On the Monday before Thanksgiving, following a sold-out show in Cleveland, Mark Twain scheduled a pro bono performance at the Elmira Opera House, donating the proceeds to a local fire department, and creating a convenient excuse for Livy to see him perform and for Sam to again impose upon her family for the holiday. Clemens told his friend Mary Fairbanks that, though Livy had been slowly falling for him during the preceding weeks, as he bombarded her with love letters, “the lecture Monday night brought the disease to the surface.”
He redoubled his efforts during Thanksgiving week, so frequently seeking time alone with her that her father made a joke of having the drawing-room measured while they were in it, to see if it was big enough to accommodate three people.
The day before Sam was required to travel to his next booking, Livy “yielded,” sending the famously mercurial Clemens into fits of manic delight. In reporting their engagement to a few of his closest friends, he repeatedly joked, “If there were a church in town with a steeple high enough to make it an object, I would go out and jump over it!” (For those familiar with Elmira, a town with numerous steeples, this hyperbole was even richer.)
Writing to Livy after his lecture two days later, he said, “Never was a lecture so full of parentheses before. It was Livy, Livy, Livy, Livy, all the way through! It was one sentence of Vandal to ten sentences about you. The insignificant lecture was hidden, lost, overwhelmed, and buried under a boundless universe of Livy!”
But while Sam was driven to distraction by his eagerness to exclaim his love, the marriage was still far from assured. Its “conditions” being foremost the approval of Livy’s parents, Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon. Sam had announced his intentions on Thanksgiving, but they were not immediately agreed to. The Langdons were hesitant, perhaps understandably, to give their daughter away to a self-described vandal, cannibal, and wild man. The Elmira lecture, on this front, may not have worked to his advantage.
The Langdons asked Mr. Clemens to supply references (many of which, infamously, failed to testify on his behalf) and to demonstrate to their satisfaction that he was “a good, steady, reliable character” and “a Christian.” Sam consented to all these terms and, eager to please, volunteered to also quit drinking and only “seek the society of the good,” neither of which were asked of him and neither of which he followed through on, even temporarily.
When Livy’s mother wrote to Mary Fairbanks herself a few days later, asking for advice regarding Mr. Clemens, she admitted to being strongly prejudiced against him. “At first our parental hearts said no,” she wrote, “to the bare thought of such a stranger, mining in our hearts for the possession of one of the few jewels we have.” And the way she frames her request to Mrs. Fairbanks betrays the nature of her concern:
“What I desire is your opinion of him as a man; what the kind of man he has been, and what the man he now is, or is to become. I have learned…that a great change has taken place in Mr. Clemens, that he seemed to have entered upon a new manner of life, with higher and better purposes actuating his conduct. The question…is – from what standard of conduct – from what habitual life, did this change, or improvement, or reformation commence? Does this change, so desirably commenced make of an immoral man a moral one, as the world looks at men? – or -does this change make of one, who has been entirely a man of the world, different in this regard, than he resolutely aims to enter upon a new, because a Christian life?”
But the question that troubled them, the day after Thanksgiving, 1868, was whether a man who had not only made a habit, over his nearly 33 years, of committing vandalism, profanity, and heresy, but had recently risen, via his ironic promotion of such habits, to the status of “a somewhat celebrated personage,” had any incentive to change. If being the immoral Mark Twain had served him so well, why should anybody trust the sincerity of Sam Clemens’s pledges to be moral?
In the coming months, Sam would grow restless waiting for the Langdons to give their blessing. He would become defensive, presuming that the well-to-do family was shunning him for his humble origins and uncertain prospects. Writing directly to Livy’s mother the following February, he defiantly proclaimed, “I have paddled my own canoe since I was thirteen, wholly without encouragement or assistance from any one, and am fully competent to so paddle it the rest of the voyage, and take a passenger along, beside…we can make the canoe go, and we shall not care a straw for the world’s opinion about it if the world chooses to think otherwise.”
But what Olivia Lewis’s letter to Mary Fairbanks reveals is that the Langdons were not the least bit concerned about their daughter’s financial security. To the contrary, they seemed to take his increasing fame and fortune as a given, worrying rather that the wealth itself might be damaging to his character, reinforcing habits and values of a lower order by proving them profitable.
2018 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira, the town where he would meet his wife, spend many of his summers over the remainder of his life, write several of his most acclaimed books, and finally be laid to rest. In the following essay, Dr. Seybold commemorates the occasion by offering his estimation of what Elmira meant to Mark Twain.
January 26, 1905
It was the 30th birthday of Mark Twain’s nephew, Jervis Langdon. His father, Charley Langdon, had met Samuel Clemens when they were both passengers on the world’s first pleasure cruise in 1867. Little did young Charley know that his new friend was fashioning their voyage into a series of humorous newspaper dispatches which would become the basis for one of the bestselling books of the 19th century, The Innocents Abroad.
By the time that book was published, Sam and Charley would both be engaged. Their marriages would take place within a few blocks of one another, officiated by the same famous minister, Thomas K. Beecher. A decade later, they would have seven children between them, who spent four months every summer frolicking together on the sloping lawns of Quarry Farm with a menagerie of cats, dogs, horses, cows, and goats belonging to their aunt, Susan Crane.
30-year-old Jervis Langdon could remember those carefree summers. Susy Clemens, named for that aunt, showed him how he could send coded messages to his cousins at the hilltop farm from the windows of his family’s mansion in the town below by turning a hand mirror towards the full moon. On many a summer’s eve, he and his cousins sat huddled around Uncle Sam on the farmhouse’s open-air porch as he told fabulous stories or read from manuscripts of his works-in-progress before the ink was even dry.
If 30-year-old Jervis was nostalgic on this January evening in 1905, he could hardly be blamed. It wasn’t just his own milestone birthday. He was expecting the imminent birth of his own first child, a son, who would arrive just two days later. Were this not cause enough for sentiment, he found himself dressed as a character from one of the stories which had been routinely read aloud to him, as well as his sisters and cousins. He was preparing to attend, along with many other prominent residents of Elmira, NY, a “Dickens reception.” Each guest would be costumed as a character from one of the novelist’s works.
