Friday, March 30, 1906
Mr. Clemens’s interview with Tchaykoffsky, and Mr. Clemens’s views regarding the Russian revolution—Mr. Clemens presides at meeting of the Association formed in interest of the adult blind—His first meeting with Helen Keller—Helen Keller’s letter, which Mr. Clemens read at this meeting.
I will drop Orion for the present and return and pick him up by and by. For the moment I am more interested in the matters of to-day than I am in Orion’s adventures and mine of forty-five years ago.
Three days ago [[a neighbor] brought the celebrated [Russian] revolutionist, Tchaykoffsky], to call upon me. He is grizzled, and shows age—as to exteriors—but he has a Vesuvius, inside, which is a strong and active volcano yet. He is so full of belief in the ultimate and almost immediate triumph of the revolution and the destruction of the fiendish autocracy, that he almost made me believe and hope with him. He has come over here expecting to arouse a conflagration of noble sympathy in our vast nation of eighty millions of happy and enthusiastic freemen. But honesty obliged me to pour some cold water down his crater. I told him what I believed to be true—that the [McKinleys] and the Roosevelts and the [multimillionaire] disciples of Jay Gould—that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died—have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of—not to say so vain of—is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things; that his mass meetings would not be attended by people entitled to call themselves representative Americans, even if they may call themselves Americans at all; that his audiences will be composed of foreigners who have suffered so recently that they have not yet had time to become Americanized and their hearts turned to stone in their breasts; that these audiences will be drawn from the ranks of the poor, not those of the rich; that they will give, and give freely, but they will give from their poverty and the money result will not be large. I said that [when our windy and flamboyant President conceived the idea, a year ago, of advertising himself to the world as the new Angel of Peace, and set himself the task of bringing about the peace between Russia and Japan] and had the misfortune to accomplish his misbegotten purpose, [no one in all this nation except Dr. Seaman and myself uttered a public protest] against this folly of follies. That at that time I believed that that fatal peace had postponed the Russian nation’s imminent [page 463] liberation from its age-long chains indefinitely—probably for centuries; that I believed at that time that [Roosevelt had given the Russian revolution its death-blow], and that I am of that opinion yet.
I will mention here, in parenthesis, that [I came across Dr. Seaman last night] for the first time in my life, and found that his opinion also remains to-day as he expressed it at the time that that infamous peace was consummated.
Tchaykoffsky said that my talk depressed him profoundly, and that he hoped I was wrong.
I said I hoped the same.
He said “[Why,] from this very nation of yours came a mighty contribution [only two or three months ago, and it made us all glad in Russia. You raised two millions of dollars in a breath]—in a moment, as it were—and sent that contribution, that most noble and generous [contribution,] to suffering Russia. Does not that modify your opinion?”
“No,” I said, [“it] doesn’t. That money came not from Americans, it came from Jews; much of it from rich Jews, but the most of it from Russian and Polish Jews on the East Side—that is to say, it came from the very poor. The Jew has always been benevolent. Suffering can always move a Jew’s heart and tax his pocket to the limit. He will be at your mass meetings. But if you find any Americans there put them in a glass case and exhibit them. It will be worth fifty cents a head to go and look at that show and try to believe in it.”
He asked me to come to last night’s meeting and speak, but I had another engagement, and could not do it. Then he asked me to write a line or two which could be read at the meeting, and I did that cheerfully.
Revolutionist Speaks to Cheering Audience of 3,000.
says the battle is near
Mark Twain Writes That He Hopes Czars and
Grand Dukes Will Soon Become Scarce.
When Nicholas Tchaykoffsky, hailed by his countrymen here as the father of the revolutionary movement in Russia, spoke this word last night in Grand Central Palace 3,000 men and women rose to their feet, waved their hats, and cheered madly for three minutes. The word means “Comrades!” It is the watchword of the revolutionists. The spirit of revolution possessed the mass meeting called to greet the Russian patriot now visiting New York.
Fight is what he wants, and arms to fight with. He told the audience so last night and, by their cheers, they promised to do their part in supplying the sinews of war.
Click to add citation to My Citations.
Dear Mr. Tchaykoffsky: I thank you for the honor of the invitation, but I am not able to accept it because Thursday evening I shall be presiding at a meeting whose object is to find [remunerative work] for certain classes of our blind who would gladly support themselves if they had the opportunity.
Click to add citation to My Citations.
