Samuel Clemens spent almost the entirety of Secession Winter aboard the Alonzo Child, a steamboat traversing the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans. Reading Benjamin Griffin’s account of this period in Mark Twain’s Civil War (2019), I imagine the pilot feeling trapped inside his vessel, surviving for months in a state of vigilance interrupted by bouts of panic, noticing subtle changes to the traffic on the river and the behavior of port authorities, kept abreast of the unfolding crisis by news and rumor brought aboard just often enough to feed his fear and make those solitary nights in the pilothouse more unbearable.
Perhaps I’m projecting.
I woke up thinking about the Civil War. I wish I could say this was a side effect of self-quarantining, but it happens often enough under normal circumstances. Specifically, I was thinking about the longterm effects of mass carnage upon the survivors. Ever since reading Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering (2008), I have been persuaded these effects explain more than anything else why the Civil War remains the central event in U.S. history as it is narrated in schools, museums, and popular culture.
The intersectional conflict took more American lives than all other U.S. wars combined: a piece of trivia that fails to become mundane to me no matter how many times I’ve repeated it. No community was unaffected. Nearly everybody endured a grievous loss. If not of an immediate family member, a neighbor, a cousin, or a schoolmate. It’s easy to represent this is a classroom. Just have students look around. Somewhere between 1-in-3 and 1-in-4 men of military age were killed. How many empty seats is that?
How do I make this point in a remote learning environment? I don’t.
Faust argues that the federal government was permanently changed by mortality and mourning in the 1860s. Just to deal with the overwhelming numbers of dead, the U.S. had to painfully reimagine its infrastructure: healthcare, sanitation, veteran affairs, national cemeteries, social services. It was the initial, insufficient birth of an American welfare state.
For decades, as Twain occasionally satired, political leaders made a grand show of providing entitlements to the widows and orphans of first Union and then all Civil War veterans. Twain believed these packages were intended to cynically curry partisan favor in advance of elections. Another interpretation is that each wave of relief was always already not enough.
David Blight and Robert Penn Warren are among the many who make the case that the psychic toll of death on such a scale, though it dims with time, never really goes away. It is a permanent scar on our collective conscience.
There’s ongoing debate about the final fatality and casualty figures, but probably somewhere between 650,000 and 750,000 Americans died as a direct result of the Civil War. The population of the U.S. in 1860 was roughly 31 Million people.
So, at the extreme end, the mortality rate of the U.S. Civil War was about 2.4%.
How do we make sense of that number? Is it small?
Its consequences were not.
When the Civil War began, the crude mortality rate in the U.S. (an annual measure of death from all causes) was somewhere around 2.5-3.0%. As of 2017, the last year for which we have complete statistics, it is 0.8%. We are three times less likely to die than the average antebellum American. And three times less familiar with death. For how long?
This week the nation started negotiating the price for life. We got here rather quickly. In six weeks the Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped about 38%. On March 23rd we reached a symbolic point. For the first time the index which many, including the President himself, have used as a shorthand for macroeconomic vitality fell to where it was the week of the 2016 election.
A historic spike in unemployment will follow. On March 16th, one of the worst days in U.S. financial history, 50,000 people filed for unemployment…in Pennsylvania alone. A single day increase of 16% in that state, presumably preceded and followed by many more bad days. By the end of the week 3.3 Million (1% of the U.S. population) had filed for unemployment, almost five times the previous weekly high. We’re about to shatter every unemployment record in our history.
Those who preside over economic crises rarely get reelected. The Republicans were swept out of office in a wave in 2008. History is likely to repeat itself unless there are strong signs of recovery in the next seven months. That’s as tall order, and only minimal progress can be made towards their goal until the nation is released from quarantine. The President issued his party their marching orders, as usual, via Twitter.
The comical botching of an already tired cliche aside, this is not necessarily faulty reasoning. Among the unintended consequences of social distancing and self-quarantining will be additional deaths. Already gaping holes in our social safety net grow larger with each layoff and each overdrawn account, but also with each hospital filled to capacity and each implicit license to abuse both the homeless and the involuntarily homebound.
Every comparison of disease to cure, of public health to economic stability, is purely speculative. Economists have a famously inconsistent and inaccurate record of prognostication. They may have found their equals amongst epidemiologists. Two hastily-assembled papers have been circulating widely since Black Monday. One predicts that the upper bound for COVID-19 deaths in the United States is 2.2 million people. That would nearly double our crude mortality rate. There is no precedent for that kind of carnage. Not even the Civil War.
With such a wide range of expert opinions, it’s no surprise Trump feels free to pick whichever numbers suit him best, or make them up as he goes. As Twain says of the relative upon whom he based Colonel Sellers in The Gilded Age (1873), “A man who goes around with a prophecy-gun ought never to get discouraged: if he will keep up his heart and fire at everything he sees, he is bound to hit something by and by.”
Samuel Clemens came to know too well the difficulty and the danger of arbitraging health and wealth. He spent much of the 1890s separated from his wife and daughters, working tirelessly, past his 60th birthday, first to save his publishing company from the Panic of 1893, then to repay his creditors when Charles Webster & Co. went bankrupt, and finally to return his family to prosperity. He and Livy both developed health problems during this period which they would carry with them for the remainder of their lives and, most tragically, their eldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis, alone in Hartford, a grief from which they never really recovered.
