Editor’s Note: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) needs little introduction. He was born with Halley’s comet in 1835; piloted a river boat on the Mississippi; wrote American classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Innocents Abroad along with famous stories like “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”; skewered many an opponent with his whip-quick wit; entertained crowds with his rambling, humor-filled lectures; then died in the same year Halley’s comet reappeared in the sky in 1910. There’s not a much better summation of his humility, wit and cleverness than from the man himself on the topic of his own demise:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”
He said many things that ought to be remembered, but this speech from 1886, simple and succinct as it is, from his visit to Keokuk, Iowa, just 45 miles or so from his home town, is a great thing to recall on this July 4. Happy Independence Day, everyone.
Ladies and gentlemen: I little thought that when the boys woke me with their noise this morning that I should be called upon to add to their noise. But I promise not to keep you long. You have heard all there is to hear on the subject, the evidence is all in and all I have to do is to sum up the evidence and deliver the verdict. You have heard the declaration of independence with its majestic ending, which is worthy to live forever, which has been hurled at the bones of a fossilized monarch, old King George the III, who has been dead these many years, and which will continue to be hurled at him annually as long as this republic lives. You have heard the history of the nation from the first to the last — from the beginning of the revolutionary wars, past the days of its great general, Grant, told in eloquent language by the orator of the day. All I have to do is to add the verdict, which is all that can be added, and that is, “It is a successful day.” I thank the officers of the day that I am enabled to once more stand face to face with the citizens that I met thirty years ago, when I was a citizen of Iowa, and also those of a later generation. In the address to-day, I have not heard much mention made of the progress of these last few years — of the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and other great inventions. A poet has said, “Better fifty years of England than all the cycles of Cathay,” but I say “Better this decade than the 900 years of Methuselah.”
There is more done in one year now than Methuselah ever saw in all his life. He was probably asleep all those 900 years. When I was here thirty years ago there were 3,000 people here and they drank 3,000 barrels of whisky a day, and they drank it in public then. I know that the man who makes the last speech on an occasion like this has the best of the other speakers, as he has the last word to say, which falls like a balm on the audience — though this audience has not been bored to-day–and though I can’t say that last word, I will do the next best thing I can, and that is to sit down.