Friday, October 11, 2013

Mark Twain On How To Announce Your Marriage Engagement

by Stephen J. Gertz

On October 16, 2013, Bonham's-Los Angeles is offering a three-page, recto and verso Autograph Letter Signed, dated Elmira, NY, February 5, 1869 by Mark Twain regarding his engagement to be married, in its Fine Books and Manuscripts including Historical Photographs sale. It is estimated to sell for $15,000-$25,000.

Samuel L. Clemens and Olivia Langdon, the woman who would become his wife, initially met at the end of 1867; together they attended a reading by Charles Dickens. Throughout 1868 Twain conducted his courtship of her primarily through letters. Olivia rejected his first proposal but accepted his second in 1869. Upon her acceptance, Clemens composed a clarion call to his family, less an engagement announcement than a gushing, self-deprecating declaration of intent that dares his family not to love his future wife, the sort of sentiment deeply appreciated by a prospective spouse.

The letter reads in full:

Olivia Clemens, neƩ Langdon.

My dear Mother & Brother & Sisters & Nephew & Niece, & Margaret: 

This is to inform you that on yesterday, the 4th of February, I was duly & solemnly & irrevocably engaged to be married to Miss Olivia L. Langdon, of Elmira, New York. Amen. She is the best girl in all the world, & the most sensible, & I am just as proud of her as I can be.

It may be a good while before we are married, for I am not rich enough to give her a comfortable home right away, & I don't want anybody's help. I can get an eighth of the Cleveland Herald for $25,000, & have it so arranged that I can pay for it as I earn the money with my unaided hands. I shall look around a little more, & if I can do no better elsewhere, I shall take it.
I am not worrying about whether you will love my future wife or not—if you know her twenty-four hours & then don't love her, you will accomplish what nobody else has ever succeeded in doing since she was born. She just naturally drops into everybody's affections that comes across her. My prophecy was correct. She said she never could or would love me—but she set herself the task of making a Christian of me. I said she would succeed, but that in the meantime she would unwittingly dig a matrimonial pit & end up tumbling into it—& lo! the prophecy is fulfilled. She was in New York a day or two ago, & George Wiley & his wife Clara know her now. Pump them, if you want to. You shall see her before very long. 

Love to all. Affect'ly 


P.S. Shall be here a week.

Twain, c. 1869.

They were married a year later. Their marriage a happy one, it lasted thirty-four years, enduring the death of two children and periodic financial troubles secondary to Clemens' weakness for get rich quick schemes. Aside from pen & paper, the only investment that ever paid off for him was his effort to win the heart of Olivia Langdon.

This letter is found in The Love Letters of Mark Twain, p. 64. Its provenance is solid: that of the prominent Twain scholar and collector Chester L. Davis, (1903-1987). It was last seen at Christie's New York, June 9, 1992, lot 35, when it sold for $9,500. 

Letter image courtesy of Bonham's, with our thanks.

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