Writing to his best friend Clemens chastises himself by conflating Susy’s life with the financial assets to which he had dedicated so much of his attention in the years before her death.
I did not know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know what she was. To me, she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weight it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to conprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefitted?
Samuel Clemens to Joseph Twichell, January 17, 1897
For me, these have become some of the most powerful lines in Twain’s entire corpus of writings, heavy with emotion and prophetic of the dehumanizing economization – the biopolitics, if you prefer – which grew increasingly socially acceptable over the course of the coming century.
Twain learned the hard way how futile it is to integrate life into economic rationality – into cost-benefit analysis – which, in his ambition as an entrepreneur and business-man, he became temporarily convinced was the only rationality.
He closes his letter with an aphorism which may be wiser than any of his many found in Bartlett’s or on Twitter:
“We pay as we can, in love; and in this coin practicing no economy.”
Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.
The grey-green Daffodil shoots still break the surface of the cold brown earth.
The birds still sing.
A dog still begs and plays and snores, waiting for the next chance.
A caretaker is, by nature, a social distancer
“Distance lends enchantment to the view,” said Mark Twain. I’m positive that he wasn’t referring to a pandemic when he thought about this concept but when I look at it through this lens it does, ever-so-slightly, relax the tight beating muscle in my chest. The same muscle that usually operates at a slightly below average pace is now beating like the handle of an espresso machine.
As if we all haven’t had enough. The burgeoning authoritarian oligarchy that is the America of late is so divisive that we are tempted to look at a pandemic as a political issue. If there is one thing that should bring us together (figuratively) — the silver lining, the lemonade — it’s that this is a human issue and a window to see how vulnerable and related and temporary we all are; it’s a chance to see how undeniably the same we are and drop the arbitrary borders that exist in the minds of the fearful.
Mark Twain once wrote in his notebook, “All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”
He could not have been more wrong and more right all in one sentence. Blinding ignorance and confidence — fueled by the American God, money — are, much as they were when Twain made his note, the foundation for political power. But the moment that the conversation turns to something absolutely human, our supposed leaders are exposed as completely impotent. Success is often as short lived as whimsical ideas and impulsive speech and whole lives spent seeking wealth and power are just nanoseconds of human history — distance lends enchantment to the view.
The birds still sing.
Blame, of course, is the knee-jerk reaction of the inflated child — it was definitely someone else’s fault; apparently now it’s China’s turn. Pride is the dying engines of the plane spiraling towards the earth, confidence allows the spiraler to declare that he is uncrashable and ignorancebelievesthat gravity only applies to all the other poor suckers out there.
But gravity is setting in. Like finding a stranger in your arms when the infatuation wears off. One who only cares how a tragedy makes himself appear is incapable of empathy. The country is waking up to the nightmare. The money is gone, a lack of leadership is frightening and we want to feel better and at the same time know the challenges we’re about to face. We want to brace ourselves with a foundation of wisdom.
I do see the irony in speaking about blame while seemingly blaming someone for this unfortunate situation. I am not blaming the President for a pandemic. I’m just noticing the looks on the faces of many who were infatuated with him as they come to, feeling the shame of a poor choice like a hung-over morning, coming to terms with being duped.
It’s okay. We can all understand the excitement of going for the wildcard. But it didn’t work out. There is no time for judgment. Our problems are bigger than this and we must move on. As a community we have to put distance between us and the noise of a corrupt and deliberately confusing administration. When heat is applied the real leaders tend to bubble to the surface while the vapid clowns are released like gas.
As we seek direction with this global, human problem lets listen to the people who have spent their whole lives researching these topics like scientists and doctors. Let’s take a deep breath and be thoughtful. Let’s not watch the movie Contagion — holy sh*t that freaked me out! And let’s elevate ourselves somewhere up in the sky like birds that still sing because distance lends enchantment to the view.
I am not trying to imply that I know anything. In reality this is an exercise in self-reassurance and hope that even though our physical distance is required our connection as human beings, existing on a living planet, is stronger now than ever.
Today I will go out into nature. I will play basketball with my son. I will pull in deep, thoughtful breaths of the early spring air. All because the grey-green daffodil shoots still break the surface of the cold brown earth, the birds still sing and a caretaker is, by nature, a hopeful distancer.
In 2008 I began my PhD program shortly after I had broken my second metatarsal on a run with former students. At the time, antebellum writers of the gothic and sensational occupied my imagination in the darkness of my newly sedentary life. I read the novels of George Lippard, George Thompson, and John Rollin Ridge and the journalism within The Hangman and the National Police Gazette. One day, as I searched for crime narratives set in the American West, I came across The Sagebrush Anthology, edited by Lawrence Berkove. This collection contained hoaxes written by Mark Twain, which had been published in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in the early 1860s. I had not read much early Twain, for I mostly spent time with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, Hank Morgan or Pudd’nhead Wilson. But, as I researched and read, I noticed that Twain’s periodical writing read more like antebellum sensational writers than like the Twain I had read in school, or his writing I usually taught.