Jervis had been cast in the part of Caleb Plummer from The Cricket On The Hearth. His sister, Ida Langdon, who had recently matriculated from Bryn Mawr and would later become a professor of English at Elmira College, chose the part of Caleb’s blind daughter, Bertha, while friends took auxiliary parts in the story, including Crystal Eastman, Ida’s best friend, as Tilly Slowboy, and Dorothy Mather as Mrs. Fielding. Within a few years all three recent graduates (Eastman from Vassar and Mather from Cornell) would be suffragettes and members of the American Association of University Women, an organization committed to increasing the representation of women in higher education.
Charles Dickens had a special significance for the Langdon siblings. Many years earlier, their father and Aunt Livy had gone to see Mr. Dickens read at sold-out Steinway Hall in New York City on New Years Eve. They were joined that night by Charley’s increasingly infamous new friend, whom they called Sam, but who signed his scathing review of the performance “Mark Twain.” This was Olivia Langdon’s chaperoned first date with the man who would become her husband. Twain was so smitten that in his review he couldn’t help mentioning, some might call it boasting, that he had attended Dickens’s reading with “a highly respectable” and “beautiful young lady.”
Thus began one of the most unexpectedly sweet seductions in American cultural history, as Samuel Clemens, initially ignored and then rebuffed by the devout and decorous Olivia Langdon, fell back upon what would prove his greatest talent, writing, over a hundred letters cascading into the Langdon home through the ensuing months, supplemented by occasional visits. The year was 1868.
When Sam visited the Langdons again for Thanksgiving, Livy finally yielded her conditional consent to his proposal. She sent her fiancé off on another leg of his “American Vandal” lecture tour. But while Mark Twain spent the next month joking, smoking, and drinking his way through the Midwest, Olivia faced the reality, alone, that this might be her last Christmas season in the only home she had ever known, surrounded by family she adored. She wrote to Sam, “To think of having them grow used to my being absent, so that at last they would cease to miss me, made me feel as if I wanted father to put his arms about me and keep me near him always.”
Sam contemplated this letter in a Central Michigan boarding house on Christmas Eve, with only the fading fire in an unfamiliar hearth and a series of holiday brandies to keep him warm. He reflected on his fiancé’s fears, her family, and his own, from whom he felt increasingly detached, and was inspired to make an extraordinary promise:
I just don’t wonder that it makes you sad to think of leaving such a home, Livy, and such household Gods—for there is no other home in all the world like it—no household gods so lovable as yours, anywhere. And I shall feel like a heartless highway robber when I take you away from there…
I’ll not read that passage again for an hour!—for it makes the tears come into my eyes every time, in spite of me. You shall visit them, Livy—and so often that they cannot well realize that you are absent. You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometimes when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home…a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge from care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, Home—and then, away down in my heart of hearts I yearn for the days that are gone & the phantoms of the olden time!—for the faces that are vanished; for the forms I loved to see; for the voices that were music to my ear; for the restless feet that have gone out into the darkness, to return no more forever!
But you shall not know this great blank, this awful vacancy, this something missed, something lost, which is felt but cannot be described, this solemn, mysterious desolation. No, I with my experience, should dread to think of your old home growing strange to you.
I have tried several times, and am trying again now, to articulate the consequences of this promise, which I think cannot be overestimated. But for this promise, made by a famously itinerant and oft-inebriated author in the wee hours of Christmas morning 150 years ago, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would not exist, nor would anybody be obligated to preserve Quarry Farm for posterity. For it was Sam’s dedication to this promise, more important perhaps even than his wedding vows, which ensured the Clemens family’s annual pilgrimage to Elmira.
And it was in Elmira that not only was Olivia spared the “dull, aching consciousness of long exile” which her husband felt, but Sam found, looking out across the Chemung River Valley, a new “symbol of heaven.” The vanished faces, musical voices, and “phantoms of the olden times” came floating through the windows on all sides of the study Susan Crane built for him, inspiring him to produce a series of novels in what I call The Quarry Farm Style: full of whimsical children and nostalgia for an American past, but also politically radical, like the community in which they were written.
As Sam and Livy (as well as Charley and his new wife, Ida Clark) settled into domesticity and child-rearing in the 1870s, they would associate Dickens with that first date at Steinway Hall, that tear-stained letter from Lansing, and, as many do, with the holiday season. They read Dickens’s books aloud to their children, such that his characters intermingled with Twain’s, forming the premise for a range of allusions, inside jokes, and family folklore which passed through the generations. The novella which inspired Jervis and Ida Langdon’s costumes in 1905 was, as Dickens himself described it, a “fairy tale of home” dedicated to his own infant son.
The Quarry Farm Style
The Clemenses did not attend the Dickens reception in 1905, but those who did reflect both how Mark Twain brought out the best in Elmira, and why Elmira brought out the best in Mark Twain. The reception took place at the Elmira Industrial School. The 36-year-old school was one of several educational institutions, including Elmira College and Elmira Free Academy, which had been founded through the financial backing of another Jervis Langdon, grandfather to the Jervis who celebrated his birthday that night. Each of these groundbreaking educational institutions made possible by the Langdon fortune were sustained in the ensuing decades by other local financial benefactors, as well as by many Elmirans who volunteered as teachers, administrators, fundraisers, and advocates.
The mission of Elmira Industrial School was to provide a free trade school education to any young women willing to dedicate herself to establishing financial independence. The students came from “homes of poverty and vice” and were mentored by an entirely female faculty, including many of the affluent young women who were graduating from elite private colleges in the region, like Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Cornell, Smith, Oberlin, and Elmira. Several of ladies who attended the Dickens reception were faculty, volunteers, and/or alumna of the three local institutions all dedicated to counteracting the effects of social and economic oppression.
The elder Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, the original owners of Quarry Farm, were the foundation stones upon which was built a remarkable tradition of generosity and community service which survived them and their famous son-in-law. In his eulogy for the first Jervis Langdon, Thomas K. Beecher made the outrageous claim that “Envy’s self was silenced at sight of his prosperity, so many were sharing in it.”
Beecher had learned repeatedly that the Langdons considered their millions only as valuable as the causes for which they could be put to work. When, in 1846, their church refused to condemn slavery, the started a new one, joined the Underground Railroad, and told the abolitionists who passed through their enormous mansion – including the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – that “the family house and purse were at the service of fugitives from slavery.”
Eight years later, when they asked the most controversial memberof the most famous family of theologians in America to come lead their renegade church, he laid out terms which he though no congregation would accept, largely because of his exceptional emphasis on community service. The Langdons accepted his terms without negotiation. The progressive, inclusive congregation he imagined grew so large it could only meet in an opera house, drawing the ire of rival churches and the regional Ministerial Union.
