September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
You had better shove this in the stove,” twenty-nine-year-old Sam Clemens wrote his older brother, Orion, in 1865, “for … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.”
The young Clemens might not have appreciated the first two volumes of Mark Twain’s Letters that have now been published by the University of California Press, but the rest of us should be grateful that neither Orion nor a good many of his brother’s other correspondents did as they were told. Both books are models of scrupulous scholarship, containing everything the reader could conceivably want to know: the gross profit of a Manhattan market in the year in which young Sam Clemens bought some fruit there; the dates of arrival and departure for every steamboat on which he served; the title and full publishing history of a book he may have sent his sweetheart.
The first volume begins with an 1853 letter, written home to Hannibal by a distinctly provincial seventeen-year-old in New York City for the first time. “I reckon I had better black my face,” he told his mother, “for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably better than white people.” And it ends in 1866, as the thirty-one-year-old writer and lecturer says good-bye to San Francisco and sets out for the East in search of a publisher.
The second volume covers just two years—1867 and 1868—during which he published his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches , and toured the Holy Land with the determinedly prayerful assemblage he would soon satirize in Innocents Abroad .
Sensibly enough he seems to have saved most of his best stuff for his journals and notebooks and for the articles and books he drew from them. But because he also seems to have been constitutionally unable to give in for long to the admonitions of those, like his mother, who urged him to “tell everything just as it is—no better and no worse—and do let nonsense alone,” his patented comic style shows through his letters often enough to keep you reading:
“I saw Lily Hitchcock in Paris & she was chief among the ten thousand American roses there & altogether lovely. I did so yearn to kiss her for her mother but it was just my luck—her mother was there herself.”
“Train stops every fifteen minutes and stays three quarters of an hour, figure out when it will arrive and meet me.”
“I am not married yet, and I never will marry until I can afford to have servants enough to leave my wife in the position for which I designed her, viz—as a companion . I don’t want to sleep with a three-fold Being who is cook, chambermaid and washerwoman all in one. I don’t mind sleeping with female servants as long as I am a bachelor—by no means … but after I marry, that sort of thing will be ‘played out.’”
Above all, the young man who wrote these letters was restless. “All I do know or feel,” he told his mother as he waited to set sail for the Holy Land, “is, that I am wild with impatience to move—move— Move! … Curse the endless delays! … I wish 1 never had to stop any where a month.”
He very nearly didn’t. During the fifteen roistering years covered by these two collections, Clemens tried printing, piloting, mining, back-room politics, newspaper reporting, short-story writing, and lecturing, and he traveled all over the West and all the way to the Sandwich Islands and back—and was never satisfied, with himself or with the work that had begun to make him famous.
Those who loved him—and he had an extraordinary gift for making friends wherever he went—worried that he would never settle down, never amount to all that he could be. Clemens seems to have agreed. “I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life,” he told Orion in the same 1865 letter he urged be destroyed. “One was to be a pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel. I accomplished the one & failed the other, because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade— i.e. religion. … I never had a ‘call’ in that direction. … But I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order— i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.”
“A good wife,” a wellrmeaning woman friend told him in December 1867, “would be a perpetual incentive to progress.” “& so she would,” Clemens answered, ”—I never thought of that before—progress from house to house because I couldn’t pay the rent. … I want a good wife—I want a couple of them if they are particularly good—but where is the wherewithal?”
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!”
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.
It was once argued by sober-sided scholars that his wife, who read nearly everything her husband wrote and sometimes asked for changes in the interest of decorum, was somehow responsible for his having failed to develop into the Serious Artist they were sure he should have been. But his letters suggest that it was at least as likely that the steadiness required of him in order to win and hold her love helped make him the very great writer he did in fact become.