Now I began to catch up, though I could not run, and I emailed Larry Berkove. To my surprise, he responded. We corresponded several times, and I read all that he recommended. Still, I could not shed those gothic writers from eastern cities. I discovered many relationships between eastern metropolitan writers and western writers in mining towns, so I focused on these similarities in my research: narratives or journalism that criticized society, assessed gender norms, reported on or created scenes of crime and punishment, and employed violent discourse. Twain’s journalism and letters had it all. Even humor. I decided, however, mostly to avoid his humor and instead welcome the bullets and ropes, blood and bruises. Besides, I found out, James Caron had written the best book about Twain’s humor and western journalism, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, that same year.
So I focused on the violence. My essential question has kept me interested all these years: What and how did Twain write about crime and punishment during his time in the West and just after he left it? Though I was well into my research by 2011, one answer came during the first Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri, that summer. Robert Hirst gave the keynote address, and as he discussed various letters and notes penned by Twain, Bob showed an envelope that contained Twain’s handwritten, but not mailed, response to Henry Bovee, a senator who had campaigned against capital punishment. After his address, I chatted with Bob about the note and asked him if any other such letters or envelopes existed in the Mark Twain Papers. The next year I visited the Papers in Berkeley, and within a box of unpublished materials in Bob’s office sat another envelope, with another response that Twain did not send to Henry Bovee. Images of both envelopes appear in my book, thanks to Bob Hirst.
During that exploration in the Papers I read various newspaper articles, bits, pieces, and columns that offered Twain’s specific, complicated, sometimes fluid views on western violence, including legal and extralegal punishment. He also wrote much about guns, but not in ways that would please either of our current political parties. He wrote about gender in ways that would not necessarily satisfy today’s men or women, whether traditionally or fluidly gendered. And he wrote about violence in ways that might disgust and excite his readers, for violence disgusted and excited him. These contradictions interested me. And though I can now run again, I cannot escape these contradictions, and the darkness and danger lurking in cities or mining towns that Mark Twain’s writing illuminated.
Dr. Jarrod Roark is a teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy (Kansas City, MO) and is Executive Coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle.Dr. Roark presented the following paper at the Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies:
There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms has increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.
Mark Twain is a favorite source of political cynicism, and justifiably so. With alleged “irregularities” in recent Democratic primaries and renewed concern about potential foreign interference in the 2020 election cycle, the following apocryphal aphorism has again been making the rounds.
QuoteFancy offers nineteen variations of the above meme for users to post to their pages and accounts, all claiming Twain as the source.
The use of this quote surges during election season. Iterations of it were tweeted well over a hundred times in the week following the Iowa caucus, most often crediting Mark Twain. And while proper attribution predictably eludes the usual cast of partisan pundits, motivational speakers, and other social media influencers, it has also eluded sources one might expect to know better. The following tweet appeared on Election Day 2016:
Twain was not cynical about elections because he believed they couldn’t make a difference, but because he believed his countrymen failed to appreciate the difference they could make.
Troublingly, versions of Twain’s most famous defense of enfranchisement have appeared only 22 times in the history of Twitter. His apocryphal degradation of voting often gets retweeted that many times in a single day.
Several fact-checking services have already debunked the attribution to Twain, notably Snopes and the Australian Associated Press (with impeccable sourcing, by the way). So I will move quickly to the more difficult questions. Where did this aphorism actually come from? How did it get wrongly attributed to Twain? And why is the misattribution so pervasive?
The Twain attribution, as usual, appears to be a product of the social media era. While the aphorism itself circulated widely during the late 20th century, I found no instance of it being associated with Twain prior to this relatively innocuous tweet on Election Day 2008:
The misattribution resurfaced only two dozen times over the next eleven months, rarely retweeted, until an unlikely trio of accounts started recycling it daily in October of 2009: a self-described “radical right-wing super villain,” “a mild-mannered…crossword puzzler;” and a “tenor singer.”
Commitment to this type of repetitive barrage has proven a reliable way of amplifying misinformation on Twitter. It is one way accounts with relatively small followings can have outsized influence. The aphorism spread more widely in 2010, picked up by users with increasingly large followings, though no verified user took the bait until 2012:
It has since become a staple on Twitter, recycled ceaselessly, and sometimes by accounts with several million followers.
So, if Twitter was the vehicle for misattributing the quote to Mark Twain, where did it actually originate? One presumed source, not quite as popular as Twain, is Emma Goldman.
But it turns out the attribution to Goldman is just as specious. Like Twain, she died many decades before any version of this aphorism was attributed to her and it is not present in her many published writings and recorded speeches. That said, Goldman’s anarchist politics do seem to conform with later invocations of the quote.
Charles Umney, in his Class Matters (2018), calls it “an old anarchist slogan, frequently found as lamp-post graffiti in university cities.” Umney’s claim is corroborated by several sources. Journalists Harry Goldman, Matt Ridley, and Patrick Traub all reported seeing the slogan tagged on bridges, buildings, and other graffiti sites in Boston, Indianapolis, New York, and Washington D.C. from 1988 and 1992.