Mark Twain responded to their condemnation of Beecher as one might expect, joking in a local newspaper that “a little group of congregationless clergymen, of whom I have never heard before, have crushed the famous Beecher and reduced his audiences from 1500 to 1475.” The Langdons came to Beecher’s defense much more quietly and effectively, buying up shares in the opera house so that no amount of social pressure could compel the proprietors to bar the doors, then beginning the process of building Beecher a church as big as an opera house, one that would look like nothing else in the nation, complete with a maze of apartments and a billiard room where one could occasionally find one of the nation’s most recognizable preachers drinking beer with the nation’s most recognizable infidel.
The still youthful Mark Twain who came to Elmira in 1868 had argued across a series of burlesque tales, stand-up routines, and travelogues that mankind in general, and Americans in particular, were natural hypocrites, charlatans, and misers, and that those who dared to believe otherwise were doomed to continual poverty and despair. Then he met the Langdons and this airtight thesis got shot all to hell.
Young Twain believed that all his countrymen had been converted to the “Revised Catechism” of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould: “Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.” But, as Twain put it, “Mr. Langdon was a man whose character and nature were made up exclusively of excellencies,” who could easily have gone “to Wall Street to become a Jay Gould and slaughter the innocents,” but instead endowed schools for girls, bought farms for fugitive slaves, and emboldened both his children and the people in his employ to test their most far-fetched idealisms on his dime. This confused Mark Twain.
Out of his confusion emerged the Quarry Farm Style, with its children who are not innocent, its cynics who are not hopeless, its free-thinking slaves and scientific magicians and heroes who decide to go to hell. It is a style which never lets you lose sight of your romantic idols, though whenever you reach for them it suffocates you under piles upon piles of corpses. So many corpses.
Those “Up-State” towns…
The Dickens reception in 1905 was hosted by Clara Spaulding Stanchfield, dressed as Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield. Clara was Livy Clemens’s lifelong friend and fellow Elmira College alumna, after whom she named her second daughter. Clara’s husband, John B. Stanchfield, came as Mr. Dombey. He could call himself “Mark Twain’s lawyer” and only be mildly stretching the truth. The world-famous author retained counsel on a wide variety of matters in numerous jurisdictions, but he had been regularly consulting Stanchfield, both officially and unofficially, for decades, and their friendship reached back even further. Before the Stanchfields married, John and Sam had frequented the same billiard parlors, both using aliases. It is, indeed, reasonable to suspect that Sam may have played some role in matchmaking his amiable drinking buddy with his wife’s best friend.
John rose rapidly in the ensuing years. He became a partner in the firm which is now Sayles & Evans, was a Democratic candidate for both Senator and Governor, and tried a series of prominent cases. He was also one of several Elmirans who aided the Clemenses during their time of greatest need, when Twain’s publishing house was plunged into bankruptcy following the Panic of 1893. With much of the nation descending into a credit crisis, the most affluent families in Elmira offered free consulting, low-interest loans, and other aid to their neighbors.
The young woman dressed as Ada Clare from Bleak House, another Elmira College graduate, suffragette, and member of the American Association of University Women, belonged to a family that purchased what they knew were likely worthless shares in the Paige Typesetter, thus helping increase the Clemens liquidity during a period of desperation: a charity made all the more charitable because it protected Sam and Livy’s pride by pretending it was not simply charity.
This generation of Elmira women – Ida Langdon, Dorothy Mather, Flora Shoemaker, and Ruth Pickering among them – would be remarkably successful in promoting women’s rights both within the city and region, and throughout the nation. While all were devoted activists, their ringleader was clearly Crystal Eastman, who by this time had already discovered her talent for political organizing by leading a protest against rules requiring women wear skirts and stockings while swimming. Within a decade Crystal would become one of the most prominent and effective advocates for women’s suffrage, and this was hardly her most revolutionary position. Looking back upon the community in which she was raised, she wrote, “In this environment I grew up confidently expecting to have a profession and earn my own living, and also confidently expecting to be married and have children.”
Crystal’s younger brother, Max Eastman, who would graduate from Williams College later in 1905, was not as cripplingly shy as he had been a few years earlier, but still struggled to converse with his sister’s outgoing friends, several for whom he would harbor lifelong crushes. It was hard to imagine that this skinny young man would, in ten years time, be one of the most controversial political voices in the country, founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and editor of censored antiwar publications.
Max and Crystal would live for much of the teens and twenties in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Max would make an extended visit to the Soviet Union to study with Leon Trotsky, and yet, he would always characterize Elmira as the most radical community in which he had ever lived. Many years later, in an essay titled “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” he would chastise a famous literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, who ignorantly described Elmira as one of “those ‘up-State’ towns…without the traditions of moral freedom and intellectual culture.” Eastman argued convincingly that the “social and political attitudes” which prevailed in Elmira “were far more radical than Mark Twain was when he arrived here.” Mark Twain and Elmira worked upon one another in “general rebellion” such that by the time Max came of age in the 1890s, he found himself “in the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced or found room to contain.”
Adolescent Max met Mark Twain during the installation of an organ at Park Church. Max and Crystal’s mother, Annis Ford Eastman, who disguised herself as Mrs. Blimber from Dombey & Son for the Dickens gala in 1905,was the first women ordained in the state of New York. Beecher called her the best preacher he’d ever heard and, befitting both Beecher’s rebellious nature and Elmira’s emerging feminist culture, he chose her as his successor at the vaunted Park Church. His friend Mark Twain must have shared his high estimation of her character and talents, directing that she should handle his funeral rites.
Like Beecher, Annis Eastman’s unconventional approach to the pastorate went far beyond the happenstance of her gender. Max fondly remembers his mother reading the risqué Calamus poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud to her friend Julia Beecher and setting the hymn “Onward Christian Soldier” to the ragtime tune “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight,” The esteemed place of the Eastmans seems evidence enough that Elmira was not, as that literary critic had guessed, a “symbol…of all that vast and intricate system of privilege and convention.”
