The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
Public Domain Books
Mark Twain meets his wife
XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”
Certainly this was a momentous period in Mark Twain’s life. It was a time of great events, and among them was one which presently would come to mean more to him than all the rest–the beginning of his acquaintance with Olivia Langdon.
One evening in late December when Samuel Clemens had come to New York to visit his old “Quaker City” room-mate, Dan Slote, he found there other ship comrades, including Jack Van Nostrand and Charlie Langdon. It was a joyful occasion, but one still happier followed it. Young Langdon’s father and sister Olivia were in New York, and an evening or two later the boy invited his distinguished “Quaker City” shipmate to dine with them at the old St. Nicholas Hotel. We may believe that Samuel Clemens went willingly enough. He had never forgotten the September day in the Bay of Smyrna when he had first seen the sweet-faced miniature–now, at last he looked upon the reality.
Long afterward he said: “It was forty years ago. From that day to this she has never been out of my mind.”
Charles Dickens gave a reading that night at Steinway Hall. The Langdons attended, and Samuel Clemens with them. He recalled long after that Dickens wore a black velvet coat with a fiery-red flower in his buttonhole, and that he read the storm scene from “David Copperfield”– the death of James Steerforth; but he remembered still more clearly the face and dress and the slender, girlish figure of Olivia Langdon at his side.
Olivia Langdon was twenty-two years old at this time, delicate as the miniature he had seen, though no longer in the fragile health of her girlhood. Gentle, winning, lovable, she was the family idol, and Samuel Clemens was no less her worshiper from the first moment of their meeting.
Miss Langdon, on her part, was at first rather dazed by the strange, brilliant, handsome man, so unlike anything she had known before. When he had gone, she had the feeling that something like a great meteor had crossed her sky. To her brother, who was eager for her good opinion of his celebrity, she admitted her admiration, if not her entire approval. Her father had no doubts. With a keen sense of humor and a deep knowledge of men, Jervis Langdon was from that first evening the devoted champion of Mark Twain. Clemens saw Miss Langdon again during the holidays, and by the week’s end he had planned to visit Elmira–soon. But fate managed differently. He was not to see Elmira for the better part of a year.
He returned to his work in Washington–the preparation of the book and his newspaper correspondence. It was in connection with the latter that he first met General Grant, then not yet President. The incident, characteristic of both men, is worth remembering. Mark Twain had called by permission, elated with the prospect of an interview. But when he looked into the square, smileless face of the soldier he found himself, for the first time in his life, without anything particular to say. Grant nodded slightly and waited. His caller wished something would happen. It did. His inspiration returned.
“General,” he said, “I seem to be slightly embarrassed. Are you?”
Grant’s severity broke up in laughter. There were no further difficulties.
Work on the book did not go so well. There were many distractions in Washington, and Clemens did not like the climate there. Then he found the “Alta” had copyrighted his letters and were reluctant to allow him to use them. He decided to sail at once for San Francisco. If he could arrange the “Alta” matter, he would finish his work there. He did, in fact, carry out this plan, and all difficulties vanished on his arrival. His old friend Colonel McComb obtained for him free use of the “Alta” letters. The way was now clear for his book. His immediate need of funds, however, induced him to lecture. In May he wrote Bliss:
“I lectured here on the trip (the Quaker City excursion) the other night; $1,600 in gold in the house; every seat taken and paid for before night.”
He settled down to work now with his usual energy, editing and rewriting, and in two months had the big manuscript ready for delivery.
Mark Twain’s friends urged him to delay his return to “the States” long enough to make a lecture tour through California and Nevada. He must give his new lecture, they told him, to his old friends. He agreed, and was received at Virginia City, Carson, and elsewhere like a returning conqueror. He lectured again in San Francisco just before sailing.
The announcement of his lecture was highly original. It was a hand-bill supposed to have been issued by the foremost citizens of San Francisco, a mock protest against his lecture, urging him to return to New York without inflicting himself on them again. On the same bill was printed his reply. In it he said:
“I will torment the people if I want to. It only costs them $1 apiece, and, if they can’t stand it, what do they stay here for?”
He promised positively to sail on July 6th if they would let him talk just this once.
There was a good deal more of this drollery on the bill, which ended with the announcement that he would appear at the Mercantile Library on July 2d. It is unnecessary to say that the place was jammed on that evening. It was probably the greatest lecture event San Francisco has ever known. Four days later, July 6, 1868, Mark Twain sailed, via Aspinwall, for New York, and on the 28th delivered the manuscript of “The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim’s Progress,” to his Hartford publisher.