The slogan seems likely to have originated in 1960s activism. Two stories in the Reno Gazette-Journal, separated by a decade, report that it was a “typical motto” of the broadcaster and gonzo journalist, Travus T. Hipp. The revised edition of And I Quote (2003) attributes it to Bob Avakian. And in a 2008 interview with The Nation, Father Daniel Berrigan gives the sources as his brother, Father Phillip Berrigan.
Hipp (born Chandler Laughlin III) and Avakian belonged to the same generation of Berkeley radicals, active in socialist, anti-war, and Civil Rights protests throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Hipp continued to appear on California’s KPIG station, critiquing mainstream media and politics, until his death in 2012. In 1979 Avakian became Chairman of the US Revolutionary Communist Party, and so he remains.
Certainly, Avakian’s published work, like Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (1984), confirms his distaste for electoral politics. But I have not be able to find either Hipp or Avakian using the disputed aphorism in their accessible writings. While there are large repositories of their work – for instance, Hipp’s broadcast back to 2005 in Internet Archive – they also produced a lot of work that evades traditional historical records. Both were active pamphleteers and spontaneous speechmakers. It’s very possible that either or both were part of the popularization and circulation of the slogan in activist communities, further explaining its popularity as a tag decades later.
Father Berrigan was also a prominent antiwar protester in the ’60s and ’70s, associated with multiple plots to disrupt the Vietnam draft. He was, most famously, arrested alongside his brother as part of the so-called Cantonville Nine, who succeeded in stealing and publicly destroying Maryland Draft Board records in 1968. After their case was argued before the Supreme Court, the Berrigan Brothers served three years in federal prison.
By the mid-’80s, the sentiment was ingrained enough in the British Labour Party, than Ken Livingstone gave the book associated with his first campaign for Parliament the ironic title, If Voting Made A Difference, They’d Abolish It (1987).
These attributions, though conflicting and inconclusive, do make a compelling connection between the aphorism and socialist sloganeering operations of the mid 20th century. Within these activist communities, messaging was often collaborative, decentralized, and privileged anonymity. It would not be surprising if a motto coined in Berkeley in the 1960s remained unverifiable.
There has clearly been a resurgence in usage over the last decade, during the same period that the attribution to Twain has become commonplace. This is yet another example of how Twain somehow remains a desirable object of political ventriloquism. This aphorism and its misattribution is as likely to be appropriated by individuals and institutions espousing libertarianism or fascism as by those supporting anarchism or communism. Yet somehow these diverse radicalisms all want to associate their politics with Mark Twain. Why?
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.
Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.
There are big flakes flying and school is called off. My car is safely in the barn and there’s a small monkey bouncing around the living room downstairs. I’m not sure how one person can make that much noise but since I make none at all I can only assume he’s noising for the both of us. What an absolute joy.
The small stretch of Crane Road where Quarry Farm is perched will be the last road in the hemisphere to be plowed. And since it’s only 9 AM, and the storm is projected to go on until 9 PM, I will be here accumulating record amounts paternal rapture until sometime in early April or maybe until the actual Rapture — if you believe in that kind of thing. As tired as a snowplow in February might be, it doesn’t seem absolutely insane that it’ll be coming, eventually. I have faith.
Fiction can be a wonderful thing. What fun would it be to use satellite data for predicting the weather when you can use a groundhog? How could we trick our children into being good without Santa Clause? And how could I follow my dream of being creepy and working from home without Huck Finn? There are so many ways that fiction makes our life better. I suppose the only downfall to fiction is when people take it all too literally.
Like that time I told a scholar that the house was haunted — because it’s more fun that way — and she took me so seriously that she stood frozen in the kitchen for two hours, eyes darting around following every little sound that the old farm makes, petrified by the creaky, boomy, howling vocabulary that the 150 year-old house naturally acquires without any supernatural help.
She was lucky that I happened to pop over to tell her where the recycling bins were. I realized she was terrified and reassured her that I was kidding about the ghosts. It’s a good thing too or she might’ve spent her whole residency frozen in the kitchen completely unable to do her work…or recycle.
Another time I was showing a new scholar around the house. He made the highly original joke: “Is that Mark Twain’s microwave?” Then he took my fictional laugh as a genuine laugh and made me follow him around the house and take pictures of him as he pointed at every modern object and howled with laughter, “Mark Twain’s printer” and “Mark Twain’s couch” and “Mark Twain’s toaster” and so on, and on, and on. With the joy of a toddler squeezing everything he could from the tired joke. The poor thing dripped from between his fingers like a dead banana. I showed him where we kept the trash bins. His recycling had become problematic.
Sometimes fiction can blend in with life in ways that’ll trick even the skeptics. One night I was reading The Call of The Wild to my noisy monkey before bed. We were somewhere in the great blue north, full moon reflecting on the endless white expanses, with a dog that was feeling a mysterious pull out away from camp and into the dark magic night. He could hear the wolves howling and felt a need to be among the pack. Just then a pack of coyotes must’ve made a kill right outside the house because they started howling and barking and cackling in stereo all around us like a living soundtrack to the story.