Max Eastman wrote of Twain, “My admiration for the man was and still is as firm and emotional as though he were the saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This from a man whose parents were both pastors and who lived much of his youth in the apartments within the Park Church. The “gospel” written in Elmira, Max claims, “was one of self-reliant revolt against forms and conventions,” and it was authored not only by Mark Twain, but by the Langdons, Clemenses, Beechers, Stanchfields, Shoemakers, and Eastmans, by the students and faculty of the first degree-granting college for women and the secondary and trade schools those students helped to charter, by the thousands of parishioners who attended the largest and most progressive non-denominational church in 19th-century America, by the members of the city’s flourishing women’s rights organizations, and by the stalwart station-masters of the Underground Railroad, who not only sheltered fugitive slaves but persuaded former slaves, like Mary Ann Cord, the beloved cook at Quarry Farm, to settle here. It is no wonder, with such collaborators, Twain was able, in that octagonal study overlooking it all, to give birth to the Quarry Farm Style from which, according to Ernest Hemingway, all modern literature descends.
Max and Crystal Eastman were both at Sam’s funeral in 1910, as were the Stanchfields, his only surviving daughter, Clara, his nieces, Ida and Julia, and the brother-in-law, Charley, who first brought Sam Clemens into the circle of Elmira 43 years earlier. Mark Twain’s nephew, now 35 years of age, rode with the coffin from New York City, along the same rails which had taken his father to see Charles Dickens speak on New Years Eve in 1867, rails which had been laid when his grandfather was, at least according to Twain, the country’s only respectable railroad magnate.
Jervis Langdon Jr., born two days after the Dickens ball, would also, like his great-grandfather, become a successful railroad executive. He likewise inherited that radical generosity which mesmerized Sam Clemens and inspired him to pay yearly homage to his wife’s “household Gods.” On December 31st, 1982, 115 years to the day after Charles Dickens read to Charley and Olivia Langdon (and a dumbstruck and unappreciative Mark Twain), Jervis Jr. signed the agreement which bequeathed Quarry Farm to Elmira College and founded the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Perhaps, though he was just five years old at the time, Jervis Jr. remembered something of what Annis Eastman had written in her eulogy for Samuel Clemens:
We are not here at this time to speak of the great man whose going hence the whole world mourns, nor to claim for him that place in the halls of fame which time can give him. We are not here to try to estimate his worth to the world, the service he has rendered to civilization and the moral progress of mankind, nor yet to eulogize him for the integrity, justice and magnanimity of his character. There will be time enough for all this in the days to come and many a voice more competent than mine to set forth the lessons of his life.
Though I suspect none of us would dare to claim more competence than Annis Eastman, Jervis Jr. has bequeathed to us the task which she deferred. The mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, made possible by the gift of Quarry Farm, is to create that “time enough” to “set forth the lessons of Twain’s life.” And the scholars who reside here “estimate the worth to the world” not only of Mark Twain, but of the too often forgotten and misremembered Elmira which made Mark Twain possible.
There are many ways you can help sustain the mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. You can become a Friend of CMTS by making a donation here or learn more by emailing us at [email protected] As part of our celebration of sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira we are also launching a Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. If you or your organization would like to participate, please contact Director Joe Lemak (information provided in link).
“Fingerprints and Microbe Time: Mark Twain and Scientific Skepticism”
James W. Leonard, The Citadel
It is well known that Twain took contemporary social, political, and particularly racial beliefs to task through an incisive skepticism which outpaced many of his generation. But Twain also understood the role that science and empiricism played in the formation and justification of social projects. Like many of his time, he was thrilled by the explosion of new technologies and systems that characterized the 19th century. For example, we know from his personal writings how excited he was to include Francis Galton’s discovery of fingerprinting in Pudd’nhead Wilson. But even in that excitement, Twin never lost sight of his characteristic skepticism, and a closer look at his literary portrayal of science reveals a visionary’s understanding of how empirical facts- -and the systems organizing those facts–would be increasingly scrutinized as social and political tools in literature of the 20th century.
James W. Leonard recently received his PhD from Tufts University and is currently an adjunct professor of English at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. While much of his research focuses on 20th-century authors (particularly Djuna Barnes, Cormac McCarthy, and Leslie Marmon Silko), he is particularly interested in Mark Twain’s capacity for identifying and articulating complex forms of social critique that would only be popularized years after his death. His current research on Twain looks at his insistence on filtering empiricism through satire.
Wednesday, June 20 at the Park Church 7 p.m.
“’…there is only one thing of real importance…’: The Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens”
Barbara Snedecor, Elmira College
The letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens reveal her deep emotion as well as the more ordinary impulses of her thought. In communications with friends and family, and with her world- famous spouse, Olivia exposes her intelligence, fortitude, gentleness, kindness, humor, love for husband and children—along with her anxieties, self-deprecation, and flaws. Possibly the following statement, written to her husband during their plunge towards bankruptcy, best indicates her world view: “I feel so strongly these days that we have not a great while to stay here and that there is only one thing of real importance to us. To do all the good that we can and leave an irreproachable name behind us” (9 April 1893). The presentation will summarize critical views of Olivia as well as highlight selections from her letters.
Barbara Snedecor directed the Center for Mark Twain Studies and was an Assistant Professor of American Literature at Elmira College. In 2015, she was awarded the Living Heritage Award by the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce. In 2017, she received the Henry Nash Smith Award. She has published novels, personal essays, and poetry as well as Mark Twain in Elmira, Second Edition, and scholarly essays connected with Mark Twain Studies. She currently is preparing a collection of the letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens for publication.
Wednesday, July 11 at the Park Church 7 p.m.
“Mark Twain and The Native Other”
Kerry Driscoll, University of St. Joseph
In his 1899 essay “Concerning the Jews,” Twain states: I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” Although the writer refused to name the one bias he admits to harboring, abundant evidence in his work suggests that the allusion is to Native Americans, whom he referred to in print as “reptiles, “vermin,” and “good, fair, desirable subject[s] for extermination.” This presentation explores the origin and evolution of Twain’s attitudes toward indigenous peoples and probes the reasons underlying his animus.
Kerry Driscoll is Professor of English (emerita) at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, CT. She is the past president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, a member of the editorial board for the Circle’s journal, the Mark Twain Annual, and serves on the Board of Trustees at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford. In addition to numerous essays she has published on Twain’s work, she is the author of Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples (University of California Press, 2018), the first book-length study of the author’s conflicted attitudes toward, and representations of, Native Americans.
