Mark Twain described his Autobiography as an “apparently systemless system…a complete and purposed jumble,” and so it is, though it is not wholly without method. Over the course of its composition Twain relied heavily on a biography begun by his daughter, Susy Clemens, when she was just thirteen. Twain would copy a selection from “Susy’s Biography” then expound upon the events and episodes sparsely described therein. This ritual provoked both humor – the celebrated septuagenarian writer debating the details of his own life with a precocious adolescent – and nostalgia – the heartbreaking earnestness of an aging father communing with his lost child.
On Valentine’s Day 1906, he chose a single sentence for his muse: “Soon papa came back East and papa and mamma were married.” Twain responds, “It sounds easy and swift and unobstructed, but that was not the way of it.”
Samuel and Olivia Clemens were married on February 2, 1870 in the Langdon House on Church St. in Elmira. But, as Twain reports, “There was a deal of courtship. There were three or four proposals of marriage and just as many declinations.” As Twain would recount dozens of times, he encountered Livy first as an ivory miniature in her brother’s room aboard the Quaker City steamer off the coast of Turkey in the summer of 1867. He met her in person later that year, commenting on her beauty in a letter to his mother, then created every opportunity to “renew the siege” throughout 1868. Olivia, at last, relented, and, after a few tortuous months securing her parents consent, they were engaged on February 4, 1869, presenting each other with matching porcelain lockets. (Sam had been begging Livy for a portable portrait for months.)
The “hand of Providence,” as Twain recalls in the Autobiography, came in late September, shortly after his first proposal had been turned down. Having been unable to find any further excuse to extend his visit to Elmira, he climbed into a wagon meant to take him away and was promptly thrown from it. “I struck exactly on the top of my head and stood up that way for moment, then crumbled down to the earth unconscious,” Twain recalled, “It was a very good unconsciousness for a person who had not rehearsed the part.” Awaking “to hear the pitying remarks drizzling around over me” was “one of the happiest half-dozen moments of my life.” Though she turned down two more ensuing proposals, the elder Twain remembered Livy “assuaging” the trivial injuries he sustained as the turning point in their courtship.
Their wedding was small. The marriage certificate pictured below (courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society) lists ten witnesses, as well as two officiants, Thomas K. Beecher and Joseph H. Twichell, both of whom would remain lifelong friends of the Clemens family.
Sam recycled the engagement ring – “plain, and of heavy gold” – he had given Olivia a year earlier. He had their wedding date engraved inside of it, though this proved superfluous since “it was never again removed from her finger for even a moment” and, at Sam’s insistence, was buried with her.
The ceremony took place in the library. In the closing words of his Autobiography, written two days after the death of Jean Clemens in 1909, Twain wrote, “Jean’s coffin stands where her mother and I stood, forty years ago, and were married; and where Susy’s coffin stood thirteen years ago; where her mother’s stood, five years and a half ago; and where mine will stand, after a little time.”