The following review appeared 19 November 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1997 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Kim Martin Long <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
My only real complaint about Susan K. Harris's The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain is that it is mistitled: the present title trivializes the accomplishments of this book. A more appropriate title would be something like Negotiating Differences in Victorian America: Olivia Langdon, Sam Clemens, and Reading Relationships or The Rhetoric of Love: How Olivia Langdon and Sam Clemens Became Mr. and Mrs. Clemens. I don't know. It just seems that what the author has accomplished in this small volume deserves a better title, at least one with a colon.
In four out of five chapters at least, Harris examines carefully the discourse of Olivia Langdon and Sam Clemens as they found ways to reconcile their differing backgrounds, personalities, and world views and to bridge the apparent gaps between them to form a lasting and, by all standards, a successful marriage. She looks carefully at their letters and at other sources to write a very specific kind of biography, one that not only documents the twenty-five months of their courtship, but that also presents an interesting glimpse of the mid-nineteenth-century culture of courtship and marriage. More a biography of Langdon perhaps than of Twain, the book shows a young woman creating herself to be the kind of woman her culture expected; in the process the man of her affections, Samuel Clemens, was himself in the process of creating two selves: Sam Clemens, husband of Olivia, and Mark Twain, artist and writer.
The introduction provides interesting background to Olivia Langdon's family and to Langdon's health. Olivia Louise Langdon was the first child of Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, an upstate New York couple whose business ventures in coal finally prospered and caused them to settle in Elmira. They became a leading family in town, their mansion splendid by standards of the time. Jervis Langdon was connected to Elmira College, the first U.S. college to grant baccalaureate degrees to women, and the family also supported a branch of the Underground Railroad that came through Elmira. Olivia, however, suffered from a debilitating illness that caused her to live away from the family for years, end her formal schooling at 15, and be thought of as fragile her entire life. Harris points out, however, that despite Olivia's weakness, she managed to "bear four children, run a complex household, entertain lavishly, and do a considerable amount of journeying around the world" (4).
Harris does provide a page-or-so biography of Twain, although, as she admits, his "early biography is much better known than his wife's and needs little recapitulation" in her book (4). In this introduction is stated the author's thesis: that Olivia Langdon and Samuel Clemens were extremely different from each other, and that through their reading and writing they were able to resolve their differences and forge a meaningful relationship that would last a long time and weather many difficulties. The introduction also expresses Harris's desire to correct misconceptions about Mrs. Mark Twain--that she has been "grossly caricatured by her husband's biographers" as a "paragon of dull propriety" (8). Harris makes a good case throughout the book that Olivia Langdon Clemens was actually a woman full of humor, fun, and flexibility, and Harris hopes that "this book will contribute to [her] reevaluation" (10). As she says, any complete biography of Mark Twain should contain a complete biography of the woman with whom he spent 34 years and who was such an important part of his life and career.
Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural context of Langdon's education and reading before she meets Sam Clemens, quoting from Langdon's commonplace book, a book of select passages from favorite pieces of literature and other published materials, and from her letters to her good friend Alice Hooker, providing an inside view of Langdon's mind and emotions. The chapter also gives a fairly comprehensive look at the various cultural practices of nineteenth-century women of "good families" who were preparing themselves for the high-pressured role of Victorian wife. Although Langdon was ill much of the time that she was writing in her commonplace book, she rarely complains; she was, according to Harris, preparing "herself to deal with life crises, and her book is one index to her search for frameworks that would aid and sustain her when these came" (15). One of these frameworks was a philosophy that combined accepted nineteenth-century piety and femininity; numerous times in her commonplace book, Langdon quotes religious poetry that seemed to direct her in the ways of the good Christian. Clearly, Langdon as an adolescent wished to fit into accepted culture and become a proper woman who could accept her place and endure whatever came along, "searching for prescriptions for specifically gendered behavior," as were most of her contemporaries (19).
