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

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The following review appeared 10 December 2023 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

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 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 (1899).

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.