My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course. It goes without saying. I hope it will succeed, and now that I have talked with you I take heart to believe it will. Government by falsified promises, by lies, by [treachery,] and by the butcher knife, for the aggrandizement of a single family of drones and its idle and vicious kin has been borne quite long enough in Russia, I should think. And it is to be hoped that the roused nation, now rising in its strength, will presently put an end to it and set up the republic in its place. Some of us, even the whiteheaded, may live to see the blessed day when [Czars] and Grand Dukes will be as scarce there as I trust they are in heaven. Most sincerely yours,
Click to add citation to My Citations.
Mr. Tchaykoffsky made an impassioned appeal for help to inaugurate a real revolution and overturn the Czar and all his allies.
The prior engagement which I spoke of to Tchaykoffsky was an engagement to act as [Chairman at the first meeting of the Association which was formed five months ago in the interest of the adult blind. [Joseph H.] Choate and I had a very good time there], and I came away with the conviction that that excellent enterprise is going to flourish, and will bear abundant fruit. It will do for the adult blind what Congress and the several legislatures do so faithfully and with such enthusiasm for our lawless railway corporations, our rotten beef trusts, our vast robber dens of insurance magnates; in a word, for each and all of our [multimillionaires] and their industries—protect them, take watchful care of them, preserve them from harm like a Providence, and secure their [prosperity,] and increase it. The State of New York contains six thousand listed blind persons and also a thousand or so who have not been searched out and listed. There are between three and four hundred blind children. The State confines its benevolence to these. It confers upon them a book education. It teaches them to read and write. It feeds them and shelters them. And of course it pauperizes them, because it furnishes them no way of earning a living for themselves. The State’s conduct toward the adult blind—and this conduct is imitated by the legislatures of most of the other States—is purely infamous. Outside of the Blind [Asylums] the adult blind person has a hard time. He lives merely by the charity of the compassionate, when he has no relatives able to support him—and now and then, as a benevolence, the State stretches out its charitable hand and lifts him over to [Blackwell’s Island] and submerges him among that multitudinous population of thieves and prostitutes.
But in Massachusetts, in Pennsylvania, and in two or three other States, Associations like this new one we have formed have been at work for some years, supported entirely by private subscriptions, and the benefits conferred and the work accomplished are so fine and great that their official reports read like a [fairy-tale]. It seems almost proven that there are not so very many things accomplishable by persons gifted with sight which a blind person cannot learn to do and [do] as well as that other person.
Helen Keller was to have been present last night but she is ill in bed, and has been ill in bed [page 465] during several weeks, through [overwork] in the interest of the blind, the deaf, and the dumb. I need not go into any particulars about Helen Keller. She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, [Shakspeare], and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is to-day.
I remember the first time I ever had the privilege of seeing her. She was fourteen years old then. [She was to be at Laurence Hutton’s house on a Sunday afternoon, and twelve or fifteen men and women had been invited to come and see her. Henry Rogers and I went together]. The company had all assembled and had been waiting a while. The wonderful child arrived now, with her about equally wonderful teacher, [Miss Sullivan]. The girl began to deliver happy ejaculations, in her broken speech. Without touching anything, and without seeing anything, of course, and without hearing anything, she seemed to quite well recognize the character of her surroundings. She said “Oh the books, the books, so many, many books. How lovely!”
The guests were brought one after another and introduced to her. As she shook hands with each she took her hand away and laid her fingers lightly against Miss Sullivan’s lips, who spoke against them the person’s name. When a name was difficult, Miss Sullivan not only spoke it against Helen’s fingers but spelled it upon Helen’s hand with her own fingers—stenographically, apparently, for the swiftness of the operation was suggestive of that.
Mr. Howells seated himself by Helen on the sofa and she put her fingers against his lips and he told her a story of considerable length, and you could see each detail of it pass into her mind and strike fire there and throw the flash of it into her face. Then I told her a long story, which she interrupted all along and in the right places, with cackles, chuckles, and care-free bursts of laughter. Then Miss Sullivan put one of Helen’s hands against her lips and spoke against it the question “What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for?” Helen answered, in her crippled speech, “For his humor.” I spoke up modestly and said “And for his wisdom.” Helen said the same words instantly—“And for his wisdom.” I suppose it was a case of mental telegraphy, since there was no way for her to know [what] it was I had said.
After a couple of hours spent very pleasantly, some one asked if Helen would remember the feel of the hands of the company after this considerable interval of time, and be able to discriminate the hands and name the possessors of them. Miss Sullivan said “Oh she will have no difficulty about that.” So the company filed past, shook hands in turn, and with each hand-shake Helen greeted the owner of the hand pleasantly and spoke the name that belonged to it without hesitation, until she encountered Mr. Rogers, toward the end of the procession. She shook hands with him, then paused, and a reflecting expression came into her face. Then she said “I am glad to meet you now, I have not met you before.” Miss Sullivan told her she was mistaken, this gentleman was introduced to her when she first arrived in the room. But Helen was not affected by that. She said [no,] she never had met this gentleman before. Then Mr. Rogers said that perhaps the confusion might be explained by the fact that he had his glove on when he was introduced to Helen. Of course that explained the matter.
