Analysis of Mark Twain's Speech at John Whittier's 70th Birthday Party

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December 4, 2012
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At John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday celebration/ ceremonial tribute to the New England man of letters, Mark Twain gave a speech reflecting a darker light on three of the events celebrated guests—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry W. Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In his speech is a fictional story about the three gentlemen. The purpose of the speech was, at the time, seen as an attack on them, but after reading it, the speech sounds more like something you’d hear on Comedy Central’s annual “Roast” specials. They’ve “roasted” such celebrities as Donald Trump, Joan Rivers and Rosanne Barr. At this event Mark Twain combined three roasts into one.

During this time period, it was more socially acceptable to be gentlemanly than it was to poke fun at others so it’s clear Mark Twain has a bit of a problem with the authors. His speech goes against the ethics of the time and his credibility as a speaker. The central idea is although Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes are beloved and praised by their audiences, they aren’t as lovable and admirable as they seem. The speech begins with Twain describing the purpose of their event, “meet for the digging up of pleasant reminiscences concerning literary folk;” What an antithesis considering the story line of his speech. He begins the story with his move westward.

On his journey, he runs across a single log cabin in the Sierra foot hills and decides to stop for the night. Twain describes what follows, “A jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened the door to me.” The man fed and hydrated him with bacon and beans, coffee and whiskey. After hours of silence, the man tells Twain that he’s the fourth literary man to enter his home within 24hours. This is where the first mention of Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes occurs. The man actually seems pretty angry saying, “You’re the fourth—I’m going to move.” Twain doesn’t outline his speech like we’re taught so it’s difficult to see exactly...
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