On December 18, 1868, Mark Twain resumed his “American Vandals” lecture tour after the briefest respite. He had traveled overnight and throughout the day to arrive in Elmira following a performance in Scranton. Less than 24 hours later he boarded the first in the series of trains which would make a circuitous day-long journey to Fort Plain, where he was scheduled to appear on the evening of the 19th. There were several more direct routes which would’ve drastically reduced the hours spent on trains, which, by his own admission, left him agitated and sleepless.
But, as far as Samuel Clemens was concerned, every hour with Olivia was worth two in transit.
The “Vandals” lectures were largely excerpts from the manuscript of Innocents Abroad, the comedic travelog which would become a bestseller upon its publication seven months later. Within a few years Mark Twain would attain an unprecedented cultural celebrity. He was already a rising star, who performed nightly before packed auditoriums in major industrial cities and remote midwestern hamlets alike.
Samuel Clemens, however, had not seen Olivia Langdon since she and her parents “yielded a conditional consent” to his proposal of marriage three weeks earlier. Another seven would pass before he could return to Elmira. He would spend the intervening holidays as a comedian “on the road,” pining for Livy from a series of lonely railcars and rust belt lodges, uncertain whether he would fulfill the conditions of the Langdons consent (which depended, he feared, on a series of what would prove famously unflattering references). He wasn’t even certain that his tentative fiancé actually reciprocated his affections.
The uneasiness and unevenness of their passion is apparent in the first letter Clemens wrote after his layover in Elmira. It includes an oblique suggestion that during the abbreviated visit he might have pushed his case beyond what Livy felt proper. He wrote, “I love you, Livy. And I am happy in the possession of half your heart. I would rather hold half of your heart than all of anybody’s else – and so I am tranquil and satisfied. I was wrong to urge you so to give it all to me at this time, but I didn’t mean any harm, Livy, none at all. It was an honest impulse, and honest impulses are always forgivable. I shall have it some day, my dear, dear little tormenter.”
As in several letters from this period, Clemens jokes about Livy’s tendency to “scold” him. By assuming submissive, even childlike postures with his would-be bride he makes light of his genuine resentment. He was held hostage by her social superiority. The intimidating Jervis Langdon, upon whose blessing he waited impatiently, was a business mogul, a college founder, and a church elder. His family resided at the very center of a devout, bourgeois community. Despite the legendary Twain charisma and the endorsement of Livy’s brother, befriended during the Quaker City tour which was the primary subject of “Vandals,” Clemens was deeply and rightly concerned that his humble origins, coarse reputation, and uncertain prospects would, under sober consideration, turn the Langdons against him. And, though at times he tried to convince himself otherwise, he knew Livy was far too good (and her affection for him far too mellow) to disobey her parents wishes. In a bristly letter to Mrs. Langdon, Clemens responded directly to the implication he was a gold-digger and social-climber:
“I do not wish to marry Miss Langdon for her wealth, and she knows that perfectly well. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Langdon can cut her off with a shilling – or the half of it. To use a homely phrase, 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.”
Clemens’s bipolar temperament is on full display in the love letters he wrote during the holiday season, often composed over the course of several sittings, as his mood fluctuated between jubilance, self-loathing, yearning, despondency, bravado, and rage. He blamed a poor performance in Detroit upon having gone too long without receiving a response. “Livy, dear, you don’t know what inspiration flows from your pen,” he wrote, “I can please any audience when I have a new letter of yours by me.”
As Twain spent Christmas Eve drinking his way through Lansing, which, in one of his more manic moments, he called “a delightful little city,” Olivia prepared for the usual lavish holiday festivities with her family and contemplated the prospect of it being her last Christmas in the only home she had ever known. She told Clemens, “To think of having them grow used to my being absent, so that at last they would cease to miss me, made me feel as if I wanted father to put his arms about me and keep me near him always.”
“English literature cannot show a finer passage than that,” Clemens contended. He tried to evade contending with the emotions expressed therein, but could not. “I’ll not read that passage again for an hour! – for it makes the tears come into my eyes every time, in spite of me,” he wrote. Mark Twain was famously armed against the sentimental and romantic, but Livy’s letter broke through these defenses, enflaming not only his fanatical love for her, but also a long dormant nostalgia for family and childhood. After assuring Livy that the love he feels towards his mother and siblings is unchanged by distance and time, he admits that during rare visits “I can only look upon their world without entering; and I turn me away with a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge of care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, HOME.”
Upon this reflection the famously itinerant Twain, self-described vagrant and vandal, bases a rather remarkable promise. In the midst of a fourteen-week, seven-state lecture tour based on his five-month Quaker City cruise, Clemens, who hasn’t had a permanent address for years, solemnly promises his betrothed, “You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometime when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home……you shall not know this great blank, this awful vacancy, this something missed, something lost, which is felt but cannot be described, this solemn, mysterious desolation.”
It is hard not to conclude that from this promise, made from some lonely Lansing lodge, emerged the annual pilgrimage to Elmira which Sam and Livy made every summer, without fail, for more than two decades. Though the father whose embrace brought tears to their eyes (and ours) would be dead less than a year after Clemens made this promise, it was not broken. The “symbol of heaven” which Hannibal no longer was would be reconstituted at Quarry Farm and then in Hartford, not only for Livy, but for Sam also.
“Long after supper Christmas Eve, and long before Breakfast Christmas morning,” as he dated his next letter, Clemens sat up “drifting back to Bethlehem” and contemplating “the grandeur of the old first Christmas night.” “I am obeying all your orders strictly,” he told Livy, “except in the matter of sitting up late.” The following morning he would travel twenty miles by horse-drawn sleigh across central Michigan, which is surely less festive than it sounds, to deliver another lecture on Christmas night. But when he should have been nestled all snug in his bed, he sat tormented instead. He had not received a letter from Livy in three whole days, and his repeated requests for a picture to replace the one he famously stole from her brother were still being ignored. “I haven’t received any letter from you, today, but maybe I may tomorrow. I am full of hope that you have written, though I know that many things can and do occur to delay and prevent your writing. I shall hear from you at Charlotte, sure. And maybe at Tecumseh – and certainly at Cleveland – send several letters to Cleveland, Livy, be sure and do that. And send the picture – I am just in a fidget to see it.”
“Now is the time for love,” the heartsick Clemens opined. “I wish you a glad Christmas – a painless Christmas – a Christmas of rest, and peace, and thanksgiving, Livy, O, crowned and sceptered queen of my true heart! Never mind the foolishness of it, I love you – and I wish I were near enough to touch your dear forehead with the benediction of a kiss, this Christmas morning”
May you find yourself, this Sunday, with your own crowned and sceptered queen somewhere that feels like home. Merry Christmas from the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies.
All the letters quoted above can be found at the Mark Twain Project. Thanks are also due, as usual, to David Fears’s Mark Twain Day by Day.