This was not in the afternoon, as I have [mis-stated]. It was in the forenoon, and by and by the assemblage proceeded to the [dining room] and sat down to the luncheon. I had to go away before it was over, and as I passed by Helen I patted her lightly on the head and passed on. Miss Sullivan called to me and said “Stop, Mr. Clemens, Helen is distressed because she did not [page 466] recognize your hand. Won’t you come back and do that [again?”] I went back and patted her lightly on the head, and she said at once “Oh, it’s Mr. Clemens.”
Perhaps some one can explain this miracle, but I have never been able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her hair? Some one else must answer this. I am not competent.
As I have said, Helen was not able to leave her sick-bed, but she wrote a letter, two or three days ago, to be read at the meeting, and [Miss Holt], the secretary, sent it to me by a messenger at mid-afternoon yesterday. It was lucky for me that she didn’t reserve it and send it to me on the platform last night, for in that case I could not have gotten through with it. I read it to the house without a break in my voice, and also without even a tremor in it that could be noticed, I think. But it was because I had read [it] aloud to Miss Lyon at mid-afternoon, and I knew the dangerous places and how to be prepared for them. I told the house in the beginning that I had this letter and that I would read it at the end of the evening’s activities. By and by when the end had arrived and Mr. Choate had spoken, I introduced the letter with a few words. I said that if I knew anything about [literature,] here was a fine and great and noble sample of it; that this letter was simple, direct, unadorned, unaffected, unpretentious, and was moving and beautiful and eloquent; that no fellow to it had ever issued from any girl’s lips since Joan of Arc, that immortal [child] of seventeen, stood alone and friendless in her chains, five centuries ago, and confronted her judges—the concentrated learning and intellect of France—and fenced with them week by week and day by day, answering them out of her great heart and her untaught but [marvelous] mind, and always defeating them, always camping on the field and master of it as each day’s sun went down. I said I believed that this [letter,] written by a young woman who has been stone deaf, dumb, and blind ever since she was eighteen months old, and who is one of the most widely and thoroughly educated women in the world, would pass into our literature as a classic and [remain] so. I will insert the letter here.
My dear Mr. Clemens:
It is a great disappointment to me not to be with you and the other friends who have joined their strength to uplift the blind. The meeting in New York will be the greatest occasion in the movement which has so long engaged my heart: and I regret keenly not to be present and feel the inspiration of living contact with such an assembly of wit, wisdom and philanthropy. I should be happy if I could have spelled into my hand the words as they fall from your lips, and receive, even as it is uttered, the eloquence of our newest Ambassador to the blind. We have not had such advocates before. My disappointment is softened by the thought that never at any meeting was the right word so sure to be spoken. But, superfluous as all other appeal must seem after you and Mr. Choate have spoken, nevertheless, as I am a woman, I cannot be silent, and I ask you to read this letter, knowing that it will be lifted to eloquence by your kindly voice.
To know what the blind man needs, you who can see must imagine what it would be not to see, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what blindness means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction.
It is to live long, long days, and life is made up of days. It is to live immured, baffled, [page 467] impotent, all God’s world shut out. It is to sit helpless, defrauded, while your spirit strains and tugs at its fetters, and your shoulders ache for the burden they are denied, the rightful burden of labor.
The seeing man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting-room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident blinds him. The day is blotted out. Night envelopes all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a Man with ambitions and capabilities.
It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled, that we are working to improve the condition of the adult blind. You cannot bring back the light to the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their eyes you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in darkness. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.
At your meeting New York will speak its word for the blind, and when New York speaks, the world listens. The true message of New York is not the commercial ticking of busy telegraphs, but the mightier utterances of such gatherings as yours. Of late our periodicals have been filled with depressing revelations of great social evils. Querulous critics have pointed to every flaw in our civic structure. We have listened long enough to the pessimists. You once told me you were a pessimist, Mr. [Clemens;] but great men are usually mistaken about themselves. You are an optimist. If you were not, you would not preside at the meeting. For it is an answer to pessimism. It proclaims that the heart and the wisdom of a great city are devoted to the good of mankind, that in [this the] busiest city in the world no cry of distress goes up, but receives a compassionate and generous answer. Rejoice that the cause of the blind has been heard in New York; for the day [after,] it shall be heard round the world.