“Yours Ever, Sam’l Clemens”
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
Just two weeks later everything had changed. He fell giddily in love with Olivia Lewis Langdon, a coal magnate’s pretty, proper daughter, afflicted with a mysterious psychological disorder that often rendered her unable to rise from her bed. The second volume includes the first nineteen of almost two hundred letters he wrote to her in an almost frenzied effort to persuade her to marry him. In them his humor and hardpan style were jettisoned in favor of love-swollen tributes and earnest promises to be good. Livy was his “precious, peerless, matchless girl,” “my loved, my honored, my darling little Mentor,” the “crowned & sceptred queen of my true heart.” “I do love, love, love you Livy!” he wrote. “My whole being is permeated, is renewed, is leavened with this love, & with every breath I draw its noble influence makes of me a better man. And I shall yet be worthy of your priceless love.”
Livy took her improving duties with the utmost gravity. She prayed nightly for her suitor’s salvation and sent him weekly synopses of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s sermons, which he professed greatly to admire: ”… you need not suppose that I read them over once & then lay them aside for good, for I do not. I read them over & over again & try to profit by them.” And he vowed to abandon even the “social drinking” she had reluctantly agreed to permit him: “I do not know of anything I could refuse to do if you wanted it done. I am reasonably afraid that you’ll stop me from smoking, some day, but if ever you do, you will do it with such a happy grace that I shall be swindled into the notion that I didn’t want to smoke anymore, anyhow!” (This last would have been a considerable sacrifice; he had been smoking more or less steadily since the age of eight.)
There are signs here and there that the self-abnegation demanded by his curious courtship chafed a little. “I am in honor bound,” he told his closest friend, Joseph Twichell, “to regard her grave, philosophical dissertations as love letters , because they probe the very marrow of that passion, but there isn’t a bit of romance in them, no poetical repining, no endearments, no adjectives, no flowers of speech, no nonsense, no bosh. Nothing but solid chunks of wisdom, my boy—love letters gotten up on the square, flat-footed, cast-iron, inexorable plan of the most approved commercial correspondence, & signed with stately & exasperating decorum. ‘Lovingly, LIVY L. LANGDON ’— in full , by the Ghost of Caesar!”
During the fifteen roistering years covered by these letters, Mark Twain was pilot, printer, miner, newsman, and politico.
But he stuck with it. “It is MY Thanksgiving day, above all other days that ever shone on earth,” he reported to his mother from Livy’s home in Elmira, New York, on November 26, 1868. “Because, after twenty-four hours of persecution from me, Mr. and Mrs. L. have yielded a conditional consent—Livy has said, over & over again, the word which is so hard for a maiden to say, & if there were a church near here with a steeple high enough to make it an object I should go & jump over it. … I touch no more spiritous liquors after this day (though I have made no promises)—I shall do no act which you or Livy might be pained to hear of—I shall seek the society of the good—1 shall be a Christian . I shall climb—climb—climb—toward this bright sun that is shining in the heaven of my happiness. … Have no fears, my mother. I shall be worthy —yet. Livy believes in me. You believe in me, too, whether you say it or not. I believe in myself . I believe in God—& through the breaking clouds I see the star of hope rising in the placid blue beyond. …”
The last letter in the second volume was written on December 31,1868: “Tomorrow will be the New Year, Livy—& the gladdest that ever dawned upon me. The Old Year is passing … it found me a waif, floating at random upon the sea of life, & it leaves me freighted with a good purpose, & blessed with a fair wind, a chart to follow, a port to reach. It found me listless, useless, aimless … it leaves me seeking home & an anchorage, & longing for them. … If I forget all else it has done for me I shall still remember that it gave me your love, Livy, & turned my wandering feet toward the straight gate & the narrow way.” Still, it would take Twain over two more years of hard work before his obvious devotion and the prosperity and critical praise he had begun to win helped convince the senior Langdons that this drawling, noisy, red-haired Westerner was worthy of their delicate daughter.
As future volumes will reveal, Twain’s efforts at remaking himself did not last much beyond his wedding day. His feet would often wander from the narrow path, and he was soon cheerfully drinking Scotch before breakfast. Eventually, Livy Clemens herself would down a nightly glass of ale for its alleged medicinal benefits.