The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain, by Susan K. Harris
(Melbourne: University of Cambridge, 1996)
The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain centers around the years before, during, and after the couple met. The author, Susan K. Harris provides a plethora of historical facts surrounding the two main characters, which serve to provide the reader with insight into what life was like in the late 1860’s. The book also serves as a pathway into Olivia Langdon’s life, which is somewhat foreign to us in this course. I have summarized the book, highlighting particularly noteworthy passages and facts, and given you my opinion of the work as a whole. However I would encourage you to read this for yourself to form your own opinions and discover the inner workings of Langdon’s and Twain’s relationship.
The book is divided into five chapters, each one setting up the next. In the first chapter, titled A Commonplace Book we learn about Olivia’s personal writings in her journal. I thought this was a great place to start the book because it explains much about her upbringing, devotion to Christianity, and how she and Clemens met (which was in New York City in 1867).
Chapters two and three are important in understanding the development of their relationship because they shed light on the differences between Langdon and Clemens. One of the most significant contrasts was science. Langdon lived in Elmira with her family, which was a place where science was booming in the late 1860’s. She herself was an avid reader and was eager to learn all she could about the subject. However Clemens did not share the same affinity towards the topic as his other half. On page 63 we learn he viewed science as an attack on philosophical methodologies and compares it to fruitless detective work and that any discovery is for exploitation. Even though they both felt strongly about this topic, in chapter three we learn how they negotiated their differences. Langdon was a devout Christian and Clemens is sincerely touched by her efforts to have him share the joys she experienced through religion. In a letter he wrote to Langdon he expresses this, writing “I would be less than a man if I went on in my old careless way while you pray for me.” Ironically, by the end of the book it is not Clemens that turns Langdon away from the faith, rather her illness that caused her to not attend church.
Since the book is centered more around the time when Twain was lecturing, we only get a few references back to the books we have read in this course. Most notable for me in The Courtship is the influence The Merchant of Venice had on Innocents Abroad. Specifically the part of the novel where he refers to “Shylock’s in gabardine and sandals, venturing loans upon the rich argosies of Venetian commerce.” Harris suggests that Clemens used Shylock more than any other character in the play because Shylock’s revenge would unhinge Venetian society (125). There is a big connection here to Clemens’ own endeavors to become a Christian and his temptations with other women while on tour.
The final chapter describes their marriage, which took place on February 2, 1870. The couple endured hardships much like any other pair. Clemens’ frequent absences from the family for touring, Langdon’s battle with her health, and money are just a few of the problems they faced within the first three years of their marriage. However as the years passed they became happier and lived a good life until Olivia Langdon passed away in 1904.
When I first started this book I found it difficult to follow. I would say this is the main flaw in The Courtship. Within the chapters it is hard to keep track of time. This is because Harris jumps back and forth from year to year. One sentence can explain a letter from Clemens during their courtship and in the next paragraph we learn about Olivia’s devotion to reading the Bible in 1866, before she had even met Clemens. For this reason The Courtship requires the reader to pay close attention at all times.
My favorite aspect of the book is the comic relief Clemens’ letters serve amidst the factual historical accounts. I laughed out loud when I read his letter to Susan Crane on page 50. On the topic of science he writes, “It is dreadful to think of having a wife who will be always inventing new chemical horrors and experimenting on me with them. However, if Livy likes it, I shan’t mind being shot through the roof occasionally and scattered around among the neighbors.” We see here that even though he disagrees with science, his love for Olivia is superior to his own wants and needs.
While I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the courtship between Olivia Langdon and Sam Clemens, I would not put it on the syllabus for this course. This is because we already get relevant historical information pertaining to our works from Twains autobiography. I do however think that excerpts from the compilations of Mark Twain’s Letters would serve well as a source alongside the texts we read.