Elmira Girl Marries Hannibal Boy (And The Rest Is Literary History)

Olivia Langdon Clemens, c.1872 (Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT.)

Samuel Clemens (a.k.a Mark Twain) and Olivia (“Livy”) Langdon were married on February 2, 1870, in the Langdon family parlor in Elmira, New York.  Officiating were the family’s friend and minister, the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, minister of Elmira’s Congregational Church (and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher), and the Rev Joseph Twichell, pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregationalist Church in Hartford, Connecticut and soon to become one of Clemens’ most intimate friends.  Among the hundred or so people present were Clemens’ friends Abel and Mary Mason Fairbanks (Mary Fairbanks wrote up the wedding for the Cleveland Herald), and his Buffalo Express colleague J.N. Larned. Clemens’ sister Pamela, and Pamela’s daughter Annie were his only relatives to attend.  Not surprisingly, Langdon friends and family members were the most numerous—Livy’s parents, Olivia Lewis and Jervis Langdon; her foster sister Susan Crane and Susan’s husband Theodore; first cousins Edward L. Marsh and Anna Marsh Brown. Charlie, her brother, did not attend, having already left for a round-the-world tour.  Additional guests included many Elmira friends, such as Fidelia E. Stanley, matron of Elmira College and mother of Livy’s friend Lottie Stanley; and Jervis Langdon’s business associates, such as General Alexander S. Diven, a former congressman. [i] The next morning the couple, with about twenty of the guests, boarded a train for Sam and Livy’s new home in Buffalo, New York (Scharnhorst, I:529).

Charles Langdon, c.1872 (Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT.)

It had been an unusual courtship.  Clemens had met Livy through her brother, Charles (“Charlie”) Langdon, with whom he had become acquainted on the trip he had taken on the steamship Quaker City—the tour through Europe and the Holy Land that eventuated in Twain’s first travelogue, The Innocents Abroad (1869).  Charlie had joined Clemens’s inner circle on the Quaker City, a group of young men notable for their parties, pranks, and other adventures.   Once the trip was over, Sam and Charlie stayed in touch.  In December of 1867 they met up in New York City, where both were visiting—Clemens on business, Charlie with his family.   Charlie invited Sam to his family’s rooms at the St. Nicholas Hotel, where Clemens met not only the Langdon parents, but their daughter Olivia and her friend Alice Hooker. The group was heading to a literary evening—Charles Dickens was on a tour through the U.S., and he was performing in the city that night—and they invited Clemens to accompany them.  In retrospect, that was his and Livy’s first “date.” 

Some earlier Twain scholars have contended that Sam fell in love with Livy’s money long before he met her.  Documentary evidence suggests that that isn’t entirely true. In the beginning at least, Sam admired Livy’s friend Alice as much as he admired Livy.  Alice Hooker was the daughter of John and Isabella Beecher Hooker (the latter yet another of the Beecher clan).  Isabella had known Livy since the girl was 14, when they found themselves roommates at the Gleason Water Cure in Elmira.  Isabella introduced her daughter Alice to Livy, and a warm friendship ensued, with both girls making protracted visits to the others’ homes over their adolescence and early adulthood.  That included inviting Alice to accompany them for their annual Christmas sojourn in New York City in 1867. When Charlie introduced Clemens to the family, then, the budding writer met two attractive girls. He encountered them at least twice more during his holiday sojourn in the city. A January 8, 1868 letter to his mother suggests that he treated them equally—including wangling invitations to both their homes.

I started to make calls, New Year’s Day, but I anchored for the day at the first house I came to—Charlie Langdon’s sister was there (beautiful girl,) & Miss Alice Hooker, another beautiful girl, a niece of Henry Ward Beecher’s. We sent the old folks home early, with instructions not to send the carriage till midnight, & then I just staid there & deviled the life out of those girls. I am going to spend a few days with the Langdon’s, in Elmira, New York, as soon as I get time, & a few days at Mrs. Hooker’s, in Hartford, Conn., shortly.

