A chance encounter on a New Orleans dock in 1858 haunted the writer for the rest of his life
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 gaslightsof New Orleans. As the Pennsylvania berthed, Clemens glanced to his side and recognized the adjacent craft, the John J. Roe.
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 andbraids: 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 andwinsome 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 sometimespiloted 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 apowerful, 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 womanappeared, 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 thespecter’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 amuse? 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...