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.

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