A walking tour of Mark Twain
landmarks in Manhattan
“Make your mark in New York, and you are a made man. With a New York endorsement you may travel the country over, without fear — but without it you are speculating upon a dangerous issue.”
So Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) famously advised, and in his case “a New York endorsement” did prove to be the ticket to lasting fame. At the same time, New York put its own distinctive imprint on Mark Twain. If Sam Clemens had never come to our town there would be no Mark Twain — at least, not the Mark Twain we know and cherish.
For starters, there would have been no “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog.” When the New York Saturday Press printed that story on November 18, 1865, it “set all New York in a roar” and launched Twain’s national career. But as Twain himself tells us, the story “never would have been written but to please Artemus Ward” — a New York-based humorist Twain had met in Nevada. Likewise, The Innocents Abroad, the hilarious, irreverent best-seller that made Twain an international celebrity (and a rich man), also would have gone unwritten, since it was based on Twain’s experiences and observations during an extended pleasure cruise aboard the steamship Quaker City in the summer and fall of 1867, an excursion organized and mostly populated by a crowd of prosperous New Yorkers.
Sam Clemens’ connection with the city actually dated back to August 1853, when he was a 17-year-old itinerant typesetter out to see the world, starting with New York. The oldest surviving manuscript from Mark Twain’s hand, in fact, is a letter he sent home that summer. In it, he voiced a sentiment that’s been echoed by many a visitor since then — and many a resident, for that matter: “I have taken a liking to the abominable place.”
When he returned at the start of 1867, Sam Clemens had become the journalist Mark Twain, a.k.a. “The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope.” He immediately set about using his New York connections to make the leap from regional jokester to international celebrity-author. An editor friend, Charles Webb, published Twain’s first book, a collection of humorous newspaper pieces, on May 1st. Five days later Twain kicked off a brilliant 30-year career as a touring platform entertainer with a performance in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. He was away on the Quaker City cruise from June to November, but he was back in late December, just in time to meet his future wife, Livy Langdon, “a sweet and timid and lovely young girl” and the sister of a Quaker City shipmate. They were introduced on New Year’s Eve at the fashionable St. Nicholas Hotel on lower Broadway, where she and her family were staying; “from that day till this,” Twain would say in 1906, “the sister has never been out of my mind nor heart.”
Besides these literally life-changing opportunities, New York also gave Sam Clemens something equally important, though less well recognized: a way to outgrow the reflexive racism of his era and his own slave-holding past, intellectual baggage he had to shed before he could merit a place in the front rank of our writers. This was no small thing. In fact, as a great Twain scholar, Louis J. Budd, once said, "Perhaps the brightest side of [Twain's] whole intellectual career is his progress away from racism."
He had quite a ways to go. The ambitious 31-year-old newspaper correspondent who returned to Manhattan in 1867 didn’t hesitate to amuse readers with the kind of loutish race-baiting that was a mainstay of American humor. In one California article, for instance, he had observed that “a Chinaman has no talent for blacking boots.” “When you desire the services of a real artist," he advised, "always choose one of the three naturally gifted species of boot-blacks — a freedman, or a colored citizen, or a nigger.” En route to New York, he solemnly assured his readers that fog-bound mariners off the Florida coast could safely guide their ships by the “fragrance” that blew out to sea from the negro quarter near the Key West lighthouse. (He had already noted in an earlier letter that “to stand to leeward of a sweating negro is rough.”) Now in New York, Mark Twain declared himself outraged at the spectacle of “negroes sitting stuck up comfortably” in a crowded streetcar, while “lovely young white ladies” were forced to stand; using the then-current term for a free Black, he declared, “Then I wanted a contraband for breakfast.”
Luckily for Twain (and for us) exposure to New York’s diversity and encounters with socially progressive Easterners helped spark a remarkable self-transformation — a change all the more commendable in a popular writer already edging toward middle age. And the most important influence by far was Twain’s future father-in-law, Jervis Langdon.