My pulse quickened and I began to read faster and feel the words as repeated shots of adrenalin. The little nightlight cast my animated shadow across the ceiling as the ravenous coyotes devoured their prey. I was worried for the boy as to what kind of sleep he would get, if any, in the midst of this immersive experience. Hell, I was worried about myself. I almost couldn’t read anymore. Then the little nightlight went dark without explanation and the coyotes howled as the book fell to the ground and I clutched the bedframe to lean in to check on my son only to realize he was softly snoring. He’d missed the whole thing. I sat frozen for a while, with my eyes darting around, following every little sound that the old farm made.
The Earth has turned and it’s 4 PM. The snow is high enough to make the dog appear that she has no legs. We’ve had our sledding and our hot cocoa and our lunch. The boy has taken all my threats and noise ordinances as fiction. The branches of the black winter trees are lined with a thick white coat that blinded me in the forty seconds when the sky went blue and the afternoon smirked, eyes shining, at the impermanence. The full moon is due later and I hope it’s clear enough to light the endless white expanses. I hope people find their way. I hope small children tire themselves out and dream. And I hope stories can offer meaning without demanding to be true.
Throughout his life, Mark Twain had what his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine called a “natural leaning toward ministers of the Gospel.” While acknowledging that Twain was “hopelessly unorthodox” and “rankly rebellious as to creeds,” Paine noted that “something in his heart always warmed toward any laborer in the vineyard.”
From his days roughing it out West to his final years in Connecticut, Twain would befriend many ministers. However, it might be something of a stretch to say that he “warmed toward any” member of the clergy. Most of his clerical friends labored on the religiously liberal side of the theological vineyard. In fact, Twain had little patience for ponderously dogmatic men of the cloth preaching from what he dismissed as the “drowsy pulpit.”
This would account for his long friendship with the Reverend Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, born today (February 10) in 1824. Far from dogmatic in his theology, Beecher occupied a pulpit that was anything but “drowsy”.
During his tenure as The Park Church’s minister in Elmira, Beecher was considered “one of the most radical preachers of the time,” according to Max Eastman, who literally grew up in Park Church. Eastman’s parents were both ordained ministers who served as Beecher’s assistants there (his mother Annis, in fact, was one of the first women to be ordained in America). (For more on the Eastmans, Beecher, and the Park Church culture of Elmira, check out the recent “Gospel of Revolt” podcast episode produced by the Center for Mark Twain Studies.)
Although he would grow up to be an atheist, Eastman would still praise the independent-minded Beecher for having “no doctrine but the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.” (Quoted from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman [Harper’s Magazine, 1938]; also available in Mark Twain in Elmira)
A protégé of the controversial Hartford divine Horace Bushnell, Beecher possessed the same “rich fertility and bold novelties of thought and in the subtle penetration of his aesthetic imagination” as his mentor. (Quote from Thomas K. Beecher: Teacher of the Park Church at Elmira, New York, 1854-1900) Eastman would credit these enlightened qualities with making the progressive Park Church a hub for “the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced…they happened, moreover, to be the same people and ideas that Mark Twain had absorbed into himself by marriage.”
Years before Twain would meet Beecher, however, his reputation as a complex and paradoxical minister extended back to before the Civil War. According to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,
From a young age, Thomas Beecher had shown a disinterest in the ministry and an aptitude for natural sciences and education…Up to the beginning of the Civil War he opposed abolition as too radical. He disagreed with the woman’s rights movement that his sister Isabella and brother Henry supported. These views led to his dismissal (from New England Church in Williamsburg, NY), and he accepted a call from the Independent Congregational Church in Elmira, NY in 1853…Despite Thomas’ anti-abolition stance there is evidence he participated in the Underground Railroad.
After the Civil War broke out, Beecher would remain conflicted about his ministerial purpose and the relevance of organized religion on the battlefield while serving as a chaplain in the Union army. He reflected in a letter from December 1862:
Even while enjoying the most advantageous social position in my regiment of any chaplain whom I have ever heard of, I am clearly persuaded that, as a chaplain, I am quite useless. Were it not that there has been a world of other work, I should long since have relieved the regiment of my presence—and the treasury of my support.
And now as to religious reading and other literature furnished by the million pages for distribution, I have a word or two. The paper, pictures, type and plentifulness are beyond praise. But the contents are often times ridiculously unapt and worthless among soldiers.
Beecher would recover a sense of pastoral purpose upon returning to Elmira and volunteering to minister to captured confederates held in the prisoner of war camp there. Not only was he the first minister among local clergy to lead a worship service for the POWs—his sermon was apparently considered “practical, sensible, and liberal”—but his subsequent sermons would also become the most popular among the prisoners. (Quoted from “History of the Park Church”)
After the war, as Twain was courting Olivia, Beecher provoked controversy among members of Elmira’s Ministerial Association by holding popular Sunday evening worship services in the town’s opera house. Twain drew from scripture to pen a biting defense of the unorthodox minister (who, like Jesus, had run afoul of the religious establishment). Writing under the pseudonym S’Cat in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, Twain noted that Beecher “finds himself in the novel position of being responsible to God for his acts, instead of to the Ministerial Union of Elmira.” Twain continued with a sharp, sarcastic edge,
[Rev. Beecher] felt warranted in this course by a passage of Scripture which says: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature.” Opera Houses were not ruled out specifically in this passage, and so he considered it proper to regard Opera Houses as a part of “all the world.” He looked upon the people who assembled there as coming under the head of “every creature.” … His great mistake was in supposing that when he had the Savior’s endorsement of his conduct, he had all that was necessary.
