Sam Clemens celebrated his 39th birthday on November 30, 1874 with his wife, Livy, and their two young daughters. Both Sam and Livy’s birthdays fell in close proximity to the Thanksgiving holiday. It was naturally a season dense with revelry and gift-giving, mostly focused around the children, but Livy did not forget her husband, presenting him with the recently-published first edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Hanging of the Crane, illustrated by Mary Hallock and Thomas Moran.
It is a gift rich with signification. The poem begins with the ceremonial hanging of an iron crane (basically a potholder mounted to the wall of a fireplace) which symbolized the making of a home by a pair of newlyweds. Having performed this task “with merriment and jests,” the wedding guests depart, leaving the fatigued narrator alone before his newly renovated hearth contemplating family and future.
While Sam and Livy had been married for nearly five years, 1874 was the first year they celebrated the holidays in the elaborately-designed Hartford house, customized to their specification, and thereafter associated with many of the family’s happiest memories.
In Longfellow’s poem, the bridegroom’s daydreams turn first to parenthood. He foresees the birth of two children, a son and a daughter, doted upon by their parents like little royalty.
The Clemenses no doubt treated Susy, not yet three years old, like “a royal guest,” and their infant, Clara, like “A Princess from the Fairy Tales,” and both “as sovereign over thee and thine.” But Longfellow’s family idyll likely appealed to Livy because the poet did not present parenthood as a continuous chain of blessings and celebrations. In the middle part of the poem, the eldest son, driven by youthful romanticism, goes off “seeking adventures” and finds instead “the gloomy mills of Death.”
Sam and Livy were already too familiar with such loss, having buried their firstborn son, Langdon, two years earlier. It was a trauma which temporarily drove a wedge in their marriage, as Livy isolated herself and Sam sought solace in sociability. The previous year the couple celebrated the season apart, Sam lecturing in London while Livy, pregnant with Clara, spent the holidays in a rented house in Hartford. He wished her a “Merry Christmas!” via telegram.
“Hanging the Crane” was thus an acknowledgement of their terrible loss and the distance it had created between them, but also that “the storm of grief, the clouds of care” had “passed away” and once more their “house [was] full of life and light.” The poem concludes with a 50th anniversary celebration surrounded by grandchildren.
The significance of Livy’s gift was not confined to the content of Longfellow’s narrative. “The Hanging of the Crane,” when it was first commissioned for newspaper publication earlier in 1874, was the most profitable poem ever sold by an American writer, earning Longfellow $3,000 or, adjusted for inflation, $62,000. This payday, widely discussed in the newspapers and literary magazines of the Gilded Age, no doubt signaled to Sam and Livy an advantageous market for the nation’s most sought-after writers, Mark Twain among them. Both anticipated a day when their lavish lifestyle could be sustained by writing alone and not require long and lonely lecture tours.
In January of 1872, while Sam was lecturing in the midwest and Livy was anxiously nursing frail baby Langdon in Hartford, the couple exchanged several items of Longfellow’s verse, including his collection The Golden Legend, which Sam purchased somewhere in Ohio. Livy wrote,
“I think The Golden Legend is beautiful! I wonder you did not mark it still more than you have, but I am so very glad you marked it at all. I do so heartily enjoy books that you have marked…I cannot afford to lose any thing that you have marked.”
By gifting her husband the most recent book of Longfellow verse, Livy gestured towards reopening a line of communication which had existed during the early days of their marriage, when she could write, as she did in the above letter, “Don’t you think it is very sweet to love as we love?”
Happy 182nd Birthday, Sam Clemens. And a slightly belated 172nd Birthday greeting to Livy as well.