Buffalo can thank Mrs. Mark Twain for its claim on a brief portion of the great author’s life, for it was Livy Langdon and her family who helped bring him to the city. Twain’s father-in-law gave the newlyweds a house on Delaware Avenue as a wedding gift, and he provided the money for his son-in-law’s part-ownership of the Buffalo Express newspaper, starting the couple’s 18-month stay in the city in 1870.
In “Mrs. Mark Twain: The Life of Olivia Langdon Clemens, 1845-1904” (McFarland, 209 pages, $45), author Martin Naparsteck, writing with Michelle Cardulla, takes a closer look at the Langdon family and Livy’s role in her husband’s life and career. As interpreted here, Olivia Langdon was the woman who helped Twain find himself, and his voice.
The Langdons, of Elmira, were a family of well-to-do liberals who considered slavery a “great moral wrong” and who thought that young women had as much right as men to a good education.
“Livy and her family were huge influences on (Twain’s) social beliefs, which he was just developing as a young man in his 30s,” says Thomas J. Reigstad, a local Twain scholar and author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’,” about the couple’s time in Buffalo.
To explain their progressive politics, Naparsteck delves into the Langdon family roots – how they became wealthy, and how they used that wealth. He did much of his research in Elmira, gaining permission to do some writing at Quarry Farm, the Langdon property where Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Clemens spent many summers in the early years of their marriage. The immersion helps Naparsteck, also a contributor to One Tank Trip travel columns for The Buffalo News, re-create their post-Civil War 19th century world – one of rich, rural success framed in liberal politics and Eastern sensibilities.
This background helped make Olivia especially appealing to her older suitor (she nicknamed Twain “Youth” to counter their 10-year age difference). She was completely different from the people of Sam Clemens’ experience, and represented aspirations he may not have known he had.
Clemens had grown up “rough” along the Mississippi River before starting a vagabond life in the even rougher West as a young man, but he often felt at odds with the somewhat crooked moral compass of the frontier that regularly valued expediency above humanity. For him, Livy presented another version of social action.
The book presents Olivia Langdon as a forward-thinking daughter of her times, well educated and literary, an equal intellectual match for her future husband. The two were introduced by Charlie Langdon, Olivia’s brother, who had become friends with Twain during a cruise to the Middle East that became the basis for the book “The Innocents Abroad.”
Frail and often sickly, Olivia had a physical delicacy that concealed her strong fortitude. She turned down Twain’s proposals at least twice before agreeing to the marriage, and evidence suggests she had no regrets.
Their correspondence and other writings reveal a true love affair, enduring through time, travels and tragedy thanks to Mrs. Twain’s efforts – and despite her husband’s lack of them. Their lifelong happiness together is a more recent reading of the marriage, which for years had been derided by Twain scholars as stifling and possibly made for money.
Reigstad says the negative take on the marriage began early on, with Van Wyck Brooks’ “The Ordeal of Mark Twain,” a psychological study of the author published in 1920.
“The premise was that Twain faced all kinds of obstacles in his career, and one of them was Olivia and her family and their Victorian sensibilities,” Reigstad said. “This kind of thinking went on for years, but I’ve felt all along that she was the glue that held him and their family together. He took so much for granted, leaving for any reason, even when his wife and children were sick – going to a wedding in Cleveland, to New York City to meet his publisher, to Washington to have his picture taken by Matthew Brady.”
The frequent comings and goings, and Livy’s adjustments to them, are chronicled thematically rather than chronologically in “Mrs. Mark Twain,” and show a family in which love and affection are expressed as much through letters as through physical contact. Twain never truly gave up the vagabond life, and though the family built a mansion in Hartford, Conn., the master of the house was regularly absent – on the lecture circuit, business trips or simply gadding about.
The mansion represented Twain’s taste for the rich life as much as his wife’s wealthy upbringing, and it was Livy who helped finance their lifestyle with her large inheritance. The book details the business success of her father, Jervis Langdon, and, in sharp contrast, the total lack of financial acumen shown by her husband, who wound up in bankruptcy.
The book is well-sourced and the level of detail is extensive, contributing to a dry tone that dilutes much of the drama of Olivia’s story – the early death of their son and later death of a daughter, Livy’s health problems, Twain’s money problems, and constant travel, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes to stay ahead of creditors.
But then there are some details that jump out for Western New Yorkers, such as the explanation of how Twain’s mother and sister wound up living in Fredonia:
“Sam had lectured in Fredonia and found it a pleasant town, and it was both close enough to Buffalo for him to look in now and then on his mother and far enough for her not to be a constant presence.” For the record, his mother didn’t want to move there, and the houses they lived in still stand, unlike Twain’s house in Buffalo, which was destroyed in a fire.
“Mrs. Mark Twain” is a worthwhile addition to the scholarship that is bringing Olivia Langdon Clemens out of the background and rebuilding her reputation.
For almost a century, biographers overlooked Olivia, or saw her calming influence as something her artistic husband had to overcome. More recent biographers, starting with Laura Skandera Trombley’s “Mark Twain in the Company of Women” and including Resa Willis with her “Mark and Livy,” have presented a more rounded, flattering portrait of the couple’s relationship.
Readers don’t have to believe them. They can look to Twain himself, who had this to say about marriage in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:”
“People talk about beautiful friendships between two persons of the same sex. What is the best of that sort, as compared with the friendship of man and wife, where the best impulses and highest ideals of both are the same. There is no place for comparison between the two friendships; the one is earthly, the other divine.”
And, for his Livy, this line from 1894: “No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.”
The Twains’ marriage lasted 34 years, until Livy died in Italy in 1904, at the age of 58.