The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies was founded in January 1983 with the gift of Quarry Farm to Elmira College by Jervis Langdon, the great-grand-nephew of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Center offers distinctive programs to foster and support Mark Twain scholarship and to strengthen the teaching of Mark Twain at all academic levels. The Center serves the Elmira community and regional, national, and international students and scholars of Mark Twain.
Founded in 1846 by a group of abolitionists, The Park Church has been a strong presence in Elmira’s history and some of its congregation were close friends and family members to Mark Twain. Known for its striking architectural features, The Park Church contained Elmira’s first public library and has a long history of charitable service to the Elmira community. Currently, it is a United Church of Christ open and affirming congregation, welcoming all people to worship and participate in its communal life, regardless of ethnic origin, race, class, age, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.
For a PDF copy of the 2018 Park Church Summer Lectures lineup, click here.
Saturday, April 21, marked the 108thanniversary of Mark Twain’s passing.
For Twain, whose final decade was wracked by overwhelming bereavement, the promise of death’s release was something welcome. By the end of his life, Twain’s sentiments toward life and death were akin to Satan’s musings in Letters From the Earth (1909):
Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs–the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.
In memorializing him in the next day’s Hartford Courant, Twain’s close friend and pastor, Joseph Twichell, observed that the humorist who had brought so much laughter into the world “had lived to be a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him.”
Unfortunately, the month of April 1910 would prove to be most unwelcome for Twichell as well. As he prepared to give a prayer at Twain’s funeral service in New York, Twichell received word that the health of his beloved wife Harmony had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. He managed to return to Hartford by train in time to speak with Harmony before she died shortly after midnight.
As a devout Christian pastor and a battlefield chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War who had ministered to wounded and dying troops, Twichell was no stranger to death’s sharp sting. Still, according to Steve Courtney’s excellent biography, the eight years following the simultaneous loss of his friend and his wife were particularly difficult for Twichell (who would himself die in 1918).
According to Courtney, a grieving Twichell lamented to his son David, “I’ll just have to live from day to day. How many times have I told people that, and that in their sorrows God would give them comfort and strength for each day as it came.”
As trying as those remaining years were for Twichell as he sought daily comfort and strength in bearing his loss, I hope he found the same solace he had offered previously to Twain, who noted that Twichell had “something divine” in him that provided a consoling “touch that heals, not lacerates.”
Perhaps he found it in his wide, supportive circle of family and friends and in the Gospel he preached for decades from the pulpit of Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Perhaps Twichell, who shared Twain’s affinity for Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, found succor in these mystical ruminations.
At the very least, perhaps what he privately told Twain after Olivia Clemens’ death in 1904 also provided shelter from the storm for Twichell in the end:
“I, indeed, believe, that behind the riddle there is a Hidden and Awful Wisdom; that for me tempest-tost on these wide weltering seas there is an anchorage, that for the mortal spirit there is a practicable victory over the world with all its baffling mysteries.”
On Saturday, August 5th, the Mark Twain Circle presented the Louis J. Budd Award to Laura Skandera Trombley at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. Dr. Trombley is a Professor of English at University of Southern California, as well as former President of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library. She is also author of two books on Sam Clemens’s relationships with women, as well as numerous other Twain-related publications. Ann Ryan, in presenting the Budd Award, says Dr. Trombley is “nothing if not spicy and untraditional.” What follows is the paper she presented at the conference, titled “Mark Twain & Libation,” which may tempt you to search out the small-batch bourbon produced especially for the conference by Finger Lakes Distilling.
I’d like to dedicate this paper to the Caldwell gang of 5: Ann Ryan, Gary Scharnhorst, Michael Kiskis, and Tom Quirk. All solid drinkers.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
A guy walks into a miner’s cabin and a “jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened the door.” Upon hearing his visitor’s name, “Mark Twain,” he bitterly retorted: “You’re the fourth – I’m going to move.” “The fourth what?” said I. “The fourth littery man that has been here in twenty-four hours – I’m going to move.” “You don’t tell me!” said I; “who were the others?” “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Holmes – consound the lot!” Three hot whiskeys later, Twain convinced the cranky miner to tell his tale of the seedy Mr. Emerson, fat Mr. Holmes, and the disfigured prize-fighter Mr. Longfellow – all were cheats, thieves and drunken idiots. Upon finishing his sad yarn, the miner repeated: “Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in 24 hours – and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to the littery atmosphere. Twain replied: “Why, my dear sir, these were not the gracious singers to whom we and the world pay loving reverence and homage; these were impostors. The miner investigated me with a calm eye for a while; then said he, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?”
This famously unsuccessful after dinner story, that William Dean Howells later recounted in My Mark Twain, took place on December 18, 1877 at Boston’s Hotel Brunswick. The dinner, to which 58 male writers had been invited – ladies could only attend the after-dinner speeches – included seven opulent courses washed down with Sauterne, sherry, Chablis, Champagne, claret, and Burgundy; so much alcohol in fact that the next day the Women’s Christian Temperance Union passed a formal resolution objecting to the dinner. The Boston Transcript pronounced the speech “in bad taste,” and similar newspaper verdicts followed. Howells wrote Clemens on Christmas Day that “every one with whom I have talked about your speech regards it as a fatality.”
Clemens’ self-referential opening to his speech lauded his own literary achievement: “I am reminded of a thing which happened to me thirteen years ago, when I had just succeeded in stirring up a little Nevadian literary puddle myself, whose spume-flakes were beginning to blow thinly Californiaward.” A bold oratorical move considering that this evening organized by The Atlantic Monthly was to celebrate John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday and, in a larger sense, to pay homage to the New England Brahmin writers Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, the most distinguished American men of letters of that generation, all of whom were in attendance.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
A guy walks into a bar and finds “Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the barroom stove of the little old dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Boomerang, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smily – Rev. Leonidas W. Smily – a young minister of the gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of this village of Boomerang. I added that if Mr. Wheeler could tell me anything about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smily, I would feel under many obligations to him. Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair – and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”
There is a transmutation of sorts taking place between these two ostensibly similar stories. Yet the crucial difference is one of audience and intention. Miners could laugh at themselves; Brahmin New Englanders less so. Clemens was trying to establish himself as a writer in “Jim Smiley.” In his speech, he was asserting he was of the same stature as his elders.