(MTL, 2:144)

Clemens did visit Hartford soon after his New York sojourn, but he didn’t make it to Elmira until the following August (Scharnhorst I:448).  When he did, he came with very different intentions than he had had when he flirted with both girls in New York City. Despite not having written to Livy during the 8-month interval between their meetings, by the time he arrived in Elmira he seems to have decided that she was his destined one—or that he was hers. The length of his stay suggests that he arrived prepared for a siege. The Langdons were accustomed to the coming and going of many guests.  Their commodious house, located in downtown Elmira, was not far from the railroad station, which served the numerous railroad lines that passed through the town on their east/west or north/south routes.  Old family friends like Alice made protracted visits (Alice stayed for five months in 1867); those who were using the house as a way station generally tarried a day or two, then went on their way.  Clemens stayed two weeks, perhaps using his friendship with Charlie as his entrée.  At the end of the sojourn he asked Livy to marry him.  She refused.

Interiors of the Langdon Mansion in Elmira, NY
(Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT.)

Undaunted, Clemens managed to wrest permission to write to Livy, promising to obey her stricture that he not woo her via the mail.   An onslaught of letters followed, and Clemens pressed his suit at least two more times over the next few months. Livy finally capitulated on November 26, after having rejected him three times. They agreed to a long engagement, both to allow Clemens to settle down financially and to allow plenty of time for the couple to get to know each other. And their relationship did develop, but not conventionally.  Because Clemens was on the road for most of their engagement, he and Livy learned each other’s characters long-distance, through multiple, lengthy, letters.

In 1996 I published The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain.  One of my scholarly interests is in reading–what, and how, people process the written word. Reading through the Clemens’s courtship letters, I was struck by the number of references to—and discussions of—books. It’s often difficult to know what courting couples say to each other because there generally isn’t anyone recording their conversation.  Clemens and Langdon’s courtship was epistolary—conducted by way of letters. And epistolary relationships are gold mines for scholars because they leave records of what people are thinking and, in some cases, what the people around them are saying.  We are lucky enough to have most of the letters Clemens wrote to Livy during this time because she diligently dated and filed them.  Unfortunately, he did not pay her the same courtesy; most of hers are lost.  Still, because the letters were a substitute for conversation, we can determine much of what Livy wrote from Sam’s responses to her.  And one thing is abundantly clear—that books were their way of teaching each other who they were.   Livy and Sam used other peoples’ writings to convey their ideas about model marriage, including portraits of ideal husbands and wives and the relationship between the sexes.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, c.1869 (Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain Archive, Elmira, NY)

Reading through both the letters and the books and articles to which they refer has often made me wonder why these two thought they were suited for each other.  Their ideas of a perfect marriage, for instance, were radically different.  Most striking, it seemed to me, was their choice of favorite book-length narrative poems: for Livy, it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh; for Clemens it was Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House.  The two poems could not present more divergent viewpoints on men, women, and marriage.  Aurora Leigh, a best-seller among Victorian women, suggests that women could enter companionate marriages as self-sufficient, independent people equal in spirit and accomplishments to the men they choose.  The Angel in the House, on the other hand, celebrates women who subordinate themselves to their men, seeing their primary role as comforting and supporting their husbands as the men face the hard world of 19th-century capitalist culture.  Clemens tried hard to flatter Livy into his viewpoint: “Honoria [the heroine of Patmore’s poem] is a great-souled, self-sacrificing, noble woman like you (I can see you in everything she does)”, he told Livy (MTL 2:343).  When, in return,  Livy tried to expound Aurora Leigh‘s feminist view to him, he used humor to side-step her points: “It always makes me proud of you when you assault one of her [Browning’s] impenetrable sentences and tear off its shell and bring its sense to light,” he commented, deftly critiquing Browning’s style rather than her content (MTL 3:95). 

With this, Clemens’s love letters also make it clear that above all else he valued a woman’s “purity”—body, mind, and soul. To that end, he censored the books Livy read, crossing out passages and even tearing out pages of the books he gave her.  “You are as pure as snow, & I would have you always so—untainted, untouched even by the impure thoughts of others,” he lectured. And he prepared Gulliver’s Travels for her perusal: “If you would like to read it … I will mark it & tear it until it is fit for your eyes—for portions of it are very coarse and indelicate” (MTL 3:132-3). 

