lit­er­ary Table, “Twain was cor­rect — thir­ty years from the let­ter would see tech­nol­o­gy like the world nev­er knew.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that tech­nol­o­gy was that of war.”

Hart­ford, May 24/89

To Walt Whit­man:

You have lived just the sev­en­ty years which are great­est in the world’s his­to­ry & rich­est in ben­e­fit & advance­ment to its peo­ples. These sev­en­ty years have done much more to widen the inter­val between man & the oth­er ani­mals than was accom­plished by any five cen­turies which pre­ced­ed them.

What great births you have wit­nessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the rail­road, the per­fect­ed cot­ton-gin, the tele­graph, the phono­graph, the pho­to­graph, pho­to-gravure, the elec­trotype, the gaslight, the elec­tric light, the sewing machine, & the amaz­ing, infi­nite­ly var­ied & innu­mer­able prod­ucts of coal tar, those lat­est & strangest mar­vels of a mar­velous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the appli­ca­tion of anes­the­sia to surgery-prac­tice, where­by the ancient domin­ion of pain, which began with the first cre­at­ed life, came to an end in this earth for­ev­er; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monar­chy ban­ished from France, & reduced in Eng­land to a machine which makes an impos­ing show of dili­gence & atten­tion to busi­ness, but isn’t con­nect­ed with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tar­ry yet a while, for the great­est is yet to come. Wait thir­ty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see mar­vels upon mar­vels added to these whose nativ­i­ty you have wit­nessed; & con­spic­u­ous above them you shall see their for­mi­da­ble Result — Man at almost his full stature at last! — & still grow­ing, vis­i­bly grow­ing while you look. In that day, who that hath a throne, or a gild­ed priv­i­lege not attain­able by his neigh­bor, let him pro­cure his slip­pers & get ready to dance, for there is going to be music. Abide, & see these things! Thir­ty of us who hon­or & love you, offer the oppor­tu­ni­ty. We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them — the rich­est birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world — & sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great fig­ure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his ban­ner; then you may depart sat­is­fied, as know­ing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will pro­claim that human wheat is worth more than human tares, & pro­ceed to orga­nize human val­ues on that basis.

Mark Twain

See Let­ters of Note for the remain­ing images of Twain’s let­ter. You can peruse all of the speech­es, let­ters, and telegrams addressed to Whit­man on his 70th birth­day in the col­lec­tion Camden’s Com­pli­ment to Walt Whit­man, pub­lished that same year.

For many more fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal let­ters, be sure to check out Let­ters of Note’s new book, Let­ters of Note: Cor­re­spon­dence Deserv­ing of a Wider Audi­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Walt Whit­man (Maybe) Read­ing the First Four Lines of His Poem, “Amer­i­ca” (1890)

Mark Twain Writes a “Gush­ing,” “Self-Dep­re­cat­ing” Wed­ding Announce­ment to His Fam­i­ly (1869)

Mark Twain Drafts the Ulti­mate Let­ter of Com­plaint (1905)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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