opposites attract -- 5/5/14

Today's selection --  from The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was an uncouth and profane curmudgeon who reveled in ridiculing and bewildering members of the American "aristocracy." But he fell in love with a gentle young lady from a respectable New York family: 

"[Mark Twain's] book The Innocents Abroad bore traces of another influence, closer to his heart: a twenty-three-year-old girl named Olivia Langdon with whom he had fallen madly in love.

"In a typically Twainian coincidence, the same trip that produced The Innocents Abroad also led him to 'Livy.' He had met her in late 1867 through her brother Charley, a fellow passenger aboard the Quaker City. By the summer of 1868, he had proposed. It wasn't an obvious match. For one, she didn't share his sense of humor. His wit ricocheted right off her, even when delivered in his rollicking drawl. She was meek where he was manic, pious where he was profane. She came from a rich, respectable family in Elmira, New York, and grew up in a cocoon of Victorian gentility entirely insulated from the frontier society that created Twain. To imagine this graduate of the Elmira Ladies' Seminary having anything more than a passing acquaintance with the whiskey-swilling westerner was about as farfetched as a barroom yarn about giant grasshoppers or jumping frogs.

"Predictably, her answer was no. But he wouldn't give up: he wrote her some 184 letters over the next seventeen months in which he tried to sound like the man she might want to marry. He quoted Scripture. He scrubbed his language of anything western. He presented himself as a sinner, sorely in need of her civilizing influence, and disowned the parts of his past she might find unpalatable. 'Don't read a word in that Jumping Frog book, Livy -- don't,' he wrote. 'I would be glad to know that every copy of it was burned, & gone forever.'


"All these saintly noises sounded a bit strange coming from Twain's pen, but it wasn't as uncharacteristic as it looked. He loved Livy sincerely, with a passion that cut past his usual irony and tapped an emotional current of true intensity. She also belonged to a world he desperately wanted to join: the upper stratum of American society. Over the last several years, he had inched his way up, from Virginia City to the more sophisticated precincts of San Francisco. Now he was in the East, about to publish a book he hoped would be taken seriously by members of Livy's social class. He wanted the acceptance of America's elites, despite his tendency to ridicule and bewilder them. Livy offered access to this aristocracy, and he set about grooming himself for the role of her suitor.

"Fortunately, it never quite fit. He would never be a proper gentleman, or a credible Christian, or speak sentences uninflected by the drawl that gave his voice its remarkable melody. He couldn't get rid of the West if he tried: it was in his blood, inoculating him against bad, boring writing, inspiring the rhythms that would realign American literature. But he cleaned up enough for Livy, who finally said yes to him in late 1868. 'I am so happy I want to scalp someone,' he roared to a friend. He hadn't gained just a fiancee but a partner in crime, a highly educated companion who could edit his work. As page proofs of The Innocents Abroad began arriving in the spring of 1869, she took it upon herself to revise them -- to 'scratch out all that don't suit her,' in Twain's words. Like Harte, she helped trim the manuscript's rougher bits to create a product that would be agreeable to the reading public of postwar America.

"It worked. The Innocents Abroad sold 82,524 copies in its first eighteen months, earning Twain $16,504 in royalties -- or more than $217,000 in today's dollars. It would be his biggest best seller by far, the book that gave him a permanent place in the culture."


Ben Tarnoff


The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature


The Penguin Press HC


Copyright 2014 by Benjamin Tarnoff


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