The Olivia Myth

Letters Reveal a Truer Picture of Samuel Clemens' Wife; Her Influence on His Work

by Gretchen Kell

For more than a century, critics have described Olivia Clemens, the wife of Samuel Clemens, as a sickly, dependent, but emasculating woman who inhibited the famous 19th century author's work.

But in a new book containing 338 letters that were written by Samuel Clemens--best known by his pen name, Mark Twain--and edited by Twain scholars at Berkeley, a new image of "Livy" Clemens emerges.

The nearly 800-page volume also includes 11 letters written by Olivia Clemens as well as 23 letters the couple wrote together. It is published by UC Press.

"We've made great discoveries," said Michael Frank, who spent two years producing "Mark Twain's Letters: Vol. 4" with co-editor Victor Fischer and associate editor Lin Salamo. "Livy had been seen as a passive, sickly, prudish individual who was a censor of his work and had no sense of humor. But that was simply not true."

Instead, the letters, more than half of which have never before been published, depict a wife supportive of her husband's writing, an equal and active marriage partner and a young woman with great vitality, despite the sickness and tragedy in her life.

The correspondence in this volume, the fourth in the only complete edition of Mark Twain's letters ever attempted, spans two years--1870 and 1871. During that time Samuel Clemens married, was editor and part owner of a newspaper, became a father, went on two major lecture tours and wrote "Roughing It."

One letter in particular from the 34-year-old Clemens to his 24-year-old fiancée debunks the myth that she had a negative impact on his work:

"I am glad & proud that my little wife takes such an interest in my scribblings," he wrote her on Jan. 10, 1870. "I plainly see, now, why Joe Goodman gradually lost all interest in his poetry... & ceased to write. The one whose applause would have been dearer to him & more potent than that of all the world beside, could not help him, or encourage him or spur him, because she was far below his intellectual level....

"But I am blessed above my kind, with another self--a life companion who is part of me--part of my heart, & flesh & spirit--& not a fellow-pilgrim who lags far behind or flies ahead or soars above me."

Shortly after the couple's wedding on Feb. 2, 1870, Olivia Clemens wrote her sister, Susan Crane: "Sue, we are two as happy people as you ever saw. Our days seem to be made up of only bright sunlight, with no shadow in them."

But shadows did befall the newlyweds. Olivia's father, Jervis Langdon, died of cancer in August. In September, the couple's friend, Emma Nye, came down with typhoid while visiting them and died a month later in their bed.

After a near miscarriage, Olivia Clemens gave birth prematurely in November to a frail son and three months later she contracted typhoid, nearly dying.

The poor health of his wife and child persisted, but through it all, Clemens--a self-described "wanderer" before his marriage--was "deliriously happy" as a family man, said Fischer.

Olivia Clemens, too, played a big role at home and "did most of the household management, dealt with the servants day-to-day and did a lot of the raising of the children," said Frank, especially while her husband was away.

Letters that passed almost daily between the couple while he traveled are filled with vivid pictures of his life on the road and hers at home.

"Livy darling, am just in from the lecture--just in from talking to 1,700 of the staidest puritanical people you ever saw--one of the hardest gangs to move, that ever was. By George the next time I come here I mean to put some cathartic pills in my lecture," he wrote on Nov. 9, 1871.

"Oh I do love the child so tenderly," Olivia Clemens wrote on Dec. 30, 1871, about their son, Langdon, "if anything happens to me in the Spring you must never let him go away from you...and I believe we should be reunited in the other world." Olivia survived, but their child died that spring, at age 20 months.

While Olivia Clemens--from a refined, religious, philanthropic, abolitionist family--did ask her less genteel husband to give up some of his bad habits, the letters show it was love--not badgering--that made him change.

"I shall treat smoking just exactly as I would treat the forefinger of my left hand: If you asked cut that finger off, & I saw that you really meant it, & believed that the finger marred my well-being....I give you my word that I would cut it off," he wrote her on Jan. 13, 1870.

Frank said previous characterizations of Olivia Clemens developed "in a legendary sort of way. No one had the facts. People in the know have been trying to debunk the stories for years," and this book should help.

"Everybody thinks they know who Mark Twain is," said Frank. "Twain reveals himself to no one like he does to Livy," added Fischer.

"For the first time," said Frank, "we get a sense of their mutual dependence, of their real partnership. They had a strong, lasting marriage...until she died in 1904."

The book includes genealogical charts of the Clemens and Langdon families, a schedule of Clemens' lecture tour of 1871-72, a facsimile of the advertising brochure used by his lecture agent, transcriptions of book contracts and photographs of family and friends.

Remarkably, there is no picture of Olivia Clemens in the book. She was too ill during those years to travel to a photographer's studio.

Berkeley houses the world's largest collection of Samuel Clemens' manuscripts, letters and notebooks. Five full-time editors at the Mark Twain Project produce authoritative editions of Clemens' works. So far, 31 scholarly and popular books have been printed. The project aims to publish 70 volumes by 2010, the 100th anniversary of Clemens' death.


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