Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Love Letters of Mark Twain to Olivia Langdon

“If I were settled, I would quit all nonsense and swindle some poor girl into marrying me.” -Mark Twain

Well… it’s about time that my American Literature class gets to Mark Twain, and oh… I suppose I will have something to say about that, what self-respecting English teacher wouldn’t, right? But despite being the most famous American of his time and certainly the father of the American novel, and regardless of winning and losing numerous fortunes in his life, and suffering a string of tragedies including the death of his younger brother to which he blamed himself and the loss of a child, after which all of his writing changed… the one thing that always delighted me most about Mark Twain is that he met and married the love of his life.
“I want a good wife. I want a couple of them if they are particularly good.” -Mark Twain

Back in the summer of 1868, Twain traveled from San Francisco to Elmira, New York awaiting the publication of his book based on the Quaker Tour through Europe, and he stayed at Gervais Langdon’s house, who was a relative of a good friend he’d met while abroad. AND there, Twain met the 22 year old daughter of the Langdons, Olivia, and fell instantly in love.
“But I wouldn’t expect to be worthy of her. I wouldn’t have a girl I was worthy of, she wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t be respectable enough.” -Mark Twain

Now to be sure, the Langdon family was outstanding. They’d made their money cornering the coal market during the civil war and were conductors on the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglas stayed at their house while passing to freedom, and Twain found the highly religious, frail, and serious minded Olivia, or Livy, utterly irresistible, impetuously proposing marriage to her after only three days. Twain said of the young woman, "I take as much pride in her brains as I do her beauty. "
“Livy is the best girl in all the world, and the most sensible. She is the sweetest, and the gentlest and the daintiest, and the most modest and unpretentious, and the wisest in all things she should be wise in, and the most ignorant in all matters it would not grace her to know.” -Mark Twain

Of course, young Olivia refused Twain's advances, but allowed the rogue to write letters to her, which he did, almost every day for seven months… Livy numbered each letter in the corner with black ink, 184 in total. How sweet is that? So when Twain appeared in New York again, he asked Mr. Langdon for Livy’s hand in marriage, and the old codger agreed, provided Twain could produce character references.
“They said with one accord that I got drunk oftener than was necessary, that I was wild, and godless, idle, and lecherous, and a discontented an unsettled rover, and they could not recommend any girl of high character and social position to marry me, but as I had already said all that about myself before hand, there was nothing that shocking or surprising about it to the family.” -Mark Twain

The next year, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad was published, and over the next two years sold 100,000 copies, second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, making Twain the most successful writer in America…and oh yes… Mr. Langdon agreed to the marriage. So keep writing letters, boys... and never give up hope on love.

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