“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was published by The Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, just twelve days shy of Clemens’ thirtieth birthday. This bar fly tale took Clemens over eight months to write; he took so long that he missed the deadline for a book of sketches Artemus Ward was editing. Printed and reprinted, the story was Clemens’ entrée into a more literary space than journalistic and has always been considered a pivotal moment in his writing career. The genesis for “Jim Smiley” came from the three months Clemens spent drinking during the winter of 1864–65. Part of his time was spent in the Gillis family cabin on Jackass Hill. Clemens knew Steve Gillis from Nevada, where Steve worked as a typesetter on the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise and was Clemens’ drinking buddy. In San Francisco Clemens signed a straw bond for $500 after Steve got in trouble with the police for intervening in a bar fight. Clemens then spent nearly a month drinking in Angels Camp. That Clemens would choose a saloon as the setting for his story should come as no surprise considering where he had spent the last four years of his life. Soon after arriving in Nevada in 1861 with his brother Orion, Clemens tried his hand at silver mining and quickly grew tired of the brutal living conditions. In 1862, he started sending writing samples to the Enterprise and was offered a job as editor earning twenty-five dollars a week. This was a significant move upwards since the Enterprise was, per Dan DeQuill and Enterprise employee, the “most flourishing newspaper on the Pacific Coast” where a “tribal wave of gold rolled in upon its proprietors.” Virginia City, elevation 6,000 feet, was a boomtown consisting of miners, alcoholics, millionaires, gamblers, prostitutes, outlaws, and saloons – more than fifty saloons – all sitting on top of the Comstock Lode. In one year, the population exploded from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. During the time Clemens lived there it was the richest, roughest, murderous, and drunkest place in North America.
In January of 1863, Clemens abandoned his earlier pseudonyms, “Sergeant Fathom,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh,” in favor of a new “nom de guerre”: “Mark Twain.” As has been noted before by Guy Cardwell, Paul Fatout, Horst Kruse, and Gary Scharnhorst, among others, the name Mark Twain has less to do with the muddy waters of the Mississippi than the clear water of high proof whiskey. Scharnhorst notes that in August 1864, only about a year and a half after Clemens began using his pseudonym, in an article for the Alta California, Albert Evans asserted that his “soubriquet was given him by his friends as indicative of his capacity for doing the drink for two.” Multiple newspaper accounts about his pen-name appeared in the spring of 1866. An article in the Nevada Daily on February 22, three years after “Mark Twain” had first appeared in print, explained “Mark Twain” was miner’s slang for ordering two shots of liquor on credit. A large piece of smooth slate would hang on the wall behind the bar where the bartender would chalk two slashes next to the regular’s name and call out “Mark Twain.” And Clemens’ growing bar tab would be on view for all to see. Clemens’ usage of the phrase in his newspaper columns was perfectly timed in that it not only reflected his current hard-drinking lifestyle and alcohol saturated audience, but created a definable persona he would populate for the rest of his life. His choice created a satirical, instantaneous, man-to-man connection with his hardened, swilling audience. Billed under his new name, he attracted crowds on the Western lecture circuit who had read the article about the genesis of his name, who obviously were in on the joke, and who came wanting to see an alcohol-soaked Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope. They were not disappointed. Clemens knew and, without objection, leveraged the fact that his audience expected the man who was described in newspaper accounts as taking two “horns consecutive, one right after the other, and when he come in there and took them on tick, Johnny used to sing out to the barkeep, who carried a lump of chalk in his weskit pocket and kept the score, ‘mark twain,’ whereupon the barkeep would score two drinks to Sam’s account – and so it was, d’ye see, that he comes to be called ‘Mark Twain.’”
Clemens had a life-long fondness for “the drink” (as my mother would say) and in those early years when his career was just beginning he not only frequently wrote about imbibing but also enjoyed a dissipated lifestyle. In January 1866 Albert Evans wrote in the Gold Hill (Nevada) Evening News about Clemens’ arrest for public intoxication in San Francisco, referring to “a stench which is only second in horrible density to that which prevails in the Police Court room when the Bohemian of the Sage-Brush is in the dock for being drunk over night.” This wouldn’t be his only stint in the hoosegow (as my father would say). One year after “Jumping Frog” was published, Clemens departed San Francisco bound for New York. He spent his time visiting city sights and writing about them in letters to the Alta California. In March 1867, he telegraphed the Alta asking to be hired as a paid correspondent on the Quaker City, a sidewheel steamship used by Union forces in the Civil War. The Captain of the ship, Charles Duncan, recalled years later that Clemens was one of the first people to contact him about the excursion. The Captain was repulsed by Clemens’ appearance and demeanor: “tall, lanky, unkempt, unwashed individual, who seemed to be full of whiskey or something like it, and who filled my office with fumes of bad liquor. He said he was a Baptist minister from San Francisco and desired to travel for his health.” Captain Duncan retorted that he didn’t “look like a Baptist minister or smell like one either.” While waiting for the ship to sail, Clemens gave a well-received talk at the Cooper Institute and spent his nights engaging in more risqué conduct. One evening, he was jailed for the night because he claimed to have intervened in a street brawl (why he was out “with a friend” at midnight remains a mystery) and the police insisted upon arresting the thwarted peacemaker. Clemens had now achieved the rather dubious distinction of having been jailed for public drunkenness on each coast.
Four days before the sailing, he visited Harry Hill’s Variety Theatre at Houston and Crosby Streets. Known as an “evil” and “vile house” and a gathering place for prostitutes, gamblers and criminals, it featured male wrestling and female bare knuckle fighting. In his Alta article, “Mark Twain” portrayed himself as an innocent who believed the establishment “was where the savants were in the habit of meeting to commune upon abstruse matters of science and philosophy – men like Agassiz and Ericsson and people of that stamp.” Instead he watched a male dancer dressed in a Highland costume outfitted in only a “short coat and short stockings. This was apparent every time he whirled around. However, no one observed it but me. I knew that, because several handsomely dressed young ladies, from thirteen to sixteen and seventeen years of age, went and sat down under the foot-lights, and of course they would have moved away if they had noticed that he was only partly dressed.” His final evening in New York was spent drinking over the course of many hours “several breeds of wine” and trying to sober up enough to pack his trunk. While on board the Quaker City, he met Charles Langdon, the younger brother of heiress Olivia Langdon, who Clemens would marry in 1870.