Biographers used to dismiss the Langdon family as a stereotypical upper-class, up-tight Victorian household who effectively tamed and “sivilized” Sam Clemens and, in Livy’s case, censored his writing. In fact, the Langdons seem to have been far more interesting and admirable than generally acknowledged. Jervis Langdon was a self-made, visionary industrialist (in lumber, coal & railroads) and, crucially, an enlightened and deeply committed progressive. In 1846, when their Presbyterian church refused to condemn slavery, Langdon led a group of dissenters in founding a new church that became a vital center for harboring fugitive slaves and sending them on to freedom. He spent much of a large fortune on abolition and other liberal causes. He and his wife were active in the Underground Railroad and were friends and supporters of Frederick Douglass. Twain would praise him warmly in 1970 as “an Abolitionist from the cradle [who] worked openly & valiantly in that cause all through the days when to do such a thing was to ensure a man disgrace, insult, hatred & bodily peril.” *
In his autobiography Twain confesses freely that he grew up with no qualms about slavery and racial oppression: “I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. The local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing.” Later, he would call slavery the greatest “blot on our history” and “a bald, grotesque and unwarrantable usurpation”; he would write about the generations of white Americans “debased by the brutalizing effects . . . of slave-owning,” and Booker T. Washington would extol Twain for "his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people." Twain was silent, though, as to the steps that led him to these more humane and enlightened views.
I suggest Livy was the key — Livy and her open-hearted, ardently progressive family. In Livy, Sam Clemens found his soulmate, and in her father he found something he had never known or expected: a successful, benevolent father figure, and one, moreover, who, as Olivia’s father, held Clemens’ future happiness in his hands. Together they provided the liberalizing influence Sam Clemens needed in order to attain his full moral stature.
Sam’s courtship was an impassioned, 17-month-long campaign, much of it specifically aimed at proving himself worthy of Livy, the treasured jewel of the refined, abstemious Langdon family. He attended church with his beloved, sang hymns in her parlor, quoted scripture in his at-least-daily love letters, and vowed to improve his manners and morals and to forswear liquor and profanity.
At the same time, he began to seriously reexamine his racial attitudes. It was during his courtship of Livy that casual racial slurs quietly disappeared from his writing, and it was only after coming within the Langdon circle that Sam Clemens was able to decisively broaden his sympathies and shuck off most (if never quite all) of his earlier bigotry and condescension. As another Twain scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, put it, "Jervis Langdon was central to the process by which Sam Clemens remade himself into Mark Twain."
Would that have happened anyway? Not necessarily. For any 19th-century humorist, race jokes were a convenient and useful part of his tool kit. His readers enjoyed them, and he could have gone on for decades in that vein . . . and remained a second-rank writer. If Mark Twain is our greatest author, it’s because he spoke the truth, mainly (“with some stretchers,” as Huck says) about our deepest human concerns; and the thing about racist humor is not just that it's offensive or even that it is cruel, but that at bottom it is false. Livy and her family helped Sam learn that.
And he learned well. In later years Sam Clemens, through the voice and pen of Mark Twain, would frequently express warm admiration and sympathy for black Americans and be a friend and strong supporter of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and other activists. He would raise funds for the fledgling NAACP, and help finance the education of a black law student, Warner T. McGuinn, who in turn would be the mentor of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American on the Supreme Court. He would write scathing denunciations of what we now call crimes against humanity, from post-Reconstruction lynchings in the American South to imperialist European and American atrocities in China, the Congo and the Philippines. And he would publish, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most eloquent and enduring critiques of racism in all American literature.
— Peter Salwen
New York City, December 2010
* A pretty good measure of Clemens' moral growth. As a boy he had been taught that there was no lower, meaner creature than an abolitionist; Huck Finn sums it up well when he tells us he would “be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame” if anyone from home were to learn that he had helped a slave “to get his freedom.”
Olivia Louise Langdon ("Livy") won Sam Clemens' heart the day they met in December 1867. To win her extremely reluctant heart and prove himself worthy, the hard-drinking, cheerfully profane knockabout journalist was prepared to make drastic changes in his manner and habits — changes that worked out pretty well, on the whole, for all concerned. Below, the Langdons' genteel parlor in Elmira, NY.
A walking tour of Mark Twain
landmarks in Manhattan