The chaperoned first date of Samuel Clemens, the man better known as Mark Twain, and Elmira native, Olivia Langdon, took place on New Years Eve, 1867 in New York City. They went to see Charles Dickens read selections from his bestselling novel, David Copperfield. Twain, who had already become a renowned lecturer himself, thought Dickens gave a poor performance, and said as much in his review. But he also couldn’t help mentioning, some might call it bragging, how much he’d enjoyed the companionship of a “beautiful” and “highly respectable” woman.
Thus began one of the most unexpectedly sweet seductions in American cultural history, as Sam Clemens, initially ignored and then rebuffed by the devout and decorous Olivia Langdon, fell back upon what would prove his greatest talent: writing. Over the coming years, letters from the increasingly famous author would cascade into the Langdon home on the corner of Church and Main, supplemented by occasional visits.
During one such visit, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Sam proposed, not for the first time, and Livy finally yielded her consent, sending her fiancé off, ecstatic, on the next leg of his “American Vandal” lecture tour. But while Mark Twain spent the next month as a comedian on the road, Livy faced the reality that it might be her last Christmas season in the only home she had ever known, surrounded by the 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 Livy’s fears, her family, and his own, from whom he felt increasingly estranged, 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…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.”
But for this promise, made by a famously itinerant and oft-inebriated author in the wee hours of Christmas morning 154 years ago, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies would not exist. For it was Sam’s dedication to this promise, more important perhaps even than his wedding vows, which inspired and sustained the family’s annual pilgrimage to Quarry Farm.
Surrounded by family at the Farm on East Hill not only was Olivia spared the “dull, aching consciousness of long exile” which her husband felt, but Sam himself found, looking down upon Elmira, like the Grinch over Whoville, 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 octagonal study his sister-in-law Susan Crane built for him, inspiring him to produce the series of novels which turned him from the most popular joke-teller of his generation into the closest thing we yet have to an American Shakespeare.
“Long after supper on Christmas Eve and long before breakfast Christmas morning,” as he put it, Sam gave his would-be wife the first of the thirty-six holiday greetings they would share, “I wish you a glad Christmas—a painless Christmas—a Christmas of rest, & peace, & thanksgiving, Livy, O, crowned & sceptered queen of my true heart!…Never mind the foolishness of it, I love you—& I wish I were near enough to touch your dear forehead with the benediction of a kiss, this Christmas morning…Devotedly, Sam.”
Merry Christmas from all of us at Quarry Farm and the Center For Mark Twain Studies.