Clemens’ marriage to Olivia affected his own sense of self-worth, as well as deeply influencing how he desired others to view him. Seven years after marrying up into the first family of Elmira and publishing the bestselling book of his lifetime Innocents Abroad, Clemens apparently decided that having a pen name that was a miner’s drunk joke was no longer appropriate for the distinguished writer persona he was busily adopting. He didn’t want to be known as just a humorist, instead he was on the path to becoming more refined and “serious” author. On June 9, 1877, the Alta published a note from him explaining that “Mark Twain” was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write for the New Orleans Picayune. When Sellers died in 1863, Clemens claimed he adopted his name. Yet, Sellers didn’t die until 1864 and he also never used that name. Six months later, after rewriting the history of his name, Clemens gave his after dinner talk in Boston. While including himself among the Brahmins, he was drawing upon the southwestern tradition of storytelling with liquor providing the entrée as well as the punchlines while reminding everyone about the brilliance of his short story. A stunning act of simultaneous hubris and self-doubt. He wanted to shove aside the old social order but he also wanted to be a member. As insecure as he was, he wanted to both conquer and belong. Had his inebriated audience laughed, possibly Clemens’ ardent desire to be accepted by this group would have been achieved. He had whitewashed his name; the time had come for these stalwarts to applaud his writerly talents. They didn’t laugh. Instead, as Howells tells us: “There fell a silence, weighing many tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment, and was broken only by the hysterical and blood-curdling laughter of a single guest, whose name shall not be handed down to infamy. Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or at his plate. . . . I stole a glance at him, and saw him standing solitary . . . with his joke dead on his hands.” Clemens would defiantly claim decades later in his Autobiography that he would do the same again, and told Isabel Lyon, his secretary who gifted vibrators to him for their “electrical” benefits: “those fine Boston men were a generation ahead of Mr. Clemens – & he didn’t see more of them than just to go up to Boston for their “seventy” birthdays. For himself there are only Mr- Howells and Mr. Aldrich – and he surprised me into recognizing the truth by telling me that he hasn’t had much of a literary friendship with men.” In Clemens’ final years he would disavow “Jim Smiley,” calling it “a villainous backwoods sketch,” just as he had rejected the original association with his pseudonym. The miner’s line, “Ah! impostors, were they? Are you?” may have been one of the most truthful questions Clemens ever raised in public and one he never managed to reconcile.
Well all this angst and drama is likely to drive sane people to drink! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Twain scholars walk into a bar – see you all there later.
In 1867, Mark Twain addressed letters to Missouri expressing his disgust at the thought of women’s voting rights. He expressed that women should stick to their “feminine little trifles” that consisted of “babies…and knitting.” Twain speculated that women were not capable of making decisions about politics and should let the “natural bosses do the voting” instead. Twain described women as one might antique furniture: “an ornament to the place that she occupies.” Women are glorified stepping stones, everyday tools to make life just a little bit easier.
Twain’s reputation as a satirist does make it difficult to distinguish at times between sincerely derogatory jests and burlesques of misogynist attitudes intended to make the men who held them seem ridiculous. Young Twain also praised women, but mostly for their roles as mothers and wives. Twain’s respect for women’s roles within the family stemmed from his own appreciation for his mother, Jane Clemens, who he described as having a “sunshine deposition” and “a kind of perky stoicism” through domestic troubles. He joked that women were “earthly angels” not to be mixed in with the shabbiness of men and their politics. Although Twain may have meant no harm in these passages, many women in his era did not find the subject to be a laughing matter. They wished their political crusade to be taken seriously.
During his youth, Twain was consistent in his sarcastic approach to women’s suffrage, but in December of 1867, he met Olivia Langdon. Langdon was a reformist – she advocated for women to break from their traditional molds in the household. Livy surrounded herself with influential women like Julia Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker who, as Laura Skandera-Trombley describes, “were dynamic, intelligent, unapologetic, as well as committed feminists – women who had rejected the purely domestic sphere in favor of participation of the outside world.”
A few weeks after Twain met Langdon, he fell in love and proposed. She initially refused. Through the ensuing years of courtship, Twain came to appreciate women as more than just cooks, seamstresses, and childcare, an appreciation which only increased as he and Livy raised three daughters.
Twain’s three adult daughters were influential upon his social attitudes and some of his most successful written works. According to Trombley, Twain regarded his eldest daughter, Susy Clemens, “as his intellectual and social equal.” Like her mother, Susy played a crucial part in editing and planning Twain’s works. Susy’s influence is clearly demonstrated in the 1901 annual address to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, during which Twain acknowledged that women knew as much about voting as men did – maybe even more than some. If women were to handle the ballot, “they would rise in their might and change the awful state of things.” After working with Livy and later Susy, Twain began to view women and men on an equal playing field – at least in regards to voting. Twain concluded that women have “scored in every project they undertook against unjust laws…If women had [the ballot] you could tell how they would use it.”
Although women’s voting rights are not an issue today, other rights, including their rights to control their own bodies, are still challenged. Twain’s early trivializing of women’s suffrage is reminiscent of how President Trump has dismissed women’s issues and causes as laughable. In his 1997 memoir, he wrote,
“The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”
Twain had a similarly reductive view of women, comically dismissing their plights, until the women of his life challenged him to be more than, as Susy wrote in correspondence to Grace King, “a funny man – a maker of funny speeches.” It took him years to appreciate the true range of women’s capabilities. All he had to do was start listening. Perhaps President Trump can become more than comic material for Saturday Night Live, more than a figure of mockery on Twitter. All he has to do is start listening. There are thousands of women speaking to him.
Diandra Alvarado is the 2017 CMTS Intern and a senior Elmira College English Major pursuing a career in publishing. She is also a literature reviewer for the EC Octagon.
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.”
On December 18, 1868, Mark Twain resumed his “American Vandals” lecture tour after the briefest respite. He had traveled overnight and throughout the day to arrive in Elmira following a performance in Scranton. Less than 24 hours later he boarded the first in the series of trains which would make a circuitous day-long journey to Fort Plain, where he was scheduled to appear on the evening of the 19th. There were several more direct routes which would’ve drastically reduced the hours spent on trains, which, by his own admission, left him agitated and sleepless.
But, as far as Samuel Clemens was concerned, every hour with Olivia was worth two in transit.