A few years later, as plans for constructing the new Park Church were underway, Twain would equate Beecher’s “peculiar” ministerial style with the very essence of the church’s “fresh and original” design. In an article published in the New York Times from 1871, Twain observed:
If Rev. Mr. Smith, or Rev. Mr. Jones, or Rev. Mr. Brown, were about to build a new church edifice, it would be projected on the same old pattern, and be like pretty much all the other churches in the country, and so I would naturally mention it as a new Presbyterian Church, or a new Methodist Church, or a new Baptist Church, and never think of calling it by the pastor’s name; but when a Beecher projects a church, that edifice is necessarily going to be something fresh and original. It is not going to be like any other church in the world; it is going to be as variegated, eccentric and marked with as peculiar and striking an individuality as a Beecher himself; it is going to have a deal more Beecher in it than any one narrow creed can fit in it…
From such sentiments, it’s apparent that Twain, who once had an ambition to be a preacher of the Gospel, felt a religious kinship with what Paine called Beecher’s “doubtful theology.” However, where Beecher would ultimately find solace in his unconventional Christian faith, Twain would continue his quest for, as Ron Powers put it, “a new faith system to fill the void.”
In an autobiographical dictation from 1907, Mark Twain reflected on this difference while still fondly recalling his good friend Thomas Beecher as “one of the best men I have ever known”:
I knew Reverend Thomas K. Beecher intimately for a good many years…He was deeply versed in the sciences, and his pulpit eloquence fell but little short of that of his great brother, Henry Ward. His was a keen intellect, and he was brilliant in conversation, and always interesting—except when his topic was theology. He had no theology of his own, any more than any other person; he had an abundance of it, but he got it all at second-hand. He would have been afraid to examine his subject with his own fine mind lest doubts should result, and unsettle him. He was a very frank, straightforward man, and he told me once, in the plainest terms, that when he came on from Connecticut to assume the pastorship of that Elmira church he was a strenuous and decided unbeliever. It astonished me. But he followed it with a statement which astonished me more; he said that with his bringing up he was aware that he could never be happy, or at peace, and free from terrors, until he should become a believer, and that he had accepted that pastorate without any pangs of conscience for the reason that he had made up his mind to compel himself to become a believer, let the cost be what it might. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it. He also said that within a twelvemonth or two he perfectly succeeded in his extraordinary enterprise, and that thenceforth he was as complete and as thorough a believer as any Christian that had ever lived. He was one of the best men I have ever known.
Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project.
Mark Twain’s America, Then and Now. By Laura DeMarco. Pavilion Books, 2019. Pp. 144. Hardcover $22.50. ISBN-13: 978-1-911641-07-0.
Can anyone honestly say they have stood for a moment at a historic site and not imagined the past coming alive? This blending of time and place, past with the present, may be a uniquely human strength, or perhaps a childish weakness. But it is human, and few of us could stand below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and not hear the echo of Martin Luther King’s immortal aspiration, or walk in the pastoral greenery of Gettysburg and not think the quietude ironic, or stand in any Nazi death camp and not be stricken with anger and grief.
Shakespeare said the past is prologue; Faulkner said the past is not only not dead–that it’s not even past; and, Mark Twain wrote in one of his letters that the one thing we must remember about the past is that we can’t restore it. But none of this wisdom ever discouraged a Twainian, and when a Twainian finds himself in a place where Twain once breathed the air, time and place begin to blur and the present recedes as the tidal past rolls in.
Twainians are not alone: This has long been true for all readers who find themselves at literary shrines, as evidenced by the dozens of books about such shrines that have found eager buyers for more than a century, beginning with several during Twain’s lifetime, including Charles F. Briggs’s Homes of American Authors (1853), J. L. and Joseph Gilder’s Authors at Home (1888), and Theodore Wolfe’s Literary Shrines: Some Haunts of Famous American Authors (1895), Literary Homes and Haunts (1899), and Literary Rambles at Home and Abroad (1901). Twain’s homes were included in the Gilder and Wolfe volumes, and the Langdon family library included a copy of the Briggs book that may have caught Twain’s eye.
The literature about literary shrines grew during the twentieth century, and a glance through the bibliographies and indices of more recent books like Ehrlich and Carruth’s The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States (1982), John Eastman’s Who Lived Where (1983), Geri and Eben Bass’s U. S. Guide to Literary Landmarks (1984), Irvin Haas’s Historic Homes of American Authors (1991), and Francesca Premoli-Droulers’s Writers’ Houses (1995), gives a hint of the extensive literature on the subject.
