Mark Twain’s Mormon Girlfriend

Alan Manning, professor of linguistics at BYU, discusses his new article about the evidence he believes points to a Mormon girlfriend in Twain’s past.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 27, 2017)—In 2003, Alan Manning, a linguistics professor at BYU, got an email from his colleague Nicole Amare, an English professor at the University of South Alabama. While reading Huckleberry Finn, she had noticed possible parallels between the character of Old Boggs and Lilburn W. Boggs, the Governor of Missouri who signed the “Extermination Order” against Mormons in 1838. That was the beginning of years of teamwork and research between Manning and Amare on Mormon themes and symbols in Twain’s writing. Most recently, they published The Mormon Entombed in Mark Twain’s Heart: Ina Coolbrith and Samuel Clemens. As the title suggests, it examines the possibility of a relationship between Coolbrith, a disaffected Mormon poet living in San Francisco, and Twain, a young writer who met her while living there.

It is evident Manning loves his work. His voice belies excitement as he explains that the first clue to this relationship was Twain’s seemingly sudden interest in Mormons. In 1871, while writing Roughing It, a semi-autobiographical account of his journeys in the Western Territories, Twain writes to his brother (who journeyed with him) to ask for help jogging his memory about what happened during their time in Utah among the Mormons in 1861. Manning explained, “He wasn’t paying attention to Mormons at all in 1861 when he goes through Utah for real, so when he’s trying to reconstruct it in 1871 he’s very interested.” For Manning and Amare, this prompted the question, “Why?”

“We suspected there was a Mormon girlfriend because women tend to be the ones who influenced Twain the most in his life,” Manning laughed. “There have always been rumors that there was a relationship between Ina Coolbrith and Twain.” At the time Twain met Coolbrith, he was living and writing in San Francisco, saving money to build a house. Manning and Amare’s article states, “In addition to writing for newspapers and panning for gold, he hung out with fellow San Francisco writers of ‘Bohemia,’ [one of] whose most prominent members [was] Ina Coolbrith.”

Ina Coolbrith, Joseph Smith’s niece, was only three when her mother left the Mormon community after Joseph’s death. When her mother eventually married again, Ina moved with her family to California. She used her mother’s maiden name and did not publicly associate herself with her Mormon family. Extensive letters between her and her first cousin Joseph F. Smith, however, prove that she was well aware of Mormons and well versed in their doctrine and theology, which she almost certainly discussed with Twain.

Another evidence of this Mormon influence cited by the article is the assertion by Twain that he, too, was in possession of ancient writings which he planned to translate, later published as “Adam’s Diary,” “Eve’s Diary,” and as parts of Letters from the Earth. In those writings, Twain aligns himself with the Mormons in his assertion that Eve acted correctly in eating the fruit, that heavenly beings are capable of sexual activity in heaven, and that heaven is impossible without a family unit. In Roughing It, a seemingly out-of-place image is included of a woman strongly resembling Coolbrith wearing ceremonial temple clothing. But perhaps the most striking of all is the extended metaphor of a “temple” of brass and marble that was destroyed, in his poem “In Memoriam – Olivia Susan Clemens.”

Ina and Twain never married—she left him for another man, after which Twain abruptly left San Francisco. However brief their time together, the evidences of their relationship can be found in the form of Mormon references scattered throughout Twain’s work. Manning and Amare believe that in a way, his fascination with a religious culture ultimately stemmed from his fascination with just one woman.


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers news for the Linguistics Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.