The “Vandals” lectures were largely excerpts from the manuscript of Innocents Abroad, the comedic travelog which would become a bestseller upon its publication seven months later. Within a few years Mark Twain would attain an unprecedented cultural celebrity. He was already a rising star, who performed nightly before packed auditoriums in major industrial cities and remote midwestern hamlets alike.
Samuel Clemens, however, had not seen Olivia Langdon since she and her parents “yielded a conditional consent” to his proposal of marriage three weeks earlier. Another seven would pass before he could return to Elmira. He would spend the intervening holidays as a comedian “on the road,” pining for Livy from a series of lonely railcars and rust belt lodges, uncertain whether he would fulfill the conditions of the Langdons consent (which depended, he feared, on a series of what would prove famously unflattering references). He wasn’t even certain that his tentative fiancé actually reciprocated his affections.
The uneasiness and unevenness of their passion is apparent in the first letter Clemens wrote after his layover in Elmira. It includes an oblique suggestion that during the abbreviated visit he might have pushed his case beyond what Livy felt proper. He wrote, “I love you, Livy. And I am happy in the possession of half your heart. I would rather hold half of your heart than all of anybody’s else – and so I am tranquil and satisfied. I was wrong to urge you so to give it all to me at this time, but I didn’t mean any harm, Livy, none at all. It was an honest impulse, and honest impulses are always forgivable. I shall have it some day, my dear, dear little tormenter.”
As in several letters from this period, Clemens jokes about Livy’s tendency to “scold” him. By assuming submissive, even childlike postures with his would-be bride he makes light of his genuine resentment. He was held hostage by her social superiority. The intimidating Jervis Langdon, upon whose blessing he waited impatiently, was a business mogul, a college founder, and a church elder. His family resided at the very center of a devout, bourgeois community. Despite the legendary Twain charisma and the endorsement of Livy’s brother, befriended during the Quaker City tour which was the primary subject of “Vandals,” Clemens was deeply and rightly concerned that his humble origins, coarse reputation, and uncertain prospects would, under sober consideration, turn the Langdons against him. And, though at times he tried to convince himself otherwise, he knew Livy was far too good (and her affection for him far too mellow) to disobey her parents wishes. In a bristly letter to Mrs. Langdon, Clemens responded directly to the implication he was a gold-digger and social-climber:
“I do not wish to marry Miss Langdon for her wealth, and she knows that perfectly well. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Langdon can cut her off with a shilling – or the half of it. To use a homely phrase, I have paddled my own canoe since I was thirteen, wholly without encouragement or assistance from any one, and am fully competent to so paddle it the rest of the voyage, and take a passenger along, beside…we can make the canoe go, and we shall not care a straw for the world’s opinion about it if the world chooses to think otherwise.”
Clemens’s bipolar temperament is on full display in the love letters he wrote during the holiday season, often composed over the course of several sittings, as his mood fluctuated between jubilance, self-loathing, yearning, despondency, bravado, and rage. He blamed a poor performance in Detroit upon having gone too long without receiving a response. “Livy, dear, you don’t know what inspiration flows from your pen,” he wrote, “I can please any audience when I have a new letter of yours by me.”
As Twain spent Christmas Eve drinking his way through Lansing, which, in one of his more manic moments, he called “a delightful little city,” Olivia prepared for the usual lavish holiday festivities with her family and contemplated the prospect of it being her last Christmas in the only home she had ever known. She told Clemens, “To think of having them grow used to my being absent, so that at last they would cease to miss me, made me feel as if I wanted father to put his arms about me and keep me near him always.”
“English literature cannot show a finer passage than that,” Clemens contended. He tried to evade contending with the emotions expressed therein, but could not. “I’ll not read that passage again for an hour! – for it makes the tears come into my eyes every time, in spite of me,” he wrote. Mark Twain was famously armed against the sentimental and romantic, but Livy’s letter broke through these defenses, enflaming not only his fanatical love for her, but also a long dormant nostalgia for family and childhood. After assuring Livy that the love he feels towards his mother and siblings is unchanged by distance and time, he admits that during rare visits “I can only look upon their world without entering; and I turn me away with a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge of care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, HOME.”
Upon this reflection the famously itinerant Twain, self-described vagrant and vandal, bases a rather remarkable promise. In the midst of a fourteen-week, seven-state lecture tour based on his five-month Quaker City cruise, Clemens, who hasn’t had a permanent address for years, solemnly promises his betrothed, “You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometime when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home……you shall not know this great blank, this awful vacancy, this something missed, something lost, which is felt but cannot be described, this solemn, mysterious desolation.”
It is hard not to conclude that from this promise, made from some lonely Lansing lodge, emerged the annual pilgrimage to Elmira which Sam and Livy made every summer, without fail, for more than two decades. Though the father whose embrace brought tears to their eyes (and ours) would be dead less than a year after Clemens made this promise, it was not broken. The “symbol of heaven” which Hannibal no longer was would be reconstituted at Quarry Farm and then in Hartford, not only for Livy, but for Sam also.
“Long after supper Christmas Eve, and long before Breakfast Christmas morning,” as he dated his next letter, Clemens sat up “drifting back to Bethlehem” and contemplating “the grandeur of the old first Christmas night.” “I am obeying all your orders strictly,” he told Livy, “except in the matter of sitting up late.” The following morning he would travel twenty miles by horse-drawn sleigh across central Michigan, which is surely less festive than it sounds, to deliver another lecture on Christmas night. But when he should have been nestled all snug in his bed, he sat tormented instead. He had not received a letter from Livy in three whole days, and his repeated requests for a picture to replace the one he famously stole from her brother were still being ignored. “I haven’t received any letter from you, today, but maybe I may tomorrow. I am full of hope that you have written, though I know that many things can and do occur to delay and prevent your writing. I shall hear from you at Charlotte, sure. And maybe at Tecumseh – and certainly at Cleveland – send several letters to Cleveland, Livy, be sure and do that. And send the picture – I am just in a fidget to see it.”
“Now is the time for love,” the heartsick Clemens opined. “I wish you a glad Christmas – a painless Christmas – a Christmas of rest, and peace, and thanksgiving, Livy, O, crowned and sceptered queen of my true heart! Never mind the foolishness of it, I love you – and I wish I were near enough to touch your dear forehead with the benediction of a kiss, this Christmas morning”
May you find yourself, this Sunday, with your own crowned and sceptered queen somewhere that feels like home. Merry Christmas from the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies.