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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Sun, 10 Dec 2023 13:19:28 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac

_Gravity: Selected Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens_. Edited by Barbara E.
Snedecor. University of Missouri Press, 2023. Pp. 387. Hardcover $55.00.
ISBN 9780826222916 (hardcover). ISBN 9780826274922 (ebook).

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Copyright (c) 2023 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

The wives of literary men have almost always existed, if they've existed at
all, in the foggy fringes of their husband's reputations. Other than some
literary scholars, very few readers could name the wives of Nathaniel
Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Ernest
Hemingway, John Steinbeck, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, or Cormac
McCarthy, _and then_ recite any biographical facts attached to their names.
To be fair, the spouses of literary women have not fared any better: Who
among us could do the same for the husbands or partners of Charlotte
Bronte, George Eliot, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather,
Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, or J. K. Rowling?

Twainians, of course, know Olivia Langdon Clemens--or think they do. In
fact, most think they know her well enough to call her Livy, as did her
famous husband. But this familiarity is an illusion. Twain himself shaped
her "public" persona just as he manipulated his own, playfully, even
patronizingly, portraying her as a protector of his reputation, editor of
his first drafts, a foil to his restless exuberant untamed spirit. She
certainly played some of those roles Twain assigned to her, but her flesh
and blood existence was as three-dimensional as his, something that has
seldom been acknowledged in print. Beginning with Paine, who met Olivia
only once and very briefly (a few years before he became Twain's official
biographer and moved into the household after her death), Twain's
biographers have mostly taken Twain at his word and presented her in that
same way, seldom illuminating her life outside his shadow. Paine's Olivia
was innocent and idealized, Van Wyck Brook's Olivia was a censor, Justin
Kaplan's Olivia was a needy Victorian with the vapors, and the list could
go on.

This is not to say that readers have not had glimpses of her other
dimensions from time to time, but the emergence of her personhood has been
excruciatingly slow. In Clara Clemens's _My Father Mark Twain_ (1931), _The
Love Letters of Mark Twain_ (1949), and Caroline Harnsberger's _Mark Twain,
Family Man_ (1960), Olivia is seen as a conventional Victorian woman of
wealth--delicate, dedicated, and domestic. In Stoutenberg and Baker's
_Dear, Dear Livy_ (1963) she is presented through invented dialogues in an
engaging bit of historical fiction intended for young readers. She had
fared a little better in Katy Leary's 1925 memoir, _A Lifetime with Mark
Twain_ (edited or written by Mary Lawton), where she begins to emerge in
bits of reasonably reliable dialogue with her devoted housekeeper. She
emerges more fully in Resa Willis's _Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark
Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him_ (1992), where many letters are
quoted, but this account focuses on her courtship and marriage, and is as
much about Twain as it is his wife. Martin Naparsteck dismisses Willis's
book for this reason and claims his account, _Mrs. Mark Twain: The Story of
Olivia Langdon Clemens, 1845-1904_ (2014), is the first full-length
biography of Olivia, but Twain dominates most of his narrative, appearing
on nearly every page, and the text is sprinkled with a few minor but
annoying factual errors.

Susan K. Harris's _The Courtship of Olivia Langdon Clemens and Mark Twain_
(1996) is excellent, and Olivia emerges more fully from the heavily gilded
Victorian frame around her portrait, but this book is not a full-blown
biography, and the focus is on their courtship and first few years of
marriage. We learned more of Olivia when Jeffrey Steinbrink's _Getting to
Be Mark Twain_ (1991) quoted from her letters, and when Laura E. Trombley
devoted two chapters to Olivia in _Mark Twain in the Company of Women_
(1994), in which she examines how Olivia had been treated in print up to
that time. In 2003 much of the mystery and confusion about Olivia's
protracted illness in her teen years was clarified by Dr. K. Patrick Ober's
_Mark Twain and Medicine: "Any Mummery Will Cure."_ Finally, Olivia became
much more visible and knowable in the Twain biographies by Ron Powers and
Gary Scharnhorst, but in the context of any biography of Mark Twain, she
must still stand aside from the main attraction.

She has not been the only person associated with Mark Twain to stand in his
shadow, but it seems strange that she has stood there as long as she has.
We have biographies, autobiographies, or collected letters of authors who
were closely associated with Twain like Howells, Cable, Harte, De Quille,
Warner, and Ward; his publishers like Bliss, Osgood, and Harper; his close
friend Joe Twichell; his family, including mother Jane, daughters Susy and
Clara, and brother Orion. Olivia's life has unfolded more slowly, hampered
by misconceptions and mythologies. The condescending and conflicted image
of Olivia as a fragile semi-invalid, who was somehow strong enough in
spirit to be a censorious little shrew--in a dainty Victorian sort of way,
of course--has been slowly evaporating as rays of sunlight penetrate the
shadows where she has so often been relegated.

In truth, as Barbara Snedecor reminds us in the preface to this wonderful
collection of Olivia Clemens's letters, she was a pampered child of
privilege who married a strong-willed man from an entirely different
background whose family, friends, and business associates did not control
him, and she proceeded to compel his adoration and respect throughout their
entire four decades of marriage, gave birth to four children and raised
three of them to adulthood, managed a staff of male and female servants who
sometimes got drunk and misbehaved (often doing so during her husband's
frequent absences from home on business or when lecturing), traveled around
the world, took an active and equal part in household and financial
decision-making, and with her husband overcame profound tragedies, serious
health issues, and dire financial setbacks. At all times she was painfully
aware of the social expectations for a woman of her social status, and
navigated her way through it all with grace and a sense of humor, earning
the universal love and admiration of everyone who knew her or ever met her.

With the publication of Olivia Clemens's letters, no more emancipating
sunlight is needed. Through these letters Olivia herself now casts her own
light on everything in her orbit-- her husband, her family, their friends,
and the complicated society in which they lived. She left behind about 600
surviving letters, of which 275 are included in this volume, presented in
chronological order with unobtrusive endnotes, a list of repositories and
the location of each letter indicated, an ample index, and an informative
and insightful preface. Snedecor's selection extends Olivia's
correspondence well beyond the letters she wrote to her husband and his
associates, and brings her own social circle into sharper focus. Olivia was
well-read, but a mediocre speller, and Snedecor has lightly edited the
texts, preserving Olivia's eccentric spellings (which endlessly amused her
husband), and indicating with ellipses where repetitive or extraneous
material is omitted. Olivia speaks! And, she has a lot to say, and she says
it. Like so much of what we don't yet know about the life of Mark Twain,
this epistolary evidence has been there all along, and its publication is
long overdue

It must be admitted that had Olivia Langdon not married Samuel Clemens, she
would be viewed, perhaps dismissively, as just one more wealthy Victorian
lady of the house, and her letters would not hold our interest. She writes
about many of the things a woman of her time would predictably write about:
She reports on the intellectual and emotional growth of her children, her
day-to-day activities, visitors and social calls, contemporary social and
political issues, and she gently but firmly chides her husband when needed,
and she often expresses her own yearning for his return during his frequent
travels away from their home.

In fact, we have Twain's absences from his household to thank for more than
a few of these letters. These letters draw attention to how often Twain was
away from his family, sometimes for prolonged intervals, leaving Olivia in
charge to run things in his absence. Family letters always include reports
of illnesses, but these letters also draw attention to how often serious
illnesses disrupted the Clemens household in the days before antibiotics
and other effective treatments. These letters also serve as a reminder that
letters seldom passed between Olivia and her husband when he was home,
until toward the end of her life when she was seriously ill, and later on
her deathbed. For that reason --although Twain, Olivia and a few others
reported some of their private conversations-- most of their intimate
communications will be forever lost to history. But this collection also
includes Olivia's letters to her friends and other family members, most of
them written when her famous husband was home. They sometimes mention him,
but more importantly, in these letters to others we are given insights into
her outside relationships, something that has been mostly lacking in
previous examinations of her life. She writes her own family members in
Elmira--her mother, the Cranes, and Charley and Ida Langdon; as well as her
Nook Farm social circle and other friends, both near and far: the
Spauldings, the Hookers, the Twichells, the Perkins, the Warners, Alice
Day, and Grace King, to name the more frequent correspondents.