The author demonstrates through this first chapter her ability to read texts closely and to interpret a great deal from them about the person who copied them down. As Harris says about several passages in Langdon's commonplace book about the submission of women, seen collectively, "these three groups of quotations construct a reader/transcriber who is struggling to create a self open to experience and change while remaining well within the culture's definition of femininity and Christianity" (20). Harris also reads letters written by Langdon to her friend Alice Hooker, and the letters Hooker wrote to her mother, to uncover a personality for Olivia Langdon, a "young woman quietly determined to educate herself according to her society's notions of what constituted culture and literacy" (27). The author traces various texts Olivia Langdon and Alice Hooker read and concludes that class was more important than gender in Langdon's creation of self. Literature was to be consumed, to be read for moral edification, information, and inspiration, rather than for pleasure. The chapter ends with a discussion of the cultural significance of Elmira, as a college town connected to larger cities by a complex network of railroads. There is also provides a brief discussion of Twain at this time, single and traveling on the lecture circuit that took him through Elmira and in the path of a young woman who would steal his heart.
Devoted to a discussion of science in Elmira in the 1860s, Chapter 2 is more exciting that its title suggests. Using their differences about the role of science in people's lives, Harris shows that Langdon's reliance on scientific methodology, and Clemens's skepticism for discourses that propose to know the answers, provided the first real obstacle for them to overcome together. She asserts that Clemens used the rhetoric of science to win Olivia as he substituted his own "penchant for cosmic laws" for her belief in scientific study and experimentation. In other words, he appropriates the discourse of science--something in which he does not really have faith--for his own language of love. As the author indicates, letters from Clemens to Langdon use a cosmic language "to reinforce his courtship demands," saying, for instance, that they would be together through "time and eternity."
Throughout this and other chapters, Harris carefully explicates letters and documents pertinent to the Clemenses' courtship linguistically and rhetorically to reveal motivations and strategies. Because he is "an expert in the rhetorical construction of realities, Clemens senses that the authority of scientific discourse might be played for power ends," and Harris calls him a "clever con who can appropriate" whatever he wants for his purposes (66-67). Characterizing him as deliberate and clever, Harris paints a portrait of Samuel Clemens that is possibly unflattering but accurate: "Setting aside his role as skeptic and assuming his role as arch manipulator of discursive modes, Clemens drew on all of his literary experiences to negotiate his way into the Langdon family" (69).
Continuing with a careful reading of Clemens's letters to Langdon, Chapter 3 turns to Clemens's appropriation of the language of religion. Because of their high status in Elmira, the Langdons at first rejected Sam Clemens as a suitable mate for their daughter. Although he proved to be an interesting houseguest traveling through on the lecture circuit, he was not what Jervis and Olivia Langdon had in mind for a son-in-law. Clemens, in his letters to both Olivia and to her father, appeals to their sense of propriety and piety as he takes on the guise of the spiritual quester, one who needs their support and prayers in order to clean up his life. As Harris says, by "appealing to the Langdons' bourgeois piety . . . Clemens maneuvered the lover's parents into feeling responsible for helping him become the man they wanted him to be" (74-75).
Clemens fairly frankly addresses his past (he was, by this time--in his early thirties and having recently returned from the West--the man of Roughing It) and turns the focus of his letters to Langdon's faith in him rather than his own shortcomings morally, putting her on trial as it seems: "By your two later letters I saw that you had faith in me . . . but what I yearned for at this particular moment was the evidence that your faith remained at its post when the storm swept over your heart. I believed I should find that evidence, for I did not think that your faith was the child of a passing fancy. . . . The belief was well grounded, & I am satisfied" (76). Clemens even agrees to becoming a Christian; he says to his mother after their engagement: "My prophecy was correct. . . . [Livy] said she never could or would love me--but she set herself the task of making a Christian of me. I said she would succeed, but that in the meantime she would unwittingly dig a matrimonial pit & end by tumbling in it--& lo! the prophecy is fulfilled" (77). The author outlines Clemens's appropriation of the traditional Protestant conversion narrative in his correspondence with his fiancee; certainly "not the first lover to fuse sexual and spiritual yearning, Clemens brilliantly appropriated the rhetoric of the conversion narrative in order to manipulate Langdon's religious beliefs" (78).
