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Monday, January 28, 2019

Mark Twain and the Dead Canary

Mark Twain Dept.: Sam Clemens gave a talk in Fort Plain, NY, on December 19, 1868, part of what he termed his “American Vandals” tour, consisting largely of his reading of excerpts from his soon-to-be-published Innocents Abroad (which became a bestseller). There he met George W. Elliott, associate editor of the Fort Plain-based Mohawk Valley Register. Elliott was known for his turgid verse, such as “Bonnie Eloise,” which became a popular song, and “The Dead Canary,” the story of a bird named Lillie who succumbs to a melancholy death after her two eggs are crushed by “mysterious fate.” The poem ends:

Ye murderers, unawed by fear,
Who bend at Herod’s crimson shrine! –
Turn once a scaleless vision here,
And view this lifeless bird of mine:
Then in your hell-born purpose pause!
Forsake the path so reckless trod;
Lest, while ye scoff at Nature's laws,
Ye feel the withering curse of God!

Elliott began deluging Twain with verse and song, trying to get some manner of praise. As Twain detailed in letters to Olivia Langdon, his soon-to-be wife, this was not about to happen.


Mark Twain
To Olivia L. Langdon
21 August 1869

That thief that wrote about the dead canary & sends me so much execrable music has found me out & is publishing extravagant puffs of me & mailing the papers to me, duly marked, as usual. I shall offer a bounty for his scalp, yet. He is one of the most persistent & exasperating acquaintances I was ever afflicted with.


To Olivia L. Langdon

6 and 7 September 1869 • Buffalo, N.Y.
In Bed, Monday Night

Livy darling, I got your letter this evening, though I looked for it this morning – I had forgotten that you told me to expect the letters in the evening hereafter. Yes, dearie, I will leave this letter unsealed until I get a Salutatory to send to you in the morning.

I have got an answer from the Dead Canary, which he says requires no answer. He is torn with anger, & impugns my veracity in saying I know nothing about poetry & to prove the falsity of my word, does me the compliment to refer me to my remarks about Galilee, where I have written it. Fool, not to see that I meant I was not a capable judge of his kind of poetry. But wasn’t it rich & unconscious egotism in him to think I merely wished to avoid saying how beautiful his poetry was. And he says he asked me for a sarcasm & got it! – the shrewdest sarcasm I ever penned! That is the rankest egotism I ever heard of, & the most innocent. I meant it for a solemn truth when I said his poetry was bad, but he cannot believe it. I do so long to drop him a line that would give him exquisite anguish – but I can’t waste powder on such small game as that. He threatens to destroy me by means of a withering review of my book in his little one-horse paper which a couple of hundred Mohawk Dutchmen spell their way through once a week. This fellow’s idea of his importance trenches upon the sublime. In all my life I never saw anything like it. It is the calmest, serenest, iron-clad, asinine complacency the world has ever produced. Do you know, that creature is oozing his poetical drivel from his system all the time. No subject, however trivial, escapes him. And he dotes upon – he worships – he passionately admires, every sick rhyme his putrid brain throws up in its convulsions of literary nausea. He cuts it out of the paper – he prints it on dainty strips of fine white paper, along with the reminder that “It will be remembered that Mr. Elliott is the author of ‘Bonnie Eloise,’ ‘The Dead Canary,’ ‘The Disconsolate Sow’” &c &c. – & he prints it again on a large sheet of white satin, & gilds it, & puts it in a gold frame & hangs it up in his parlor, with the date when the abortion was produced, attached. And behold, he invites strangers to his house under pretense of treating them to a pleasant dinner, but in reality to bore them with this awful bosh, this accumulation of inspired imbecility, this chaos of jibbering idiocy tortured into rhyme. He is the funniest ass that brays in metre this year of our Lord 1869.

I am rid of him now – but Livy, he did follow me up with amazing diligence. He wrote 3 times for an opinion of the Dead Canary, you remember – & several times about that whining summer-complaint of a song about some Mohawk wench’s golden hair – & some four or five times concerning that long-metre wail about a Blush Rose. I have suffered all this from that man, & yet he is going to swoop down on me with the Fort Plain Register & gobble me off the face of the earth. The unkindness of this person is more than I can bear, I am afraid. Still, I can bear his unkindness better than I can his poetry. Though sooth to say, it is equal to anything I have ever seen in the death column of the Philadelphia Ledger. (Why didn’t I think of that sooner, & publish it in answer to his request for a sarcasm? That one would have been recognized as exquisitely felicitous.) Poor wretch, he wanted a compliment so badly – & I had the heart to refuse him. But he didn’t say he did – he only shows now that he did.

But honey, I have used up all my paper again. The Cincinnati, Toledo & other western papers speak as highly of the book as do the New York & Philadelphia papers.

But I must kiss my darling good night, now, & hope to touch her dear lips in reality within 4 or 5 days. The peace of God be & abide with you now & always, my angel-revelation of the Better Land.


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