Twain is included in virtually every such guide, with the focus nearly always on his grand Hartford home or his humble boyhood home in Hannibal. The other places where he lived are sometimes mentioned, but the places where significant events in his life took place are usually ignored or overlooked. Hilary Irish Lowe’s candid assessment of Twain’s major homes, Mark Twain’s Homes and Literary Tourism (2012), was a welcome and much-needed addition to this literature, focusing on Florida and Hannibal, Missouri, Hartford, and Quarry Farm. Steve Courtney’s “The Loveliest Home That Ever Was”: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford (2011) is a model for such guides focusing on a single location.
The newest addition to this shelf is Laura DeMarco with Mark Twain’s America, Then and Now, a delightful travelogue of Twain’s American meanderings. Sixty-eight places are pictorially documented, then and now, with nearly 200 old and new images, drawings, and photographs, many in color. As the title of this book makes clear, this tour of Twain’s haunts and homes is American, and no attempt is made to capture every single spot of ground where Twain spent his time. There are a few minor omissions–the home of the Gilders were Twain stayed after his wife’s death, the home of Laurence Hutton where he spent time with some fellow authors, or the homes of friends like Henry Rogers or William Dean Howells where his visits were usually brief. Some Twainians might wish that the Hooker home where Twain and Livy stayed in Hartford while their mansion was being built (and where their son Langdon died) could have been included; it still stands, subdivided into apartments, just a short stroll down the street from the Hartford Memorial. Also not included, but still standing, is Orion’s home in Carson City, Nevada (it’s now a law office). Orion’s last home in Keokuk, where Jane Clemens lived out her last years, also still stands. Other places that were not included have changed completely, like the grassy street corner in Keokuk where the Ivins House survived until the 1950s when it was razed to make room for nearby public housing; Twain gave his first public speech to a group of printers there. Also omitted is the block where the magnificent Lick House hotel stood in San Francisco before it was levelled in the 1906 earthquake, where Twain sometimes stayed, and once hosted a dinner. But the Occidental Hotel, where he also stayed, is included. It too was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake, but not before its bar was credited with being the place where the martini was created…
EDITOR’s NOTE: August of 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We are celebrating the sesquicentennial with a series of short essays by scholars who have done extensive research and writing about the travel book and the voyage it describes.
This essay relates how I began my deep study of The Innocents Abroad. This is a bit of a convoluted tale, so I hope readers will be patient.
In April 1986 I participated in a debate sponsored by a college in southern California on how to achieve Israeli Palestinian peace. I was on this panel because I was an outspoken Jewish American critic of Israel’s policies and of Zionism as an ideology. I had written a book of poems and sketches exploring Jewish American experience outside of the typical Zionist framework, engaging in histories of Jews, Native Americans, and Palestinians. Published in 1980, This Passover or the Next I Will Never be in Jerusalem received the American Book Award. As a consequence of writing this book, I was invited to Beirut to meet with Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders on the eve of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, I became an editor and columnist for a periodical advocating Palestinian rights, and I was invited to speak at book events, lectures, panels, interviews, and debates around the country.
This particular debate was with two extreme rightwing Zionists who advocated expanding Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. A Palestinian businessman was supposed to join me on the stage, but when it became clear that our two opponents were not just supporters of Israel but extremist settlers, he decided not to participate. He would not argue with settlers; he didn’t want to legitimize them in any way. Besides, what was the point of arguing with people who wanted him to disappear? That left me to grapple with the two by myself.
In the course of the debate, one of my opponents argued that Palestine in the nineteenth century was a barren, backward, underdeveloped country, and Arabs actually benefitted from Jewish colonization, which brought economic development along with productive people to an empty land. This argument that land underutilized by “the natives” is up for grabs has been part of the arsenal of colonizers for centuries, initially termed “The Doctrine of Discovery,” and we are well aware of the results in North America.
In order to bolster the argument that Palestine was empty, my opponent read passages from The Innocents Abroad of Mark Twain’s impressions of the Holy Land. The passages by Twain were themselves incorporated within a demographic study of Palestine by Jane Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (1984). “Mark Twain,” Peters writes, “in his inimitable fashion expressed scorn for what he called the ‘romantic’ and ‘prejudiced’ accounts of Palestine after he visited the Holy Land in 1867.” She quotes several passages describing desolation and fraud: “’Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes . . . desolate and unlovely . . .’ Twain wrote with remorse.” While the debate moved on to other, more immediate issues, this irked me. I don’t object to using literary texts to make political or cultural points outside of the novel or poem, if done with respect to the original. But in this case Twain was being used for somewhat crude political purposes, and I was enraged.
Peters’ From Time Immemorial employs other quotations from Twain, along with references to books by William Thomson, William C. Prime, Bayard Taylor and other American and European travel writers in order to assert that the people who are known today as “Palestinians” are in fact Arabs from neighboring states who came to Palestine between 1946 and 1948 because they were attracted to the prosperity of Zionist settlement; consequently, today’s latter-day migrants seek to usurp the genuine, ancient Jewish claim to the land through a misconceived national movement. This argument flows from a long-established tradition that justifies Jewish colonization of Palestine at least in part because the land was, in their eyes, virtually uninhabited – “a land without a people for a people without a land,” in the words of the old Zionist slogan. Twain’s authority as an American cultural icon was enlisted to enhance this outlook.
