The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of one of the great courtships in American history, the wooing of an unenthusiastic 22-year-old Olivia Langdon by a completely smitten 32-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
As I first learned while visiting Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri in preparation for teaching “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the contrasts between the two were indeed stark, and the prospects for their eventual union exceedingly poor. Olivia Langdon, known as Livy, was a thoroughly proper easterner, while Sam was a rugged man of the West. Livy came from a family that was rich and well-educated, while Sam had grown up poor and left school at age 12. She was thoroughly pious, while he was a man who knew how to smoke, drink and swear.
On Valentine’s Day, their story is a reminder of the true meaning of love. Despite many challenges, once united, they never gave up on each other and enjoyed a fulfilling 34 years of marriage.
The young Olivia
Olivia Langdon was born in 1845 in Elmira, New York to a wealthy coal merchant. Her father, Jervis Langdon, was deeply religious but also highly progressive: He supported Elmira College, which had been founded in 1855 as one of the first in the U.S. to grant bachelor’s degrees to women. He was also an ardent abolitionist who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, which offered shelter and aid to escaped slaves from the South. He even offered sanctuary to a fugitive Frederick Douglass, one of America’s greatest abolitionists, who became a lifelong friend.
Her mother, also Olivia, was active in many civic organizations and served as a strong advocate for her children’s education. The younger Olivia suffered from a delicate constitution her whole life. As a teenager she was bedridden for two years after a fall on the ice.
Mark Twain and love at first sight
Born in 1835 and raised on the Mississippi River in Hannibal, the young Samuel Clemens worked as a typesetter, a riverboat pilot, a miner and a writer. His first national literary success came in 1865 with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a story about a frog and a man who would bet on anything.
He soon moved into travel writing, filing dispatches from Hawaii (then the Sandwich Islands) before embarking in 1867 for Europe and the Middle East aboard the steamship Quaker City. Clemens would later cobble together his dispatches from the voyage into a book that became a 19th-century bestseller, “The Innocents Abroad.”
It was aboard the Quaker City that Clemens first laid eyes on a photograph of Livy. Her younger brother, Charles, who would later add to his father’s coal fortune, befriended Clemens on the voyage and showed him a picture of his sister. Clemens later claimed that it was love at first sight.
Wooing the ‘dearest girl in the world’
Back in the U.S., Clemens accepted an invitation from Charles to visit his family in Elmira. Within days of meeting …read more