Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him, by Resa Willis
(New York: Routledge, 2004)


Reviewed by Bizzy Tysse


Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him by Resa Willis follows a detailed account of the life of the Clemens family, focusing primarily on Olivia "Livy" Langdon Clemens, Samuel Clemens' wife. The book is filled with poignant information detailing her life, including her family’s rise to success, her childhood (including her bizarre temporary paralysis she suffered when she was 16), her marriage to Clemens and his fondness for her, the birth of their children (whose lives have both tragic and happy consequences), their lives both in the States and abroad in Europe, and finally her death. The book is thorough, well researched, and gives an interesting perspective into the life of Samuel Clemens' companion and sometimes-editor. Willis portrays Livy as an influential, admirable and maternal woman who frequently overcomes bouts of illness, homesickness, and tragedy to be a good wife and mother for her family.

One interesting choice Willis makes as an author is beginning and ending the book on a heartbreaking note: the first chapter describes Livy's final days and her death, and the last chapter describes Livy's funeral and Clemens' standing alone over her grave. By making this structural choice, Willis begins by depressing the readers and ends the book the same way. Because of the title, one would probably expect a traditional feel-good love story throughout. However, Willis' choice of structure makes it clear immediately that tragedy is a pervasive part of the couple's life, who suffer through the deaths of many friends and family members and live longer than two of their children.

This book definitely brings up some points that would be interesting to our class, mainly because we are learning about Samuel Clemens' life both through his works as well as Mark Twain’s Autobiography. In fact, Willis often quotes the Autobiography, and people and ideas often overlap (for example, Charles Webster, someone we have seen in the Autobiography, appears here as well). However, the mention of Twain's works, much like in the Autobiography, more often appear for contextual purposes than explanations of how the storylines are influenced by aspects of the Clemens' lives.

One instance that would really interest the class (which apparently appears in the Autobiography too) is how Samuel Clemens discovers Olivia's existence. Willis explains that Clemens meets Olivia through her brother, Charlie Langdon, a fellow traveler on the Quaker City (the boat we so fondly remember as the home base of Twain and crew in Innocents Abroad). Apparently, as legend would tell, there was a picture of Olivia in Charlie’s room, and Clemens was immediately struck by it. Knowing that he saw his future wife for the first time while aboard this ship adds new dimension to Innocents Abroad for us. What perturbs me is that Willis does not ever mention Innocents Abroad in this context; it doesn’t come up until later, and only as what brings the couple their first source of income.

There are some aspects of the book that seem problematic, but they are all technical. First, it seems as if Willis overuses the incorporation of quotes at times. In her defense, however, the extensive amount of quotations do show that she accessed many primary sources to show not only aspects of Olivia and Sam's relationship but appropriate context to substantiate the time period as well. Another technicality is Willis' tendency to use epithets to describe people as well as contrived, colloquial sentences to make points about her topics or to transition to new ones. One such example is when Willis writes that shortly after the Clemens' marriage, "[t]heir happiness seemed complete…[but] [t]he thoughtful person knows that happiness can be fleeting – hard to find, it can easily disappear" (Willis 62). Statements like this appear throughout Mark and Livy, and can sometimes undermine the narrative. I even noted two typos in the book (one is, "Following the wedding service, bridge, groom, and guests sat down…"), which is unacceptable, considering how many people look over the book before it goes to print (55). Regardless, this is nit-picky, and a lot can be missed by focusing solely on the technical.

All in all, this book is definitely very interesting and informative. The reader learns a great deal about Samuel Clemens’ family and gains new insight into a side of his life our class has not yet explored. For our class' purposes, I do not think that this book is necessary since the focus does not overlap often with our assigned works, but this opinion could change if more of our Autobiography assignments begin to deal with the Clemens family. I truly appreciate the amount of work Willis did to make this extensive and impressive book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.


RETURN TO BIBLIOGRAPHY