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.

Mark Twain’s 43rd Thanksgiving

In 1905, Thanksgiving Day fell on the 30th of November, which also happened to be Sam Clemens’s 70th birthday. In his autobiography, he claims an effort was made “to get the President to select another day for the national Thanksgiving, and I furnished him with arguments to use which I thought persuasive and convincing.” Among these was that “the original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist – the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven.” This, perhaps, gives a good sense of Clemens’s mood as the holiday approached.

Twain argued nothing had happened in the preceding year worth giving thanks for, citing “several vicious and inexcusable wars,” scandalous “revelations” of financial fraud, and the “usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo State” as evidence “that if there was an honest man left in the United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his seventieth birthday.” President Roosevelt, who Twain had already begun habitually savaging in in both public and private writings, was, predictably, not persuaded by an argument founded upon a dismal view of the country during his administration, though he did send a flattering if contrite letter to be read at Twain’s party, which was postponed until the 5th of December.

Twain appears to have spent the momentous day largely alone in his townhouse in New York City. He lunched with his close friends, Emilie and Henry Rogers, then retired to work on his speech for the upcoming banquet. That speech, with its comical asides about smoking, drinking, and diet, became one of the most celebrated works from Twain’s late phase, possessing the deadpan sarcasm and ironic self-assurance associated with his stage persona.

But Twain discarded several passages written for the occasion, likely begun on Thanksgiving evening, which are more reflective of the dark writing associated with his “widower” period. These would be published posthumously as a short essay, “Old Age.” “I arrived on the thirtieth of November, fresh from a care-free and frivolous 69,” he wrote, “and was disappointed.”

Old Age, white-headed, the temple empty, the idols broken, the worshippers in their graves, nothing left but You, a remnant, a tradition, belated fag-end of a foolish dream, a dream that was so ingeniously dreamed that it seemed real all the time; nothing left but You, centre of a snowy desolation, perched on the ice-summit, gazing out over the stages of that long trek and asking yourself “would you do it again if you had the chance?”

Happy Thanksgiving. Maybe, don’t spend too much of it alone. “When others drink,” as Twain told partygoers a few days later, “I like to help.” And, also, if you can help it, don’t think so much about current events. “I have lived a severely moral life,” Twain said, “But it would be a mistake for other people to try that, or for me to recommend it.” Instead, y’know, have a cigar, “frolick with mince-meat pie after midnight,” and take it easy. “I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting,” Twain said, “My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.”

Thanksgiving at Quarry Farm, 1897

Thanksgiving dinner at Quarry Farm in 1897 was planned by Susan Crane and described on elegant cards featuring the family cats. A surviving copy of these menu cards, located in the Mark Twain Archive at Elmira College, provides insight into how one prominent Elmira family celebrated the holidays near the turn of the century.

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Familiar Thanksgiving staples, like roast turkey and cranberry jelly, shared the table with fashionable preparations from the era and timeless delicacies.

Mrs. Crane was clearly partial to Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion, an 1887 cookbook produced by one of the world’s first celebrity chefs. Maria Parloa began her career as a private chef in New Hampshire before taking over the kitchen at the Appledore Hotel in Maine. Her first cookbook, based on the Appledore menu, was published in 1872. Five years later she founded her own culinary school in Boston. She traveled throughout the United States and Europe, giving cooking demonstrations and studying regional and national cuisines and techniques. She continued to write cookbooks and articles on “domestic science” in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal until her death in 1909.

The Kitchen Companion remained consistently in print for several decades, through dozens of editions. As the following image demonstrates, Susan Crane’s menu was loosely based on one of Miss Parloa’s suggestions for Thanksgiving.

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Recipes for several of the non-traditional courses can be found in the Kitchen Companion.curry-of-lobster-recipe

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The legendary Waldorf Salad, named after the Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan where it was invented, became an iconic American dish. It’s inventor, Oscar Tshirky, was a Swiss immigrant who worked in several of the most famous 19th-century restaurants: Delmonico’s, Hoffman House, and the Waldorf-Astoria. The dish which would shape his legacy had been invented only a few years before Mrs. Crane served it. It appeared in The Cook Book by “Oscar” of the Waldorf, published in 1896 and featuring recipes for many of the most popular dishes in New York City’s finest restaurants. The original salad recipe was exceedingly simple. Nothing more than chunks of raw apple, celery, and greens tossed in “a good mayonnaise.” But some of the other, more complicated dishes in the cookbook may have also inspired Mrs. Crane’s menu choices.

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Bear in mind, while the traditional “matelote sauce” was made with eel, other protein could be substituted. That said, freshwater eels were abundant in the nearby rivers and Finger Lakes. Mrs. Crane was a passionate locavore. Her Quarry Farm Imperial Sandwiches were likely made with cream, cheese, and chicken raised on the premises. No doubt many other ingredients came from the Crane farm and those surrounding it. The kettle-cooked Saratoga Chips she served with her partridge were invented at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, NY.

This is mere speculation, but the White House Soup may have been a recipe from Fanny Gillette and Hugo Ziemann’s White House Cook Book (1887) which recommends the following for holiday meals.

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The bestselling cookbook, as its title suggests, draws upon the recipes of First Ladies and White House stewards. We invite cooks and foodies to comment or email if they have any additional insight about White House Soup, Imperial Sandwiches, or any of the preparations related to the 1897 Quarry Farm Thanksgiving menu.

Unfortunately, on this particular holiday, Susan was not joined by her sister or her famous brother-in-law. They spent the season in Austria. Nor was the dinner cooked by Mary Ann Cord, Quarry Farm’s longtime live-in chef and the narrator of Twain’s “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.” Cord passed in 1888.

Hopefully you have the good fortune of being home for the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving from the Center for Mark Twain Studies!