Jervis Langdon, Sr.
(Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain Archive, Elmira, NY)

While he was guiding Livy’s reading through the mails, Clemens was also negotiating with her parents for her hand.  Jervis Langdon was well disposed toward his prospective son-in-law, but he was also a very protective father, and he wanted to know more about Clemens’s past. A suitor from Elmira or its environs would have been easy to vet; Clemens presented a challenge.  By the age of 33 he had not only traveled up and down the Mississippi River, lived in boarding houses in New York and Philadelphia and in shanties with rough miners in sketchy western towns, he had also caroused in San Francisco, eyed naked women swimming in Hawaii, and pranked his way through Europe and the Holy Land. Jervis asked for letters of recommendation, especially from people who had known Clemens when he lived in San Francisco and Nevada Territory. Clemens gave him a list of names, then waited while the letters dribbled in.  The process made him excessively nervous, especially since the letters came to the Langdons in Elmira, and Livy’s reports on their contents had to catch up with him as he constantly shifted locations on his lecture tour. Some of the correspondents, such as his good friend and supporter Mary Fairbanks, assured Livy’s parents that whatever his past mistakes, Sam was now on the road to responsible Christian adulthood.  Others were dubious that he would ever truly reform. It wasn’t the worst response possible, but it wasn’t an encouraging profile, especially for a settled, teetotalling, Christian family. Disappointed in his erstwhile friends, Clemens realized that he had to get control over the narrative. 

And controlling narratives was Mark Twain’s forté.  Sam Clemens brought to his role as suitor the extraordinary rhetorical power that would mark Twain’s entire career.  His goal wasn’t to refute his critics, but to convince the family, including Livy, that they should forgive him his past and trust in his future.  His framework, as he developed it over a series of letters, did not apologize for his youthful conduct, rather, it insisted that he had reformed—that he was like a prodigal son, returning to the fold after sowing his wild oats—or, more close to home, like Charlie, whose inability to settle into a profession had worried his parents for several years: “I was just what Charlie would have been, similarly circumstanced, & deprived of home influences,” he suggested (MTL 2:357).  His future, he claimed, was hopeful–especially with Livy by his side.  “Married to you, I would never desire to roam again while I lived,” he told Livy (MTL 3:53).   He was determined to settle into a profession with a steady income, so that he would not have to depend entirely on his writing and lecturing.  And he forecast their future and old age:

When we are married we shall be as happy, as kings—unpretending, substantial members of society, with no fuss or show or nonsense about us … & so developing all of good & worthy that is in our natures, walk serenely down the grand avenues of Time…drawing nearer & nearer to that home of rest & peace where we shall know & love each other through all the vague tremendous centuries of eternity (MTL, 3:58-9).

(MTL, 3:58-9)

So much for past and future. The Samuel Clemens of the present that he presented to the Langdon parents was a man diligently working to become a Christian, to abstain from both tobacco and liquor, and to secure a source of steady income. “Now I never swear,” he reported to Olivia Lewis Langdon, “I never taste wine or spirits upon any occasion whatsoever; I am orderly, & my conduct is above reproach in a worldly sense; & finally, I now claim that I am a Christian. I claim it, & it only remains to be seen if my bearing shall show that I am justly entitled to so name myself” (MTL 3:90). He spoke and wrote to his prospective father-in-law as one businessman to another, and he apologized for “stealing” the family jewel that was Livy.  Over time, multiple letters, many visits, and evidence of exemplary behaviors, Clemens finally made himself into the son-in-law that Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon expected their daughter’s husband to be.

Sam’s and Livy’s Home in Buffalo (Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT.)

