The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
—Longfellow, “The Rainy Day”
In New York, the foreseeable future is unremittingly gray. (That’s not strictly true; there’s one lone “sunshine” icon in the ten-day forecast, which otherwise is a vertical column of rain clouds and two midweek bashful suns.) In short, it’s dirty weather. Weather that, in a perfect world, would find us turning to hot-water bottles and cozy reads and stupid movies and, I don’t know, stews, but that more often means trudging through subways smelling of wet dog and never quite getting your feet warm.
Such a grim outlook calls for a lot of things. (Personally, I’m a great believer in the palliative effects of a bright-orange towel, but then I also own a Feel-Good Candle, so.) But one great reliable is Mark Twain. So if you’re feeling dreary and blue and chilly, do yourself a favor and read his “Toast: The Babies,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and furthermore can be read from your desk.
Twain, of course, was much in demand as a humorous public speaker; in our time, he would unquestionably have hosted the White House Correspondents’ dinner. In an age when formal occasions—the meetings of clubs and societies, fund-raising dinners, salutes to great men—called for portentous and/or witty speeches, Twain was such a get, and such a ham, that he’d often run himself ragged and hoarse with engagements. It took time: not just the writing (which was a meticulous process) but the preparation and memorization of sometimes lengthy pieces, performed at dinners that could run to eight hours and twenty speeches.
The setting for Twain’s “Babies” toast could hardly have been less congruous: it happened at three thirty in the morning (there had been fourteen other speakers) at an 1879 gathering of Union veterans to honor Ulysses S. Grant at Chicago’s Palmer House. After toasts like “The Officers and Soldiers of the Mexican War,” “The Navy,” “The Army of the Cumberland and its Leader, the Rock of Chickamauga: Their Glory Can Never Fade,” and “The Volunteer Soldiers of the Union Army, whose valorous patriotism saved to the world a Government of the people, by the people and for the people,” Twain’s must have come as a pleasant shock.
“We have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground,” he says. “It is a shame that for a thousand years the world’s banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn’t amount to anything.”
Twain presents the baby in military terms: as the ultimate commanding officer, a brilliant tactician, a superior who demands complete obedience and inspires total devotion:
One baby can furnish more business than you and your whole Interior Department can attend to. He is enterprising, irrepressible, brimful of lawless activities. Do what you please, you can’t make him stay on the reservation. Sufficient unto the day is one baby.
Babies aside, there’s still a subtle gravitas to the speech, an ashes-to-ashes philosophical quality that acknowledges the passage of time, the march to the grave, the ignominious ends and beginnings we all share. After we are dead, he says, a current baby will be a distinguished leader. In one card a statesman, in another, an astronomer.
And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious commander in chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth—an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt he succeeded.
It killed; they loved it. “[Laughter and applause.]” reported the New York Times. It’s true, Twain had a good slot—relief, hysteria, and considerable brandy must have increased the six hundred guests’ appetite for hilarity—but that’s toast mastery. Not only did Twain entertain and engage, but he seems to have kept himself, as always, from getting bored. What’s especially interesting (at least for those of us who think baby obsession is a product of our times) is to remember that parents’ lives have always revolved around them, and we were all babies, and we’ll all die. And in the meantime, the rain can drizzle and the wind can blow and we can take comfort in the fact that we’re not at an eight-hour dinner listening to fifteen speakers, and can read only the best, and shortest, toast from the comfort of our own desks. (And if only Schadenfreude will cheer you up, remember: sometimes Twain bombed, too.)
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.