In these letters, Olivia is more intelligent, outspoken, self-aware,
energetic, witty, and human than she might have appeared before. In
November 1879, for example, she writes to her mother, mentioning something
she'd told her husband:

"I told Mr. Clemens the other day, that in this day women must be
everything they must keep up with all the current literature, they must
know all about art, they must help in one or two benevolent societies--they
must be perfect mothers--they must be perfect housekeepers & graceful
gracious hostesses, they must know how to give perfect dinners, they must
go and visit all the people in the town where they live, they must always
be ready to receive their acquaintances--they must dress themselves & their
children becomingly and above all they must make their houses "_charming_"
& so on without end--then if they are not studying something their case is
a hopeless one--" (p. 149).

These are not the whiny words of a whimpering woman who plays the role of a
doormat. We do not have her mother's reply, nor do we know Mr. Clemens's
response to this incisive outburst, but we have to pause and wonder if a
woman who would write those words could not later have used the nom de
plume "Charlotte Perkins Gilman" to write the story, _The Yellow Wallpaper_
(1892), or perhaps, using the name "Kate Chopin," pen _The Awakening_

In some letters her wit is displayed when she corrects her husband's
letters in real time as he writes them, sitting opposite him at their
writing table, penning denials in between the lines of his outrageous
tongue-in-cheek claims (p. 38). In other letters she tells stories on
herself, as when she and Clara went shopping in Florence and, unable to
communicate very well with the shopkeeper, buying several bottles of fluids
without knowing exactly what the contents were, and discovering later on
what they'd bought by tasting and smelling the contents (p. 127). She
frequently provides humorous reports of the children's progress in their
studies (pp. 143, 149, etc.), and describes how Jean at age thirteen takes
an interest in animal welfare and insists that they only ride in carriages
operated by drivers who will not whip their horses, which results in some
very very slow trips around Paris (p. 249).

At times, Olivia offers suggestions to her husband. At the beginning of the
Twain-Cable tour of 1884-1885 she writes to him with a list of things she
thinks he should include in his readings. Surviving programs give no sign
that he followed any of her suggestions (p. 169). She also gives him the
kind of prudent advice a publicist might give an unruly client, reminding
him to treat Bret Harte with civility (pp. 93-4) and be mindful of what he
says about George W. Cable in public (p. 173).

Other letters are difficult to read. After reading several letters in which
her concern for Susy grows as she repeats the news that she has not gotten
a letter from her daughter, she gets news that Susy is ill. A few pages
later we are reading the letters to her friends in which she pours out her
grief over Susy's death, sometimes losing the will to live, and barely
suppressing her anger.

Barbara Snedecor has performed a genuine service to Twain scholarship by
giving us Olivia Clemens in her own words at long last, allowing readers to
see her as a woman and a person, a free-standing individual unobscured by
the filters, myths, and shadowing that have impeded our comprehension. As
Snedecor explains, the title of this collection, _Gravity_, derives from
the name Twain used to describe his beloved Livy early in their
relationship. It captures both her serious nature, which often amused her
husband, and it also expresses her critical role as an anchoring force in
their relationship and in their household, a household which certainly
would have seemed to defy gravity without her gravitational pull at its
center. In fact, after her death, the Clemens household did more often
resemble a rudderless vessel without an anchor, or a planet without
gravity, with nothing left at its core. The readers of these letters will
understand why, and appreciate this woman who knew her own mind and made
her husband's success possible.