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May 2, 1885

At the invitation of President Caldwell and to please a family friend and former Vassar student, Clara Spaulding, Mark Twain agreed to speak—“as a guest and gratis”—on the 20th Founder’s Day. The visit began poorly. Arriving at the college in a soaking rain, he and his 13-year old daughter, Susy, waited, “in damp clothes” and a “fireless room,” for nearly an hour. Although others made them welcome, the president—“a sour old saint” Twain later recalled, “who has probably been gathered to his fathers long ago; and I hope they enjoy him”—approached Twain only as he was about to speak.

“He caught up with me and advanced upon the platform with me and was going to introduce me.

“I said in substance: ‘You have allowed me to get along without your help thus far, and if you will retire from the platform I will try to do the rest without it.’

“I did not see him any more, but I detest his memory. Of course my resentment did not extend to the students, and so I had an unforgettable good time talking to them. And I think they had a good time too, for they responded ‘as one man,’ to use Susy’s unimprovable phrase.”

Susy had begun a biography of her father at the time of the Vassar visit. After her tragic death in 1896, Twain included fragments of her writing in the autobiography he began serializing in 1906.

“He read,” Susy wrote of her father’s reading at Vassar,” ‘A Trying Situation’ and ‘The Golden Arm,’ a ghost story that he heard down South when he was a little boy. ‘The Golden Arm’ papa had told me before, but he had startled me so that I did not much wish to hear it again. But I had resolved this time to be prepared and not to let myself be startled, but still papa did, and very very much; he startled the whole roomful of people and they jumped as one man. The other story was also very funny and interesting and I enjoyed the evening inexpressibly much.”

Twain said of this description, “How charitably she treats of that ghastly experience! …Susy had that disposition, and it was one of the jewels of her character that had come to her straight from her mother. It is a feature that was left out of me at birth.”

Mark Twain, “Chapters from my Autobiography,” North American Review, Nov. 16, 1906.

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