The Wild Humorist & The Human Angel

The central event of Mark Twain’s life was his 1870 marriage to Olivia Langdon. When the two began courting thirteen months earlier, Livy had been a twenty-three-year-old semi-invalid with waning hope of finding full health or a suitable husband. Twain was ten years older and a rising star, his fame built upon his popular travel book The Innocents Abroad, just published, and his self-promotion as the “Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope.” So dubbed by a reviewer of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Twain had marketed his wild-man profile to advantage, his posters for his very first speaking engagement (1866, San Francisco) promising that “Doors Open at 7:30. The Trouble will begin at 8.”

He apparently moved this winning style from the lecture hall to the Langdons’ drawing room. After his first unchaperoned night with Olivia and several of her female friends, Twain proudly reported to his mother that he had “deviled the life out of those girls” with his party humor and his travel tales—the “variegated vagabondizing” he was just then polishing up for Roughing It. But Olivia had her doubts and her proprieties, and when Twain rushed to a marriage proposal he was immediately rejected.

Many of the two hundred letters exchanged over the next thirteen months of courtship show how Twain cleverly advanced his suit by capitalizing on his wild-man image in a new way. Instead of denying his rough edges he confessed them, and then applied for a course in smoothing. “I will so mend my conduct,” he writes in a typical letter, “that I shall grow worthier of your prayers, & your good will & sisterly solicitude as the days go by.” Casting her as a figure of charity and worship, Twain’s letters to Livy refer to her as “little saint,” “darling little mentor,” and “The Human Angel.” His letters to his male friends take a different tone: “I’ll harass that girl and harass her till she’ll have to say yes!” But the unlikely relationship worked both ways, and if Livy was “Dear Gravity” to Twain he was “Youth” to her, and remained so for their thirty-four years together.

Livy’s parents were wealthy and generous, but Twain also brought some money to the table, receiving on the morning of his wedding day a $4,000 royalty check for three months’ sales of Roughing It. The new book was dedicated to one of Twain’s fellow prospectors in Nevada, “In Memory of the Curious Time / When We Two / WERE MILLIONAIRES FOR TEN DAYS.” Twain’s account of this specific mining misadventure features a “Miner’s Dream” (see the full illustration here) in which his tumbledown cabin is transformed to a palace of mahogany and French plate glass, complete with billiards room and servants. On his wedding day, Twain struck it similarly rich, receiving from Livy’s parents the surprise gift of a three-story home, complete with cook, maids, and uniformed coachman.


Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.

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