Thanksgiving Steeple-Jumping: The Sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s “Conditional” Engagement

On Thanksgiving Day, 1868, Olivia Langdon “yielded a conditional consent” to Sam Clemens’s third proposal of marriage. They had know each other for less than a year, having been introduced on the occasion of a Charles Dickens reading in New York City the previous New Year’s Eve. Sam had made himself a fixture in Elmira during the Summer and Fall of 1868, going out of his way to visit the Langdons whenever there was an interruption in his American Vandal lecture tour.

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.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Elmira

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:

Olivia Lewis Langdon

“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?”

I would be very hesitant to characterize the Langdons as prudish or risk adverse. To their credit, they would come to accept Sam’s proposal, after several months, and, despite his lack of character references, treated themselves as sympathetic witnesses to his mature temperament.

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.

Hanging The Crane In Hartford: Mark Twain’s 39th Birthday

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.

Improved & Expanded Virtual Tour of Quarry Farm

The virtual tour of Quarry Farm now features 26 different panoramas, covering the whole property, inside and out, as well as the Mark Twain Study, Mark Twain Archive, and GTL Lobby on the Elmira College Campus and the Clemens-Langdon Gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery. Visitors can also click on “map view” to see the property map and floor plans for the main house.

Among the new additions are six panoramas from upper floor, which include the bedrooms were Sam Clemens and his family slept. There is also an autumnal view from the top of the porch. By zooming you can see into Pennsylvania!

The Mark Twain Archive in GTL Library on the Elmira College campus pays homage to one of Twain’s favorite local haunts, Klapproth’s Tavern, and is outfitted with the mantlepiece and ceiling tiles from the original establishment.

This interactive virtual tour was created by David Coleman of Small Town 360.

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