And so the wedding was a happy affair.  Its immediate aftermath was even happier. Several months before the wedding, Sam had ended his search for steady employment by buying into the Buffalo Express (in part with a loan from Jervis) (Scharnhorst, 497). The purchase gave him an editorial position on the newspaper, a job that would, presumably, keep him in Buffalo for the foreseeable future, and so the young couple decided to make Buffalo their home. Mindful of his limited salary, Sam planned to take his new bride to a respectable Buffalo boarding house, where they would live while searching for suitable housing.  He had engaged a friend to find an appropriate lodging, and it was there that he assumed they were heading when he and Livy left the rest of the wedding party at the Buffalo train station and took a cab to their quarters.  Instead the couple were taken to a house far above Clemens’s pay grade.  Unbeknownst to him, the Langdons had already taken care of the young couple’s first home, a fully staffed and furnished three-story house in a classy neighborhood.  Livy, who was in on the joke, had to convince Sam that he was not dreaming.  His letters to his in-laws tried to express his pleasure—the house, he averred, “is a constant delight.  It is a poem, it is music–& it speaks & it sings, to us, all the day long” (MTL 4:75).  If Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon had not proven that they fully accepted their new son-in-law before, they certainly did so with this gift. 

Sam and Livy at Quarry Farm in 1903, a year before Livy passes away. (Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT.)

Sam and Livy’s fairy-tale did not last long—tragedy beset them only a few months into the marriage, and their first few years saw them struggling with more illnesses and deaths than assail most young couples, even then.  But their struggles laid the foundation for a marriage that would last until Livy’s death in 1904—though not as Twain’s courtship letters had forecast it.  Sam soon backslid on his vows, smoking, drinking, and cursing his way through life and, if never disavowing Christianity outright, asking very hard questions about its premises.  Livy adjusted to the smoking and learned to drink a little bit herself, and though she remained a steadfast Christian, she never showed the same religious fervor she had felt before her marriage.  But though they learned that the person they had married was not quite the ideal they had envisioned, both parties to this union valued their partnership.  If they never achieved the serenity that Clemens had predicted in his courtship letters, they did learn how to live, work, plan, and overcome sorrow and adversity together.  Most of all, they enjoyed each other’s company—raising children, traveling, sharing books and ideas. They also continually returned to Elmira—over time, the Langdon properties became the stable center around which the Clemens family’s peripatetic lives revolved–grounds for their best memories and the location where Twain wrote his most famous books.  On death, both returned to the Langdon family plot in the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery.   The wedding that took place on February 2, 1870 heralded an enduring relationship, a testimony to strength, patience, mutual respect, and love.

[i] For a more complete listing of attendees, including many Elmira residents, see Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 4: 1870–1871, ed. Victor Fischer, Michael Frank, and Lin Salamo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 43-45.

Susan K. Harris has served on the faculties of the University of Kansas, Penn State, and Queens College, CUNY.  Her specialties are Mark Twain Studies and Studies of American Women Writers. Among her five monographs are Mark Twain’s Escape from Time: A Study of Patterns and Images (U Missouri P, 1982); The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain (Cambridge, 1996); and God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (Oxford, 2011). She has edited three American women’s novels for Penguin/Putnam Press, the Library of America’s volume of Twain’s historical romances, and a Houghton Mifflin pedagogical edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Her most recent work, Mark Twain, The World, and Me is forthcoming in March 2020 from University of Alabama Press.

Works Cited

  • Harris, Susan K.  The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 2, 1867-1868, ed Harriet Elinor Smith, Richard Bucci, and Lin Salamo.  Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1990.
  • Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 3, 1869, ed. Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, and Dahlia Armon.  Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press,1992.
  • Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 4: 1870–1871, ed. Victor Fischer, Michael Frank, and Lin Salamo. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1995.
  • Scharnhorst, Gary.  The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871.  Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 2018.

Mark Twain, Suffragette Ally & Overprotective Father

In his 1903 essay “Why Not Abolish It?,” Mark Twain argues that the age of consent for extramarital relations should be abolished for women. Twain’s underlying premises are that young women are not responsible enough to make their own decisions about sex, that once a girl has engaged in sexual relations she is “dragged down into the mud and into enduring misery and shame,” and that, worst of all, so is her family. Why the family? Because she does not own herself. Rather, she is property of her family: “There is no age at which the good name of a member of a family ceases to be a part of the property of that family – an asset, and worth more than all its bonds and moneys.”