It’s worth noting that Peters’ book received many glowing reviews among U.S. supporters of Israel, notably Saul Bellow, while other scholars, such as Edward Said and Norman Finkelstein, debunked it thoroughly, dissecting sources and quotations to reveal distortions and outright lies. “There Were No Indians,” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis titled his January, 1986 column highlighting the book’s fraudulent scholarship and colonialist outlook, while many Israeli scholars dismissed From Time Immemorial as a worthless exercise in propaganda. I was aware of all of this when my opponent deployed Peters’ book as a weapon. But the abuse of Mark Twain grated me the most.
In 1986 the Israeli occupation was trying to recruit mayors and other local leaders on the West Bank to serve in a “civil administration” to maintain the occupation themselves. However, to assist the occupation meant collaborating with the enemy to the PLO, and they threatened severe consequences for whoever joined what they considered the quisling civil administration. The few mayors and others who had joined the civil administration were assassinated to enforce this boycott – and the Israeli effort to bypass the PLO and its own responsibility for ruling over the people collapsed. My opponents spoke of this situation, relating how Palestinians are barbaric, willing to kill their own just because those collaborators wanted to help their people. I answered with sorrow that such killings do happen by people living under occupation of a foreign power. I pointed out that those living under occupation have taken harsh measures, including assassinating collaborators, such as the French resistance during the Second World War. The problem for my opponents was that they regarded the Palestinians as the occupiers and not, as the rest of the world believed, the Israelis.
Then one of the settlers muttered, “Well, you’re a Jew collaborating with the enemy, so . . . “ I took that in with a shock, and a few people in the audience gasped. He didn’t need to finish the sentence. What he was saying was clear: “Are you threatening to kill me?” I asked. My opponent was wise enough to keep his mouth shut at that point, but the not-so-subtle threat remained. Now, in addition to abusing Twain, he actually threatened to kill me in front of hundreds of people and on a live college TV broadcast. I was astonished – and pissed off.
After the event I decided to read The Innocents Abroad. I had read much of Twain’s work but not this travel book. I was driven to read it to seek revenge for the literary crime that was committed by misusing Twain – and for the death threat. The book delighted me, I loved Twain’s satirical laughter, and I realized the book was incredibly complex, more than a source for quick political or cultural swipes. I wrote an essay for a literary magazine that lacerated From Time Immemorialand began a discussion of Twain’s journey through the Holy Land.
The rage against Peters’ abuse of Twain propelled me to dig into all of Twain’s work, as well as to discover the breadth of Holy Land travel books in the nineteenth century, especially Herman Melville’s neglected poem-novel Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, the other focal point of a study that ended up being my late-in-life dissertation at Stanford University, eventually published as American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania (Princeton, 1999).
I won’t repeat the analysis in American Palestine – I urge you to read it, if you haven’t already – except to say that much of Twain’s satire is fueled by rejection of the sentimental religiosity of the era’s typical Holy Land authors, such as William Prime (who was ridiculed as Grimes in Twain’s book). Palestine was, to be sure, an undeveloped backwater of the Ottoman Empire, but like most tourists, Twain had little idea what he was observing. For example, he did not realize that a boom in cotton due to the American Civil War had collapsed after the war came to an end and the American South’s crops returned to the market, plus locust plagues had caused the harvests for the last three years to fail. He regarded an Arab guard who had to accompany his party as a nuisance and a fraud, not realizing that the presence of a guard was part of a political agreement between factions negotiated by the Ottoman authorities, a symbolic presence with no expectations of actual violence. Even when he complained of the lack of roads, “he was unaware of the Ottoman policy, mistaken as it may have been, which preferred Jerusalem’s isolation to allowing troops of Europeans to turn the Holy City into ‘a Christian Madhouse’” (American Palestine, 163-164).
As I tell friends: If anyone abuses an author that I love and then threatens to kill me, I will exact revenge by writing a book.
One final note: I am purposely vague about other people and institutions so they can decide how much to reveal of their identities and actions for themselves.
Hilton Obenzinger is a poet, novelist, historian, and critic. He is currently Associate Director of The Chinese Railroad Workers of North America Project at Stanford University, where he has also served the American Studies, Modern Thought & Literature, and Writing programs.His most recent of his ten books is the poetry collection Treyf Pesach (2017)
Obenzinger, Hilton. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
____. “‘Pluck Enough to Lynch a Man’: Mark Twain and Manhood.” In Critical Insights: Mark Twain, ed. R. Kent Rasmussen (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2011).
“Naturalizing Cultural Pluralism, Americanizing Zionism: The Settler
Colonial Basis to Early-Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 107.4 (2008).
“Better Dreams: The Philippine-American War and Twain’s ‘Exploding’ Novel.” Arizona Quarterly 61.1 (Spring 2005).
“Going to Tom’s Hell in Huckleberry Finn.” In Blackwell Companion to Mark Twain, ed. Peter Messent and Louis J. Budd. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
“American Palestine: Mark Twain and the Touristic Commodification of the Holy Land.” In The United States & the Middle East: Cultural Encounters. Ed. by Abbas Amanat and Magnus R. Bernhardsson. New Haven: The Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 2002.
Peters, Joan. From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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’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.