On an empyreal spring evening in 1858, with the oleander in bloom upriver and early jasmine scenting the wind, the steersman for the Mississippi steamboat Pennsylvania, a bookish 22-year-old named Sam Clemens, guided the massive packet into the docks under the winking gaslights of New Orleans. As the Pennsylvania berthed, Clemens glanced to his side and recognized the adjacent craft, the John J. Roe.
From This Story
Perhaps recalling his many happy assignments steering the Roe, the young apprentice pilot leapt spontaneously onto the freighter’s deck. He was amiably shaking the hands of his former mates when he froze, transfixed by the sight of a slight figure in a white frock and braids: a girl not yet on the cusp of womanhood who would forever after haunt his dreams and shape his literature.
Mark Twain’s description, written years later, of the girl as she emerged from the jumble of deckhands, leaves no doubt as to the spell she cast on him. “Now, out of their midst, floating upon my enchanted vision, came that slip of a girl of whom I have spoken...a frank and simple and winsome child who had never been away from home in her life before.” She had, the author continued, “brought with her to these distant regions the freshness and the fragrance of her own prairies.”
The winsome child’s name was Laura Wright. She was only 14, perhaps not quite, on that antebellum May evening, enjoying a river excursion in the care of her uncle, William C. Youngblood, who sometimes piloted the Roe. Her family hailed from Warsaw, Missouri, an inland hamlet some 200 miles west of St. Louis.
She surely could never have imagined the import of that excursion. In this centenary year of Mark Twain’s death, it may seem that literary detectives have long since ransacked nearly every aspect of his life and works. Yet Laura Wright remains among the final enigmas associated with him. Only one faded photograph of her is known to exist. All but a few fragmentary episodes of her own long life remain unchronicled. Mark Twain’s references to her are, for the most part, cryptic and tinged with mysticism. Their encounter in New Orleans spanned but parts of three days; they met only once after that, in a brief and thwarted courting call that Sam paid two years later in 1860.
Yet in a powerful, psychic sense, they never parted. In 1898, Mark Twain,at the time living in Vienna with his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens (Livy), and daughters Susy, Clara and Jean, finally unburdened himself of Laura Wright’s impact on him. In a lengthy essay entitled “My Platonic Sweetheart,” published posthumously in 1912, he described a protracted and obsessive recurring dream. A young woman appeared, with differing features and names, but always under the guise of the same benevolent, adoring persona. Mark Twain and the mysterious apparition floated hand in hand over cities and continents, spoke a language known only to themselves (“Rax oha tal”), and comforted each other with a love more rarefied than between brother and sister, yet not specifically erotic. Mark Twain did not supply the specter’s real-life name, but scholar Howard Baetzhold has pieced together overwhelming evidence that the figure in the dream is Laura.
The Platonic Sweetheart gazes out at us today, Mona Lisa-like, from her repose inside the fecund dream world of the man who redefined American literature. But how significant was Laura Wright’s influence on Mark Twain, both as an object of affection and as a muse? Mark Twain took the answers to these questions with him when he joined the arc of Halley’s comet at Redding, Connecticut, on April 21, 1910. Yet Baetzhold’s investigations—not to mention Mark Twain’s own writings—have generated powerful evidence that the effect of this nearly forgotten figure was profound.
Certainly Mark Twain’s obsession arose instantaneously. In his posthumously published Autobiography he recalled losing no time declaring the young girl to be his “instantly elected sweetheart” and hovering no more than four inches from her elbow (“during our waking hours,” the Autobiography primly stipulated) for the ensuing three days. Perhaps he escorted her along the colorful French market or danced the schottische on the deck of the Roe. The two talked and talked, their conversations drifting unrecorded into the ether.
Never mind her tender years and provincial origins; something about Laura Wright seared itself into Sam’s soul. “I could see her with perfect distinctness in the unfaded bloom of her youth,” Mark Twain went on in his Autobiography, “with her plaited tails dangling from her young head and her white summer frock puffing about in the wind of that ancient Mississippi time.”
Sam and Laura were obliged to part when the Pennsylvania backed out of the docks for its upriver voyage. Laura had given him a gold ring, Mark Twain would many years later confide to his secretary, Isabel Lyon. Only three weeks later, a catastrophe occurred, as traumatic to Sam as meeting Laura had been rhapsodic. This tragedy may have forged his need to take recourse from grief in fantasies of a healing angel. On the morning of Sunday, June 13, the Pennsylvania exploded, with tremendous loss of life. Sam was not aboard, but his younger brother, Henry, was—serving as a “mud clerk,” or boy who would go ashore, often at a mud bank, to receive or hand off freight. Sam had secured the position for his brother as a gift, hoping to offer the shy boy an exposure to Sam’s own world of riverboat adventure. It took the badly burned Henry a week to die in a makeshift Memphis hospital. Sam reached his brother and witnessed the end. The guilt-ridden letter in which he announced the news to the Clemens family amounts to a scream of primal anguish. “Long before this reaches you,” it began, “my poor Henry—my darling, my pride, my glory, my all, will have finished his blameless career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter darkness. O, God! this is hard to bear.”