Mark Twain in Love

A chance encounter on a New Orleans dock in 1858 haunted the writer for the rest of his life

After Mark Twain first glimpsed the girl of his dreams, he never forgot Laura Wright's "frank and simple and winsome" charms. (Illustration by Jody Hewgill)
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As Sam mourned his brother, Laura Wright remained fixed in Sam’s memory. He wrote letters to her, which she answered; in 1860 or so, he traveled to the family home in Warsaw to court her. Laura’s mother, no doubt suspicious of the 24-year-old riverman’s intentions toward her 16-year-old darling, may have pried into some of those letters—although years later, an aging Laura denied this to Mark Twain’s first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. At any rate, Mrs. Wright treated Sam with hostility; he soon stormed off in a fit of his famous temper. “The young lady has been beaten by the old one,” he wrote to his older brother Orion, “through the romantic agency of intercepted letters, and the girl still thinks I was in fault—and always will, I reckon.”

After he departed Warsaw, Clemens went so far as to consult a fortuneteller in New Orleans, one Madame Caprell, from whom he sought the lowdown on his prospects for rekindling the romance. (Clemens may have had his doubts about the existence of God, but he was a pushover for the paranormal.) Mme. Caprell “saw” Laura as “not remarkably pretty, but very intelligent...5 feet 3 inches—is slender—dark-brown hair and eyes,” a description that Clemens did not refute. “Drat the woman, she did tell the truth,” he complained to his brother Orion in an 1861 letter, after telling him that the medium had placed all blame on the mother. “But she said I would speak to Miss Laura first—and I’ll stake my last shirt on it, she missed it there.”

Thus it was Sam’s stubbornness that foreclosed any further encounter with Laura Wright. Yet they did meet, time and again, over the years, in Clemens’ dreams. And dreams, Samuel Clemens came to believe, were as real as anything in the waking world.

It is impossible to know when the Laura visitations commenced, but mention of them is strewn across the decades of Mark Twain’s writing. He thought of “Miss Laura” when he went to bed at night, he had admitted to Orion in that 1861 letter. At some point the thoughts morphed into nocturnal visions. “Saw L. Mark Write in a dream...said good bye and shook hands,” he wrote in his notebook in February 1865 from California, carefully altering her true name, as he always did. Mark Twain had already somehow discovered that the “instantly elected sweetheart” had elected someone else. “What has become of that girl of mine that got married?” he wrote in a letter to his mother, Jane Clemens, in September of 1864. “I mean Laura Wright.”

This was the period of Sam Clemens’ wild self-exile in the West, to which he had repaired with Orion to escape the Civil War. His robust drinking, alternating moods of risk-taking, pugnacity and black despair (he wrote later of placing a pistol barrel to his head but not squeezing the trigger), his crude practical jokes and his pose of flamboyance (“I am the most conceited ass in the Territory”) pointed to demons as disturbing as the prospect of death on the battlefield. Sorrow and guilt over Henry’s fate ravaged him—Mark Twain revisited the tragedy many times in his writing. As his letter to Jane Clemens shows, Laura weighed on his mind as well.

The corporal Laura weighed, that is. In her dream version, she had the opposite effect. The Platonic Sweetheart was weightless, serene: angelic, in fact—a healing angel to the troubled sleeper. “I put my arm around her waist and drew her close to me, for I loved behavior seemed quite natural and right,” Mark Twain wrote in “My Platonic Sweetheart” of an early dream encounter. “She showed no surprise, no distress, no displeasure, but put an arm around my waist, and turned up her face to mine with a happy welcome in it, and when I bent down to kiss her she received the kiss as if she was expecting it.” Mark Twain continued: “The affection which I felt for her and which she manifestly felt for me was a quite simple fact; but....It was not the affection of brother and sister—it was closer than that...and it was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it. It was somewhere between the two, and was finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting.”

It is possible that the dream-Laura might have counterweighted the demons that roiled in Mark Twain’s legendary “dark side,” as he called it, out West, tempering their self-destructive power over him, even as their fury ignited his creative fires. It was in the West, after all, that the “jackleg” (or self-improvised) journalist Mark Twain—he took the pseudonym in 1863—fully surrendered to the writing life and began to perfect the hot, lean, audacious, shockingly irreverent “voice” that would soon liberate American letters from the ornate pieties of the Boston Brahmins and, behind them, Old Europe. His editor at the Virginia City (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise, Joe Goodman, declared in 1900 that Mark Twain wrote some of the best material of his life—most of it alas, lost—during those Western years. “I was...fighting off lawsuits continuously,” Goodman recalled. “Nevertheless I stayed with Sam and never so much as cut a line out of his copy.”

A Laura-like apparition visited Cle­mens’ dreams at intervals throughout the rest of his life. He alluded to their fleeting waterfront romance in his notebooks and in his Autobiography. Baetzhold believes that Laura was the model for Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for Laura Hawkins in The Gilded Age, for Puss Flanagan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and even for Eve in “Eve’s Diary,” a comical short story based on the biblical creation myth. Except for Becky, these figures are among the most vibrant and autonomous female characters created by a writer often criticized for his one-dimensional, desexualized women. And Becky, that “lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes,” comes strikingly close to that winsome child “with her plaited tails dangling from her young head and her white summer frock puffing about in the wind.”

Finally, in 1898, Mark Twain ad­dressed Laura Wright straight on in all her dimensions, although not by name. “My Platonic Sweetheart” chronicled her appearances in dreams over the years. The essay was not published in Harper’s magazine until two and a half years after Mark Twain’s death.

But what of Laura Wright herself?


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