Mark Twain Forum Reviews: “Gravity: Selected Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens”

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Gravity: Selected Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens. Edited by Barbara E. Snedecor. University of Missouri Press, 2023. Pp. 387. Hardcover $55.00. ISBN 9780826222916 (hardcover). ISBN 9780826274922 (ebook).

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The wives of literary men have almost always existed, if they’ve existed at all, in the foggy fringes of their husband’s reputations. Other than some literary scholars, very few readers could name the wives of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, or Cormac McCarthy, and then recite any biographical facts attached to their names. To be fair, the spouses of literary women have not fared any better: Who among us could do the same for the husbands or partners of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, or J. K. Rowling?

Twainians, of course, know Olivia Langdon Clemens–or think they do. In fact, most think they know her well enough to call her Livy, as did her famous husband. But this familiarity is an illusion. Twain himself shaped her “public” persona just as he manipulated his own, playfully, even patronizingly, portraying her as a protector of his reputation, editor of his first drafts, a foil to his restless exuberant untamed spirit. She certainly played some of those roles Twain assigned to her, but her flesh and blood existence was as three-dimensional as his, something that has seldom been acknowledged in print. Beginning with Paine, who met Olivia only once and very briefly (a few years before he became Twain’s official biographer and moved into the household after her death), Twain’s biographers have mostly taken Twain at his word and presented her in that same way, seldom illuminating her life outside his shadow. Paine’s Olivia was innocent and idealized, Van Wyck Brook’s Olivia was a censor, Justin Kaplan’s Olivia was a needy Victorian with the vapors, and the list could go on.

This is not to say that readers have not had glimpses of her other dimensions from time to time, but the emergence of her personhood has been excruciatingly slow. In Clara Clemens’s My Father Mark Twain (1931), The Love Letters of Mark Twain (1949), and Caroline Harnsberger’s Mark Twain, Family Man (1960), Olivia is seen as a conventional Victorian woman of wealth–delicate, dedicated, and domestic. In Stoutenberg and Baker’s Dear, Dear Livy(1963) she is presented through invented dialogues in an engaging bit of historical fiction intended for young readers. She had fared a little better in Katy Leary’s 1925 memoir, A Lifetime with Mark Twain (edited or written by Mary Lawton), where she begins to emerge in bits of reasonably reliable dialogue with her devoted housekeeper. She emerges more fully in Resa Willis’s Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him (1992), where many letters are quoted, but this account focuses on her courtship and marriage, and is as much about Twain as it is his wife. Martin Naparsteck dismisses Willis’s book for this reason and claims his account, Mrs. Mark Twain: The Story of Olivia Langdon Clemens, 1845-1904 (2014), is the first full-length biography of Olivia, but Twain dominates most of his narrative, appearing on nearly every page, and the text is sprinkled with a few minor but annoying factual errors.

Susan K. Harris’s The Courtship of Olivia Langdon Clemens and Mark Twain (1996) is excellent, and Olivia emerges more fully from the heavily gilded Victorian frame around her portrait, but this book is not a full-blown biography, and the focus is on their courtship and first few years of marriage. We learned more of Olivia when Jeffrey Steinbrink’s Getting to Be Mark Twain (1991) quoted from her letters, and when Laura E. Trombley devoted two chapters to Olivia in Mark Twain in the Company of Women(1994), in which she examines how Olivia had been treated in print up to that time. In 2003 much of the mystery and confusion about Olivia’s protracted illness in her teen years was clarified by Dr. K. Patrick Ober’s Mark Twain and Medicine: “Any Mummery Will Cure.” Finally, Olivia became much more visible and knowable in the Twain biographies by Ron Powers and Gary Scharnhorst, but in the context of any biography of Mark Twain, she must still stand aside from the main attraction.

She has not been the only person associated with Mark Twain to stand in his shadow, but it seems strange that she has stood there as long as she has. We have biographies, autobiographies, or collected letters of authors who were closely associated with Twain like Howells, Cable, Harte, De Quille, Warner, and Ward; his publishers like Bliss, Osgood, and Harper; his close friend Joe Twichell; his family, including mother Jane, daughters Susy and Clara, and brother Orion. Olivia’s life has unfolded more slowly, hampered by misconceptions and mythologies. The condescending and conflicted image of Olivia as a fragile semi-invalid, who was somehow strong enough in spirit to be a censorious little shrew–in a dainty Victorian sort of way, of course–has been slowly evaporating as rays of sunlight penetrate the shadows where she has so often been relegated.

In truth, as Barbara Snedecor reminds us in the preface to this wonderful collection of Olivia Clemens’s letters, she was a pampered child of privilege who married a strong-willed man from an entirely different background whose family, friends, and business associates did not control him, and she proceeded to compel his adoration and respect throughout their entire four decades of marriage, gave birth to four children and raised three of them to adulthood, managed a staff of male and female servants who sometimes got drunk and misbehaved (often doing so during her husband’s frequent absences from home on business or when lecturing), traveled around the world, took an active and equal part in household and financial decision-making, and with her husband overcame profound tragedies, serious health issues, and dire financial setbacks. At all times she was painfully aware of the social expectations for a woman of her social status, and navigated her way through it all with grace and a sense of humor, earning the universal love and admiration of everyone who knew her or ever met her.

With the publication of Olivia Clemens’s letters, no more emancipating sunlight is needed. Through these letters Olivia herself now casts her own light on everything in her orbit– her husband, her family, their friends, and the complicated society in which they lived……….

.….Finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum

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