So a woman is an object of economic value, pure and simple, and remains so throughout her life. I have to admit that even though I understand that this was the prevailing dogma in 1903 (indeed, my father rattled off many of the same sentiments 60 years later, when I started dating), and that Clara Clemens’s propensity to gallivant around Europe unchaperoned probably triggered Twain’s paternal anxieties, his smug conviction that women of any age should have no say over their own bodies has always infuriated me. I wonder how Clara responded, as well as her sister, Jean. And even Twain’s wife, Livy, then nearing her end. Did the girls’ push for freedom from parental constraints prompt a more measured response from their mother than it did from their famous father? Were women in the family embracing the 20th century, even while “Papa” harked back to the 19th?

Twain wasn’t such a Luddite on other feminist issues. In 1897, during the dreary London winter following Susie’s death, Jean and Clara talked both parents into allowing them to buy bicycles – a daring new activity for women. In 1909 Twain told the New York Sun that he had supported women’s right to vote for fifty years. And indeed, in 1874 he had published a letter to the editor of the London Evening Standard, in which he averred that he had been “persuaded that in extending the suffrage to women this country could lose absolutely nothing & might gain a great deal.” By 1909 he had taken his conviction a step farther, commenting that women should do “what they deem necessary to secure their rights.” Politically at least, Twain had come to understand that women could be a powerful force in the public sphere.

Nevertheless I think Twain’s view of women’s sexual freedom tells us a lot about his struggle to deal with the new and often frightening social changes that were catapulting Americans into the new century. Middle class women were gaining more freedom (working women had always had more freedom because they had to earn money) – freedom that was manifested in their ability to leave the house unchaperoned, to live alone, to work, to meet men outside their families’ social circles. But to many people, these changes meant that society was unraveling. Because the image of the pure woman, the moral center of hearth and home, had been so powerful earlier in the century, the image of the New Woman, mounted on a bicycle and off to meet a man her parents did not know, signaled social upheaval and the corruption of domestic values. The issue came to be framed in terms of female sexuality and its “value” to the culture. Twain was not alone in his assumption that female “purity” equaled “controlled sexuality” – controlled through systematic social shaming. It was the culture’s way of keeping women within bounds, and women as well as men participated in the social policing.

We remain a culture frightened of our own trajectory, and we are still trying to solve society’s problems by controlling women’s sexuality. Twain saw men as sexual predators, and he sought laws to punish men who robbed women of their “purity.” We see some of the legacies of his argument in our current legal wrangling over rape and what constitutes “consent,” especially on college campuses. But “consent” is no longer the dominant arena for control over women’s bodies. Instead the desire to restrain women focuses on women’s reproductive health.

Those who attack agencies like Planned Parenthood pretend that their target is abortion services, but such proposals also deny women access to routine gynecological exams, to contraception, and to pre- and post-partum health services. Congress’s recent proposal to drop maternity care from the nation’s priority list of “essential” health services means a return to the inequities of the 20th century, when women routinely paid more for health insurance than men. (One of our esteemed Congressmen recently testified that he thought prenatal care shouldn’t be an essential service because “he had never used it.” I would love to hear Twain’s comments on that one.)

But the reversal doesn’t stop with money. Control over reproduction has been the linchpin of women’s progress in the public sphere for the last one hundred years. If women are denied access to contraception, to safe pregnancies, and to maternity leave, we will lose our footing in the working world. We will return to Twain’s time, forced either to foreswear sexuality (and hence pregnancy) altogether or else to be confined to the home and dependent on men for support, including access to healthcare. Retreat from the work world – and from the power that being actors in the public sphere provides – in turn encourages increased sexual harassment when women do venture forth from home – the kind of behavior that prompted Twain’s essay in the first place. Those of us who dare to show ourselves in public will be prey for men who can seduce, grope, harass, and then shame us – and walk away to boast about their “conquests” on social media. Yes, we still have problems with predatory men, but the solution isn’t to yank us out of the public sphere, to strip us of control over our bodies, to deny us essential services. Do we really want to return to the days when we didn’t own ourselves?

Susan K. Harris is Distinguished Professor Emerita at University of Kansas and author of numerous books on 19th-century American literature and culture, including The Courtship of Olivia Langdon & Mark Twain