Embedded within this post, you will find letters written by two important Elmirans – Susan Crane and John W. Jones – reflecting upon the history of the Underground Railroad. Crane was the sister-in-law of Mark Twain. She commissioned the octagonal study where Twain wrote his most famous works, and hosted the Clemens family’s annual Summer pilgrimage to her dairy farm. Crane was also the eldest daughter of Jervis Langdon, who actively aided fugitive slaves from at least 1844 onward.
Jones was among those Langdon harbored. Together they expanded the Underground Railroad operations in the region and Jones personally assisted more than 800 enslaved persons. He was also the first caretaker of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, directly responsible for the work which led to it being designated a National Cemetery.
I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.
In 1892, having recently been hired into the Department of European History at Ohio State University, Wilbur H. Siebert began research on what would become The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). As Siebert acknowledges in his preface, his subject was “in an extraordinary sense a hidden one.” The covert operation of the Underground Railroad was in danger of passing out of living memory. Even the youngest conductors and stationmasters were more than fifty years old. Life expectancy in the U.S. was around 43 years, and was significantly lower for African-Americans, who, of course, participated disproportionately in the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s challenge was to identify and interview surviving participants in remote locations before their stories were lost.
As part of this process, in August of 1896, Siebert contacted Susan Crane. Though her father, Jervis Langdon, was long dead, Siebert hoped Crane, born in 1836, might have some memory of her family’s activities. In her first reply, Crane says, “The work was so silent, and I was so young that my personal knowledge is slight.” But, she promises to consult some of the “older citizens” of Elmira, including John W. Jones.
That Crane volunteered to work on Siebert’s exemplifies the generosity for which she was renowned, particularly given the circumstances. When Siebert’s request arrived, Crane’s sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was in residence at Quarry Farm. Unfortunately, it was not as part of her family’s usual Summer visit. On the Sunday before Crane’s first reply they had buried Olvia’s eldest daughter at Woodlawn Cemetery. Susy Clemens, named after her aunt, had succumbed to spinal meningitis. That Crane answered Siebert’s letter at all, while her family was in mourning, suggests how important his project was to her.
A few weeks later, Crane sends her second, more substantive, reply. Unfortunately, Siebert’s side of the correspondence has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what he asked during their ongoing exchange, but readers will be able make educated guesses. The account Crane offers seems to be primarily based upon conversations with Jones, though she acknowledge speaking with others as well.
As far as Twain Studies is concerned, the final page of her September 14, 1896 letter includes a significant revelation, as Crane reports that “about eight years ago” she had introduced Jones to Twain expressly for the purpose of “making some record of Mr. Jones’s story.” To my knowledge, this is the only record we have that Twain and Jones were directly acquainted.
If Crane’s memory is correct, the meeting between Jones and Twain probably took place during the Summer of 1888, when the Clemens family was in Elmira from late June until September 24th. That Twain declines to attempt to tell Jones’s story, despite finding it “so interesting,” represents a change in his philosophy. In 1874 he had transcribed, allegedly “word for word,” the account of Mary Ann Cord, the cook at Quarry Farm, and sold it to The Atlantic Monthly as “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain’s experiments with black dialect continued with “Sociable Jimmy,” also published in 1874, and, most famously, climaxed with the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That Twain insists Jones’s story “should only be told in [his] language” represents a conspicuous change of heart.
Crane’s letters also reference an S. O. Gleason as having participated in some fashion during the 1850s, though she reports the Gleason claims not to remember anything. Dr. Silas Oresmus Gleason and his wife, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason, ran the Elmira Water Cure, a highly-regarded therapeutic spa located up the road from Quarry Farm, which they opened in 1852.
These documents corroborate and supplement our developing account of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and, particularly, the Langdon family’s involvement. Crane claims that when she asked Jones how involved her father had been, he replied, “He was all of it, giving me at one his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.”
Crane also refers to a William Still. Still was another conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well a prominent antislavery activist. Still also produced a history of the Underground Railroad, published in 1872 and expanded in 1878. Siebert draws liberally from Still’s account. Following the letters, I have included links to both Siebert and Still’s history, which are now in the public domain.
2018 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira, the town where he would meet his wife, spend many of his summers over the remainder of his life, write several of his most acclaimed books, and finally be laid to rest. In the following essay, Dr. Seybold commemorates the occasion by offering his estimation of what Elmira meant to Mark Twain.
January 26, 1905
It was the 30th birthday of Mark Twain’s nephew, Jervis Langdon. His father, Charley Langdon, had met Samuel Clemens when they were both passengers on the world’s first pleasure cruise in 1867. Little did young Charley know that his new friend was fashioning their voyage into a series of humorous newspaper dispatches which would become the basis for one of the bestselling books of the 19th century, The Innocents Abroad.
By the time that book was published, Sam and Charley would both be engaged. Their marriages would take place within a few blocks of one another, officiated by the same famous minister, Thomas K. Beecher. A decade later, they would have seven children between them, who spent four months every summer frolicking together on the sloping lawns of Quarry Farm with a menagerie of cats, dogs, horses, cows, and goats belonging to their aunt, Susan Crane.
30-year-old Jervis Langdon could remember those carefree summers. Susy Clemens, named for that aunt, showed him how he could send coded messages to his cousins at the hilltop farm from the windows of his family’s mansion in the town below by turning a hand mirror towards the full moon. On many a summer’s eve, he and his cousins sat huddled around Uncle Sam on the farmhouse’s open-air porch as he told fabulous stories or read from manuscripts of his works-in-progress before the ink was even dry.
If 30-year-old Jervis was nostalgic on this January evening in 1905, he could hardly be blamed. It wasn’t just his own milestone birthday. He was expecting the imminent birth of his own first child, a son, who would arrive just two days later. Were this not cause enough for sentiment, he found himself dressed as a character from one of the stories which had been routinely read aloud to him, as well as his sisters and cousins. He was preparing to attend, along with many other prominent residents of Elmira, NY, a “Dickens reception.” Each guest would be costumed as a character from one of the novelist’s works.
Jervis had been cast in the part of Caleb Plummer from The Cricket On The Hearth. His sister, Ida Langdon, who had recently matriculated from Bryn Mawr and would later become a professor of English at Elmira College, chose the part of Caleb’s blind daughter, Bertha, while friends took auxiliary parts in the story, including Crystal Eastman, Ida’s best friend, as Tilly Slowboy, and Dorothy Mather as Mrs. Fielding. Within a few years all three recent graduates (Eastman from Vassar and Mather from Cornell) would be suffragettes and members of the American Association of University Women, an organization committed to increasing the representation of women in higher education.
Charles Dickens had a special significance for the Langdon siblings. Many years earlier, their father and Aunt Livy had gone to see Mr. Dickens read at sold-out Steinway Hall in New York City on New Years Eve. They were joined that night by Charley’s increasingly infamous new friend, whom they called Sam, but who signed his scathing review of the performance “Mark Twain.” This was Olivia Langdon’s chaperoned first date with the man who would become her husband. Twain was so smitten that in his review he couldn’t help mentioning, some might call it boasting, that he had attended Dickens’s reading with “a highly respectable” and “beautiful young lady.”
Thus began one of the most unexpectedly sweet seductions in American cultural history, as Samuel Clemens, initially ignored and then rebuffed by the devout and decorous Olivia Langdon, fell back upon what would prove his greatest talent, writing, over a hundred letters cascading into the Langdon home through the ensuing months, supplemented by occasional visits. The year was 1868.
When Sam visited the Langdons again for Thanksgiving, Livy finally yielded her conditional consent to his proposal. She sent her fiancé off on another leg of his “American Vandal” lecture tour. But while Mark Twain spent the next month joking, smoking, and drinking his way through the Midwest, Olivia faced the reality, alone, that this might be her last Christmas season in the only home she had ever known, surrounded by family she adored. She wrote to Sam, “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.”
Sam contemplated this letter in a Central Michigan boarding house on Christmas Eve, with only the fading fire in an unfamiliar hearth and a series of holiday brandies to keep him warm. He reflected on his fiancé’s fears, her family, and his own, from whom he felt increasingly detached, and was inspired to make an extraordinary promise:
I just don’t wonder that it makes you sad to think of leaving such a home, Livy, and such household Gods—for there is no other home in all the world like it—no household gods so lovable as yours, anywhere. And I shall feel like a heartless highway robber when I take you away from there…
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. You shall visit them, Livy—and so often that they cannot well realize that you are absent. You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometimes when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home…a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge from care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, Home—and then, away down in my heart of hearts I yearn for the days that are gone & the phantoms of the olden time!—for the faces that are vanished; for the forms I loved to see; for the voices that were music to my ear; for the restless feet that have gone out into the darkness, to return no more forever!
But 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. No, I with my experience, should dread to think of your old home growing strange to you.
I have tried several times, and am trying again now, to articulate the consequences of this promise, which I think cannot be overestimated. But for this promise, made by a famously itinerant and oft-inebriated author in the wee hours of Christmas morning 150 years ago, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would not exist, nor would anybody be obligated to preserve Quarry Farm for posterity. For it was Sam’s dedication to this promise, more important perhaps even than his wedding vows, which ensured the Clemens family’s annual pilgrimage to Elmira.
And it was in Elmira that not only was Olivia spared the “dull, aching consciousness of long exile” which her husband felt, but Sam found, looking out across the Chemung River Valley, a new “symbol of heaven.” The vanished faces, musical voices, and “phantoms of the olden times” came floating through the windows on all sides of the study Susan Crane built for him, inspiring him to produce a series of novels in what I call The Quarry Farm Style: full of whimsical children and nostalgia for an American past, but also politically radical, like the community in which they were written.
As Sam and Livy (as well as Charley and his new wife, Ida Clark) settled into domesticity and child-rearing in the 1870s, they would associate Dickens with that first date at Steinway Hall, that tear-stained letter from Lansing, and, as many do, with the holiday season. They read Dickens’s books aloud to their children, such that his characters intermingled with Twain’s, forming the premise for a range of allusions, inside jokes, and family folklore which passed through the generations. The novella which inspired Jervis and Ida Langdon’s costumes in 1905 was, as Dickens himself described it, a “fairy tale of home” dedicated to his own infant son.
The Quarry Farm Style
The Clemenses did not attend the Dickens reception in 1905, but those who did reflect both how Mark Twain brought out the best in Elmira, and why Elmira brought out the best in Mark Twain. The reception took place at the Elmira Industrial School. The 36-year-old school was one of several educational institutions, including Elmira College and Elmira Free Academy, which had been founded through the financial backing of another Jervis Langdon, grandfather to the Jervis who celebrated his birthday that night. Each of these groundbreaking educational institutions made possible by the Langdon fortune were sustained in the ensuing decades by other local financial benefactors, as well as by many Elmirans who volunteered as teachers, administrators, fundraisers, and advocates.
The mission of Elmira Industrial School was to provide a free trade school education to any young women willing to dedicate herself to establishing financial independence. The students came from “homes of poverty and vice” and were mentored by an entirely female faculty, including many of the affluent young women who were graduating from elite private colleges in the region, like Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Cornell, Smith, Oberlin, and Elmira. Several of ladies who attended the Dickens reception were faculty, volunteers, and/or alumna of the three local institutions all dedicated to counteracting the effects of social and economic oppression.
The elder Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, the original owners of Quarry Farm, were the foundation stones upon which was built a remarkable tradition of generosity and community service which survived them and their famous son-in-law. In his eulogy for the first Jervis Langdon, Thomas K. Beecher made the outrageous claim that “Envy’s self was silenced at sight of his prosperity, so many were sharing in it.”
Beecher had learned repeatedly that the Langdons considered their millions only as valuable as the causes for which they could be put to work. When, in 1846, their church refused to condemn slavery, the started a new one, joined the Underground Railroad, and told the abolitionists who passed through their enormous mansion – including the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – that “the family house and purse were at the service of fugitives from slavery.”
Eight years later, when they asked the most controversial memberof the most famous family of theologians in America to come lead their renegade church, he laid out terms which he though no congregation would accept, largely because of his exceptional emphasis on community service. The Langdons accepted his terms without negotiation. The progressive, inclusive congregation he imagined grew so large it could only meet in an opera house, drawing the ire of rival churches and the regional Ministerial Union.
Mark Twain responded to their condemnation of Beecher as one might expect, joking in a local newspaper that “a little group of congregationless clergymen, of whom I have never heard before, have crushed the famous Beecher and reduced his audiences from 1500 to 1475.” The Langdons came to Beecher’s defense much more quietly and effectively, buying up shares in the opera house so that no amount of social pressure could compel the proprietors to bar the doors, then beginning the process of building Beecher a church as big as an opera house, one that would look like nothing else in the nation, complete with a maze of apartments and a billiard room where one could occasionally find one of the nation’s most recognizable preachers drinking beer with the nation’s most recognizable infidel.
The still youthful Mark Twain who came to Elmira in 1868 had argued across a series of burlesque tales, stand-up routines, and travelogues that mankind in general, and Americans in particular, were natural hypocrites, charlatans, and misers, and that those who dared to believe otherwise were doomed to continual poverty and despair. Then he met the Langdons and this airtight thesis got shot all to hell.
Young Twain believed that all his countrymen had been converted to the “Revised Catechism” of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould: “Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.” But, as Twain put it, “Mr. Langdon was a man whose character and nature were made up exclusively of excellencies,” who could easily have gone “to Wall Street to become a Jay Gould and slaughter the innocents,” but instead endowed schools for girls, bought farms for fugitive slaves, and emboldened both his children and the people in his employ to test their most far-fetched idealisms on his dime. This confused Mark Twain.
Out of his confusion emerged the Quarry Farm Style, with its children who are not innocent, its cynics who are not hopeless, its free-thinking slaves and scientific magicians and heroes who decide to go to hell. It is a style which never lets you lose sight of your romantic idols, though whenever you reach for them it suffocates you under piles upon piles of corpses. So many corpses.
Those “Up-State” towns…
The Dickens reception in 1905 was hosted by Clara Spaulding Stanchfield, dressed as Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield. Clara was Livy Clemens’s lifelong friend and fellow Elmira College alumna, after whom she named her second daughter. Clara’s husband, John B. Stanchfield, came as Mr. Dombey. He could call himself “Mark Twain’s lawyer” and only be mildly stretching the truth. The world-famous author retained counsel on a wide variety of matters in numerous jurisdictions, but he had been regularly consulting Stanchfield, both officially and unofficially, for decades, and their friendship reached back even further. Before the Stanchfields married, John and Sam had frequented the same billiard parlors, both using aliases. It is, indeed, reasonable to suspect that Sam may have played some role in matchmaking his amiable drinking buddy with his wife’s best friend.
John rose rapidly in the ensuing years. He became a partner in the firm which is now Sayles & Evans, was a Democratic candidate for both Senator and Governor, and tried a series of prominent cases. He was also one of several Elmirans who aided the Clemenses during their time of greatest need, when Twain’s publishing house was plunged into bankruptcy following the Panic of 1893. With much of the nation descending into a credit crisis, the most affluent families in Elmira offered free consulting, low-interest loans, and other aid to their neighbors.
The young woman dressed as Ada Clare from Bleak House, another Elmira College graduate, suffragette, and member of the American Association of University Women, belonged to a family that purchased what they knew were likely worthless shares in the Paige Typesetter, thus helping increase the Clemens liquidity during a period of desperation: a charity made all the more charitable because it protected Sam and Livy’s pride by pretending it was not simply charity.
This generation of Elmira women – Ida Langdon, Dorothy Mather, Flora Shoemaker, and Ruth Pickering among them – would be remarkably successful in promoting women’s rights both within the city and region, and throughout the nation. While all were devoted activists, their ringleader was clearly Crystal Eastman, who by this time had already discovered her talent for political organizing by leading a protest against rules requiring women wear skirts and stockings while swimming. Within a decade Crystal would become one of the most prominent and effective advocates for women’s suffrage, and this was hardly her most revolutionary position. Looking back upon the community in which she was raised, she wrote, “In this environment I grew up confidently expecting to have a profession and earn my own living, and also confidently expecting to be married and have children.”
Crystal’s younger brother, Max Eastman, who would graduate from Williams College later in 1905, was not as cripplingly shy as he had been a few years earlier, but still struggled to converse with his sister’s outgoing friends, several for whom he would harbor lifelong crushes. It was hard to imagine that this skinny young man would, in ten years time, be one of the most controversial political voices in the country, founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and editor of censored antiwar publications.
Max and Crystal would live for much of the teens and twenties in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Max would make an extended visit to the Soviet Union to study with Leon Trotsky, and yet, he would always characterize Elmira as the most radical community in which he had ever lived. Many years later, in an essay titled “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” he would chastise a famous literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, who ignorantly described Elmira as one of “those ‘up-State’ towns…without the traditions of moral freedom and intellectual culture.” Eastman argued convincingly that the “social and political attitudes” which prevailed in Elmira “were far more radical than Mark Twain was when he arrived here.” Mark Twain and Elmira worked upon one another in “general rebellion” such that by the time Max came of age in the 1890s, he found himself “in the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced or found room to contain.”
Adolescent Max met Mark Twain during the installation of an organ at Park Church. Max and Crystal’s mother, Annis Ford Eastman, who disguised herself as Mrs. Blimber from Dombey & Son for the Dickens gala in 1905,was the first women ordained in the state of New York. Beecher called her the best preacher he’d ever heard and, befitting both Beecher’s rebellious nature and Elmira’s emerging feminist culture, he chose her as his successor at the vaunted Park Church. His friend Mark Twain must have shared his high estimation of her character and talents, directing that she should handle his funeral rites.
Like Beecher, Annis Eastman’s unconventional approach to the pastorate went far beyond the happenstance of her gender. Max fondly remembers his mother reading the risqué Calamus poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud to her friend Julia Beecher and setting the hymn “Onward Christian Soldier” to the ragtime tune “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight,” The esteemed place of the Eastmans seems evidence enough that Elmira was not, as that literary critic had guessed, a “symbol…of all that vast and intricate system of privilege and convention.”
Max Eastman wrote of Twain, “My admiration for the man was and still is as firm and emotional as though he were the saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This from a man whose parents were both pastors and who lived much of his youth in the apartments within the Park Church. The “gospel” written in Elmira, Max claims, “was one of self-reliant revolt against forms and conventions,” and it was authored not only by Mark Twain, but by the Langdons, Clemenses, Beechers, Stanchfields, Shoemakers, and Eastmans, by the students and faculty of the first degree-granting college for women and the secondary and trade schools those students helped to charter, by the thousands of parishioners who attended the largest and most progressive non-denominational church in 19th-century America, by the members of the city’s flourishing women’s rights organizations, and by the stalwart station-masters of the Underground Railroad, who not only sheltered fugitive slaves but persuaded former slaves, like Mary Ann Cord, the beloved cook at Quarry Farm, to settle here. It is no wonder, with such collaborators, Twain was able, in that octagonal study overlooking it all, to give birth to the Quarry Farm Style from which, according to Ernest Hemingway, all modern literature descends.
Max and Crystal Eastman were both at Sam’s funeral in 1910, as were the Stanchfields, his only surviving daughter, Clara, his nieces, Ida and Julia, and the brother-in-law, Charley, who first brought Sam Clemens into the circle of Elmira 43 years earlier. Mark Twain’s nephew, now 35 years of age, rode with the coffin from New York City, along the same rails which had taken his father to see Charles Dickens speak on New Years Eve in 1867, rails which had been laid when his grandfather was, at least according to Twain, the country’s only respectable railroad magnate.
Jervis Langdon Jr., born two days after the Dickens ball, would also, like his great-grandfather, become a successful railroad executive. He likewise inherited that radical generosity which mesmerized Sam Clemens and inspired him to pay yearly homage to his wife’s “household Gods.” On December 31st, 1982, 115 years to the day after Charles Dickens read to Charley and Olivia Langdon (and a dumbstruck and unappreciative Mark Twain), Jervis Jr. signed the agreement which bequeathed Quarry Farm to Elmira College and founded the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Perhaps, though he was just five years old at the time, Jervis Jr. remembered something of what Annis Eastman had written in her eulogy for Samuel Clemens:
We are not here at this time to speak of the great man whose going hence the whole world mourns, nor to claim for him that place in the halls of fame which time can give him. We are not here to try to estimate his worth to the world, the service he has rendered to civilization and the moral progress of mankind, nor yet to eulogize him for the integrity, justice and magnanimity of his character. There will be time enough for all this in the days to come and many a voice more competent than mine to set forth the lessons of his life.
Though I suspect none of us would dare to claim more competence than Annis Eastman, Jervis Jr. has bequeathed to us the task which she deferred. The mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, made possible by the gift of Quarry Farm, is to create that “time enough” to “set forth the lessons of Twain’s life.” And the scholars who reside here “estimate the worth to the world” not only of Mark Twain, but of the too often forgotten and misremembered Elmira which made Mark Twain possible.
There are many ways you can help sustain the mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. You can become a Friend of CMTS by making a donation here or learn more by emailing us at [email protected] As part of our celebration of sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira we are also launching a Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. If you or your organization would like to participate, please contact Director Joe Lemak (information provided in link).
On Wednesday, May 9 in The Barn at Quarry Farm at 7:00 p.m, Walter G. Ritchie, Jr. will present a lecture entitled, “High Style in Mid-Nineteenth Century Elmira: The Architecture & Interiors of the Jervis Langdon Mansion”
By the 1860s, Jervis Langdon, Mark Twain’s father-in-law, was ready to create a home that announced his status as one of Elmira’s most successful and influential businessmen. After purchasing a house built in the 1850s, he immediately arranged to have it enlarged and remodeled in the fashionable Italianate style. The result was an imposing three-story brownstone mansion that was counted among the largest and most elegant residences in the city. Langdon then commissioned Pottier & Stymus, one of the leading cabinetmaking and decorating firms in New York City, to decorate and furnish a number of the principal rooms on the first floor of the house. After her husband’s death in 1870, Olivia Lewis Langdon continued to patronize the firm, purchasing bedroom suites and other furniture. This lecture will explore the architecture, interiors, and furnishings of the Langdon mansion, sadly destroyed in the 1930s, but well documented by period photographs showing both the exterior and interior. Surviving pieces of furniture made by Pottier & Stymus, now preserved in various museum and university collections, will be discussed to illustrate how the Langdons, through the guidance of the firm, demonstrated their good taste and familiarity with the latest modes in household decoration and furnishing.
Walter G. Ritchie, Jr. is an independent decorative arts scholar and architectural historian specializing in nineteenth-century American architecture, interiors, and furniture. He has written, lectured, and taught courses on a variety of decorative arts subjects, in addition to having served as director and curator of a number of historic house museums. He is currently researching and writing a book on the history, furniture, and interior decoration of Pottier & Stymus.
For a PDF copy of the Spring 2018 Trouble Begins Lecture Schedule, click here. Visit the “Trouble Begins” Archives for a downloadable recording of all the 2018 Spring Trouble Begins Lectures and other past talks. You can also see past Trouble Begins programs and our quadrennial conference and symposia programs.
Wednesday, March 21 in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus 7 p.m.
“Mark Twain: Travelin’ Man” Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, media critic, and New York Times best selling author
Mark Twain’s prodigious travels around his region, then the nation, and then the world, have provided pleasure and scholarly thought for more than a century. Somewhat less appreciated has been the transformative effect his lifelong appetite for exploration (“move–move–Move!”, he wrote in a letter to his family–) produced upon American literature, the legitimacy of common vernacular, and even the nation’s final psychic break with Old Europe. Speaking (mostly) in sentences even shorter than the preceding, I will examine this divine compulsion that hastened America’s literary Declaration of Independence.
Ron Powers is a Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy Award-winning writer and critic. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Flags of Our Fathers (2000), a New York Times #1 bestseller. He has written extensively on Mark Twain and his literature, including a biography, Mark Twain: A Life (2005), also a New York Times bestseller. His current book, No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America (2017), has been named a finalist for the PEN/E.O Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. It has also been named “Notable Book of the Year” by the Washington Post and one of the Top Ten books of the year by People magazine.
Wednesday, May 9 in The Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.
“High Style in Mid-Nineteenth Century Elmira: The Architecture and Interiors of the Jervis Langdon Mansion” Walter G. Ritchie, Jr., Independent Scholar
By the 1860s, Jervis Langdon, Mark Twain’s father-in-law, was ready to create a home that announced his status as one of Elmira’s most successful and influential businessmen.After purchasing a house built in the 1850s, he immediately arranged to have it enlarged and remodeled in the fashionable Italianate style. The result was an imposing three-story brownstone mansion that was counted among the largest and most elegant residences in the city.Langdon then commissioned Pottier & Stymus, one of the leading cabinetmaking and decorating firms in New York City, to decorate and furnish a number of the principal rooms on the first floor of the house.After her husband’s death in 1870, Olivia Lewis Langdon continued to patronize the firm, purchasing bedroom suites and other furniture.This lecture will explore the architecture, interiors, and furnishings of the Langdon mansion, sadly destroyed in the 1930s, but well documented by period photographs showing both the exterior and interior.Surviving pieces of furniture made by Pottier & Stymus, now preserved in various museum and university collections, will be discussed to illustrate how the Langdons, through the guidance of the firm, demonstrated their good taste and familiarity with the latest modes in household decoration and furnishing.
Walter G. Ritchie, Jr. is an independent decorative arts scholar and architectural historian specializing in nineteenth-century American architecture, interiors, and furniture.He has written, lectured, and taught courses on a variety of decorative arts subjects, in addition to having served as director and curator of a number of historic house museums.He is currently researching and writing a book on the history, furniture, and interior decoration of Pottier & Stymus.
Wednesday, May 16 in The Barn at Quarry Farm 7 p.m.
“Raising the Bar: Satirizing Law in Puddn’head Wilson and The Sellout” Rebecca Nisetich, University of Southern Maine
This lecture explores how American writers use satire to expose the ways that “race” operates in our political institutions, social practices, and cultural discourses. In Puddn’head Wilson, Twain shows what happens when legal discourse is taken to its logical extreme. Contemporary novelist Paul Beatty similarly satirizes America’s racial structure and—like Twain—he takes aim at the legal system that support it. Twain’s novel is produced in the legal wrangling leading up to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision; Beatty’s novel responds to the present-day nadir of African American jurisprudence: the 2013 Supreme Court ruling which overturned critical aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the effect of the subprime lending crisis on African American homeowners, and the spate of “Not Guilty” verdicts in the deaths of African American men. As Twain, Beatty, and others demonstrate, we cannot escape these fundamentally racist legal and social structures until we have created other viable options. As racial satirist Patrice Evans writes, “When we laugh…we are making light, but [we are] also setting the groundwork for raising the bar.” For these American writers, satire becomes a powerful means for undermining racist narratives.
Rebecca Nisetich directs the Honors Program at the University of Southern Maine, where she teaches inter-disciplinary courses on race and identity in the U.S. Her manuscript, Contested Identities, explores characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, or knowable. The project underscores indeterminacy—as opposed to ambiguity or “mixture”—as enabling writers to undermine the “one-drop” conceptions of race that dominated the discourse on race in early twentieth century America. Her essays have appeared in African American Review, Studies in American Naturalism, and elsewhere.
Wednesday, May 23 in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus 7 p.m.
“An American Cannibal at Home: Comic Diplomacy in Mark Twain’s Hawai’i” Todd Nathan Thompson, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
During and after his 1866 visit to Hawai’i, Mark Twain wrote about the place, its people, and their relationship to the United States in several different genres: newspaper articles, first as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union (1866) and then for other papers, including the New York Herald; a popular lecture titled “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands” (1866-1873); two travelogues, Roughing It (1872) and A Tramp Abroad (1880), and an unfinished novel (1884). In my talk I will investigate the comic strategies he employs in these works—particularly self-effacement, satiric levelling, comic foils, physical comedy, and sarcastic irony—to show how Twain leveraged the ambivalence of social humor’s to stoke Americans’ interest in Hawai’i while simultaneously defending Hawaiians from “other”-ing stereotypes that—even as early as 1866—he saw as intimately tied to Americans’ imperialist urges.
Todd Nathan Thompson is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Assistant Chair of the English Department. He is author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). Thompson’s work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in Scholarly Editing, Early American Literature, ESQ, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Journal of American Culture, Studies in American Humor, Teaching American Literature, the Blackwell Companion to Poetic Genre, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a new book project entitled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the South Seas.
Wednesday, May 30 in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College Campus 7 p.m.
“’My penchant for silence’: Mark Twain’s Rhetorical Art of the Unspoken” Ben Click, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
There is no shortage of commentary on Twain’s penchant for talk, how he transliterated and employed it.He perfected the mock oral narrative, precisely rendered of frontier and river vernacular, created the stunning narrative method of Huck Finn’s voice, and crafted countless, repeatable maxims (Ironically, one being:“I talk until I have my audience cowed”).Yet, silence permeates the writings of Mark Twain–for example, there are over 150 references to silence in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alone!Examining its functions is an overlooked, yet integral, aspect of his writing for silence mediates and influences the discourses of his fictive and personal worlds. Rhetorical theorist Cheryl Glenn argues, “silence—the unspoken—is a rhetorical art that can be as powerful as the spoken or written word” (9).Twain too understood that power:“The unspoken word is capital.We can invest it or we can squander it.”Indeed, Twain crafted the full measure of that art on the page throughout his writing life.This talk examines representative (and powerful) rhetorical uses of silence in the arc of Twain’s fictive writing.
Ben Click is a Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Director of the Writing & Speaking Center, Director of the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor Culture, and the Associate Editor of The Mark Twain Annual.With Larry Howe and Jim Caron, he published Refocusing Chaplin:A Screen Icon in Critical Contexts (Scarecrow, 2013). He has given numerous lectures and scholarly papers on Mark Twain, published articles and book chapters on the teaching of writing and writing assessment. He is also working on a book that examines humor as a rhetorical strategy in environmental writing, a genre that is sometimes seen as taking itself too seriously.
For a PDF copy of the Spring 2018 “Trouble Begins” flyer, click here.
About The Trouble Begins at Eight Lecture Series
In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight. The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985.
The lectures are now held annually in the fall and spring of each year. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the Barn at Quarry Farm or in Cowles Hall on the Elmira College campus in Elmira, NY. Each lecture is digitally recorded after the event and can be downloaded. This ever-growing digital archive can be found in the “Trouble Begins Archives” or by clicking here.
Mark Twain officially joined the Langdon family and became associated with its vast coal enterprises when he became engaged to Olivia on February 4, 1869. Three weeks later Twain found himself hanging out in New York City with his future father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, invited to sit in on the J. Langdon Coal Company annual meeting.
Although he described the experience in humorous terms, Twain was dazzled by his intimate view of naked capitalism. Twain listened to Jervis Langdon and his managers discuss ways to increase the coal company’s profit margin. Twain comically described the scene to Olivia. His letter began with a pun: “I could not get much of Mr. Langdon’s company (except his Coal company).” He then satirized the cutthroat nature of the big business world, referring to the attendees as “two or three suspicious looking pirates from other districts,” “that dissolute Mr. Frisbie from Elmira and a notorious character by the name of Slee, from Buffalo.” Twain’s fascination with inside business machinations seems evident, as he confessed to Olivia: “The subject of coal is very thrilling. I listened to it for an hour—till my blood curdled in my veins.”
The Langdon coal business was well underway by the time Twain tagged along. But its history is yet to be fully written. Here is a truncated version.
Jervis Langdon came to Elmira in 1845 and decided to specialize in Pennsylvania coal: hard coal, or stone coal, also known as anthracite, which was clean and smokeless, the preferred fuel in American cities. Most of the early Langdon Company collieries (the technical term for mines and their associated processing facilities) were in the Shamokin district of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal belt, located along the Great Shamokin Path, an old Native American trail. The Shamokin coal region, in east central Pennsylvania was at first serviced by the Reading Railroad to ship coal to market. This rich coal area was situated conveniently less than 130 miles due south of Langdon’s Elmira headquarters. Jervis Langdon became one of the first coal dealers in the United States to engage in the mining, handling and forwarding of coal. An unfortunate legacy of J. Langdon’s presence in Shamokin is that to this day the area is still listed by the state of Pennsylvania as an asbestos exposure site.
In 1857 J. Langdon & Co. (known initially as Audenreied, Langdon & Co.) was one of just three coal dealers in Elmira. From 1860-1864 they operated as J. Langdon & Company in partnership with Samuel W. Branard as coal and iron dealers with an office at 44 Fifth Street at the corner of Hatch in Elmira.
By 1865 J. Langdon had severed ties with Branard and rented space at 6 Baldwin Street. In 1873, J. Langdon bought the building, and the address was renumbered as 110 Baldwin. That building was occupied by J. Langdon & Company or their later iteration, Chemung Coal Company, until it closed in November of 1946, at which time the Elmira Sunday Telegram described the office as “the quaintest place of business in Elmira, a Dickensian establishment that has the atmosphere of 19th century London, an office unchanged since the Langdons equipped it in 1873.”
The Elmira headquarters of J. Langdon at 110 Baldwin Street featured a well-appointed interior of black walnut trim, a fireplace, lovely walnut desks and chairs, and Langdon family portraits adorning the office walls. On the left side, there were additional desks, and dark woodwork framed a long, high counter that required three-foot stools for the clerks. To the right of the main office was an executive inner sanctum with a large round wooden table surrounded by grill-work. Toward the rear were bank-sized vaults. One wall was lined with six ornately carved customer service “cages.”
In 1861 Theodore W. Crane, who had married Jervis’s adopted daughter Susan, joined the company in Elmira as a partner. Also in 1861 Langdon formed the Anthracite Coal Association to market coal to Buffalo at less expense. It consisted of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Co.; the Pittston & Elmira Coal Company; and the J. Langdon Coal Company.
Despite J. Langdon’s overall success, there were risks and downturns that may have caused Twain to question his allegiance to the family business. During the summer of 1869 Buffalonians kept a wary eye on the increasing coal rates charged by the Anthracite Coal Association, which had reached an exorbitant $10.50 per ton. All three major newspapers – The Express, The Daily Courier, and The Commercial Advertiser – united in joint outrage at the monopoly’s stranglehold. The Express was the most stridently anti-monopoly. Amid this furor, Sam Clemens became a co-owner and managing editor of The Express. Within four days he engineered an abrupt editorial about-face.
Perhaps the story that motivated him to act was from the August 18thNiagara Falls Gazette. It harshly criticized the Anthracite Coal Association and Jervis Langdon: “The cause of the trouble was not a combination of companies, but a control of the avenues to Buffalo by Mr. Langdon of Elmira, so that the Queen City of the Lakes is under control of an inferior city on the banks of the Chemung. No one but Mr. Langdon can get coal over the roads to Elmira.” The story closes by pointing a finger at “the criminal rapacity of the forestaller of the market, Mr. Langdon.” Twain wasted no time in using his editorial bully pulpit to reverse The Express’s editorial coal monopoly stance and to shield Jervis Langdon. Two days after the Gazette ripped into Langdon’s iron hand on coal prices, Twain wrote an unsigned editorial, “The Monopoly Speaks,” and printed a letter by Slee, both pieces promoting the benevolent intentions of the Anthracite Coal Association.
Ten years later, in 1879, as J. Langdon was dissolving the Anthracite Coal Association, it was still publicly disputing charges of monopolism. This time the accusations were of collusion with the Northern Central Railroad to ensure high prices. Over the decades, J. Langdon managed to survive the taint of monopoly and other hazards – financial panics, mine flood, fires and explosions, railroad worker and miner strikes – that faced the disaster-prone coal industry.
In the summer of 1863 production halted for a few weeks due to the Confederate Army invasion of Pennsylvania. But by 1867, the demand for coal was surging, and J. Langdon purchased the lease of the Big Mountain colliery from the Bird Coal and Iron Co., made many improvements, and continued buying out competitors.
In 1870 J. Langdon & Company first handled coal by chutes in Buffalo with a trestle at their strategically located coal yard at the Lake Erie Basin. This key 210 ft. by 207 ft. waterfront property at the foot of Genesee Street, had a bordering slip that connected Buffalo’s Lake Erie harbor on its southside to the Erie Canal on its northside. The J. Langdon coal yard also boasted a spur of the New York Central Railroad with four sets of tracks, one with a switcher, running through it. For many years, J. Langdon brought an annual average of 200,000 tons of coal to Buffalo for delivery by canal or rail, or westward by freighter over the Great Lakes to Chicago and beyond.
Another J. Langdon corporate move in 1870 included opening the McIntyre Coal Company in the Lycoming County coal basin of northeastern Pennsylvania at Ralston, a few miles north of Williamsport. Coal mining had taken place there on a small scale, but J. Langdon was the first to open a major operation, built on a steep (45 degree angle), long (2,300 feet) inclined plane to transport the coal from the mine to the waiting railroad cars. For eight years, the McIntyre mine supplied 200,00 tons of coal per year for consumption as fuel coal in New York and Canada. Also in 1870, Langdon started a partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt to provide fuel coal for his New York Central Railroad steam locomotives.
On May 1, 1870, with Jervis Langdon gravely ill, the company was restructured into four partners: Jervis still as principal, his young son Charles “Charley” Jervis Langdon, his son-in-law Crane, and Slee. After Jervis Langdon died in August of 1870, the partnership was expanded to include his widow and his daughter Olivia.
After the McIntyre mine was exhausted and shut down, the J. Langdon mine and company town of 300 households, a church, store and school were abandoned. Soon thereafter, Charley Langdon, under J. Langdon, opened another coal mine 100 miles west at Clearfield, Pennsylvania, again with the Vanderbilts supplying rail shipment. Charley became president of the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Co. and it became the largest coal producer in western Pennsylvania, with 58 individual mines.
In 1885 J. Langdon reached its zenith with Charley Langdon when it incorporated. During its twenty years of incorporation, from 1885-1905, it put in the market over nearly 9 million tons of anthracite coal, and its sales reached $3 million per year. When J. Langdon & Co., Inc. dissolved on January 1, 1905, all of its assets were distributed to stockholders.
However, J. Langdon & Co. continued, in conjunction with Chemung Coal Co., at the 110 Baldwin office, with Charley as president, his son Jervis as vice president, W.L. Sampson as treasurer, and H.K. Fuhrman as secretary, until Charley retired around 1911. He had sold the invaluable Buffalo waterfront coal yard in 1910, one month after Twain died.
Under Jervis Langdon’s leadership, J. Langdon and Chemung Coal carried on, specializing in blue coal, limestone and wood. J. Langdon & Co. was listed in the Elmira City Directory for the last time in 1937, after which only the Chemung Coal Co., under Jervis and Eleanor Langdon, was entered at the 110 Baldwin address.
After a 73-year run there, Jervis Langdon moved what was left of the corporate offices in 1946 to the Realty Building in Elmira. All iterations of Chemung Coal Co. and J. Langdon & Co. seem to have ceased around 1952.
Two vital sources for this brief history are ““Jervis Langdon, Mark Twain’s Father-in-Law,” by Jervis Langdon, Jr. (unpublished and undated manuscript at the Chemung County Historical Society) and “Jervis Langdon: Christian Businessman” by Herbert A, Wisbey, Jr., a lecture delivered as part of CMTS’s Trouble Begins series at Quarry Farm (March 22, 1989). The latter lecture is streamable and downloadable from the [email protected] archives.
In marking the beginning of Black History Month the other day, President Donald Trump commended Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Quibbles over the President’s use of the present tense aside, most would agree that Douglass did in fact accomplish something amazing in escaping slavery to become a leading abolitionist and visionary social reformer/statesman during a turbulent time in our nation’s history, and whose powerful, soul-stirring eloquence still speaks to us today.
Because I live in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Douglass was born into slavery almost 200 years ago (and where a statue now honors him in front of the courthouse), I am probably a little more familiar with the life of this iconic figure than a lot of people. While the mountainous volumes written about Douglass (beginning with his three autobiographies) may seem daunting to anyone interested in learning more about his inspiring life, a quick insight into the man’s character can be found in the friendship he shared with Mark Twain.
Sean Kirst, in his article on using this friendship to place the racial complexities in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in context, succinctly summarized Douglass’ deep ties with Twain:
Twain’s eventual father-in-law, Jervis Langdon of Elmira, was a passionate abolitionist who played a major role in Douglass’ escape. Twain, raised in slaveholding Missouri, grew up immersed in the virulent racism of the world around him. Yet he was a thinking man, and…his attitudes changed as he traveled the nation. By 1869, as editor of a Buffalo newspaper, he was writing editorials that attacked a lynching in Tennessee.
At about the same time, Twain had his first chance to meet Douglass, a handshake that soon evolved into a friendship.
Despite their different backgrounds, the two men shared impressive literary and oratorical talents, and a mutual respect for the challenges of their craft. According to Kirst’s article, Douglass, a prolific author in in his own right, attended a reading of Huckleberry Finn in Washington, D.C.. Both were popular speakers who frequented the same circles on the lecture circuit, as this blurb from the Washington Post in 1879 indicates:
Mark Twain, Fred Douglass, and Mizzer Chandler are all on the bills for speeches in New York, and negotiations are pending with Carl Schurz to complete the quartette. There is nothing in Mark Twain’s humor more ludicrous than this combination. When these four innocents go abroad together, Mr. Evarts solemnly following in their wake, John Sherman bringing up the rear, and all supported by the moral power of the administration, it will be a spectacle not easily duplicated.
Twain thought quite highly of “Fred Douglass”, as demonstrated in the unsolicited letter he wrote to President-elect Garfield in 1881 asking that he reappoint Douglass to the office of Marshal of the District of Columbia:
A simple citizen may express a desire, with all propriety, in the matter of recommendation to office, and so I beg permission to hope that you will retain Mr. Douglass in his present office of Marshal of the District of Columbia, if such course will not class with your own preferences or with the expediencies and interests of your Administration. I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure and strong desire, because I so honor this man’s high and blemishless character, and so admire his brave, long crusade for the liberties and elevation of his race.
He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point; his history would move me to say these things without that, and I feel them, too.
Albert Bigelow Paine includes Douglass’ appreciative response in his Biography:
I think if a man is mean enough to want an office he ought to be noble enough to ask for it, and use all honorable means of getting it. I mean to ask, and I will use your letter as a part of my petition. It will put the President-elect in a good humor, in any case, and that is very important.
With great respect,
Although Garfield ended up appointing one of his friends to the post, he did make Douglass the recorder of deeds for D.C., a high-paying position at the time. Given his accomplishments and towering reputation, Douglass probably would have been nominated for the position without Twain’s recommendation. But the letter Twain wrote in support of his friend remains a fitting testament to why Douglass’ “high and blemishless character” so richly deserves to be recognized more and more as time goes by.
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.