Harris continues in Chapter 3 to discuss the ways Clemens used rhetoric to court Olivia Langdon and her family. She examines his use of capitalist rhetoric in referring to Olivia as a treasure to be valued, for, as Harris reminds us, "women's value lay in their sexual purity, mental chastity, moral rectitude, and good sense" (87). As he writes to her a few months before their marriage, "I always feel proud . . . a year ago, I was so proud to get a letter from you in Cleveland . . . & now, why I can hardly comprehend that it is actually I that get a letter every day from Livy--& she is mine--my own Livy for time & eternity--never to be taken from me by any hand but that of the arch Destroyer. . . . You are unspeakably precious to me . . . a blessing before which all other earthly treasures are dross & worthless" (87). As Harris says, Clemens felt as though his winning of Livy was like triumphing in a foreign marketplace.
Also in this chapter appears one of the better examples of what the author describes as a game the lovers played of "my text, your text": Clemens and Langdon would read common texts, "marking" them for the other with marginal comments. From these notes, we can see how they each interpreted the texts according to their own personalities and world views; we can also see that Sam Clemens wanted a wife who would remain pure in thought: "he wanted a woman who conformed to his culture's idea of modesty and chastity, in mind, as well as body" (101). Possibly reading Sam Clemens a little negatively, Harris says that "Clemens wanted Langdon to avoid reading corrupting material not because it would hurt her but because it would damage her and thus hurt him by decreasing her value . . . in his and the world's eyes" (102). She claims that "becoming, as he wrote, religious aspirant, prospective son-in-law, businessman, book lover, admirer, preacher, sympathetic brother, and eager lover, Clemens literally wrote his way into the Langdon home and into Olivia Langdon's affections" (105).
The next chapter resumes with the heart of the book: an examination of the joint reading of Clemens and Langdon, especially concerning the issues of duty and control. As Harris claims, "Langdon's search suggests that she was trying to subordinate her own desires to her perception of what other people wanted of her" (113), but that Clemens was capable of existing "in two spheres at once" (as we have heard before--in Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, for example) (116). While Langdon strove for conformity to her culture and its expectations, Clemens enjoyed exploring the Other; a clear example of this tendency is provided in a discussion of the lovers' reading of The Merchant of Venice. While Langdon identifies with Portia, a character "who can fuse desire with duty," Clemens focuses on Shylock, "from the Christian point of view a deviant, even a madman, a figure living outside the moral and behavioral norm" (124; 125).
The end of this chapter restates Harris's thesis and sums up what this book demonstrates: "Gender, class, and personality shaped the differences between Olivia Langdon and Samuel Clemens as readers, as they shaped them in most other spheres. . . . [Langdon and Clemens] created a viable marriage out of a host of apparent dissimilarities. In their responses to texts, as in their responses to much of the rest of the world, we perceive a continuous and bilateral juggling of intellect and emotion that may well have been one of the cementing activities of their relationship" (134).
Chapter 5, "Marriage," is really the conclusion. It summarizes the first three years of their life together, from their wedding on 2 February 1870, to their sailing to Europe on 17 May 1873--the trials, disappointments, moves, and deaths. No longer needing to prove anything in letters, Clemens begins the real creation of Mark Twain; Langdon matures, gives up religion herself, and settles into a comfortable although challenging life as Victorian wife and mother. This last chapter reads more like a conventional biography rather than a rhetorical analysis of the couple's correspondence. Although interesting and maybe necessary for a satisfactory closure to the game-playing going on during the courtship, this chapter somewhat departs from the insightful reading of text that the earlier chapters provide; it focuses more on their life together and their commonalities rather than their differences--their "fiscal irresponsibility," for example. The chapter does afford readers a glimpse of the life together that these two very different people forged.
The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain offers a rare look at how literacy shapes personality and psychology and vice versa. In her rhetorical deconstruction of Langdon's and Clemens's texts, the author reveals true rhetoric on Clemens's part: writing for a purpose. In his letters to his future wife and her family, Sam Clemens, according to Susan K. Harris, may have written his "best" literature, as he created a self that was acceptable to Victorian culture and to this very Victorian family. In this biography of literacy, Harris has contributed to Twain scholarship by more fully characterizing Olivia Langdon Clemens, the woman who would have great influence on both the man Mark Twain and his work, and by showing us a side of Mark Twain often overlooked--that of his incredible need for love and acceptance.