Twain house tour reveals fascinating intersection of author's public and private life
More than one hundred years after his death, Mark Twain remains as contemporary and controversial as he was in his own time. A publisher's decision to excise the N word from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the long-awaited release of Volume 1 of Twain's autobiography - kept private for a century at his behest - gave him the kind of press last year that living authors would envy. With all this attention being paid, what better time to visit his home in Hartford?
We set out on a March day with a rare blue sky, and tour business was brisk. The Mark Twain House & Museum, at 351 Farmington Ave., includes a large, separate building with a gallery, gift shop and restaurant. The walls are lined with Twain quotes: "Always do right. This will gratify some and astonish the rest." "A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval." "Be good and you will be lonesome." We only had time to peruse these quickly before our tour guide, Allison, ushered us up a long flight of stairs to the second-floor exit, which faces the Twain carriage house.
Allison was energetic and no-nonsense, and if she was a bit Generation X (calling Christian radicals the punk rockers of their day), she was knowledgeable and answered questions with authority. In the home's elaborate foyer, she set about upending some of our assumptions about the man who was born Samuel Clemens. The house, a Victorian monstrosity of gables, balconies and porches that cost $40,000 to build in 1874, was not bankrolled by Twain's royalties but by the inheritance of his wife, Olivia, heir to a textile fortune. And it was ambition that led them to locate in Hartford's Nook Farm, one of the first Victorian subdivisions, with already famous Harriet Beecher Stowe living next door and the capital city full of the type of publishing contacts that could advance Clemens' writing career.
To make the most of those contacts, the Clemens family would have to entertain, and the house reverberates with the tension between the demands of society and a writer's quest for peace and quiet. The foyer is grand - its walls and ceilings are trimmed with American walnut and red and black stenciling, and a massive fireplace is topped by a window that lets in light from the piano room. Reproductions of Victorian calling cards rest in a brass stand, and herein lies the first hint of the author's problem. The house was full of callers, all day every day, and Olivia tried to keep them from disturbing her hard-working husband, who was upstairs scribbling - and later, typing - away. There would be dinner guests, too, five or six nights a week, and the dining room table is set with the oyster plates the family used to show off its prosperity. Their grocery bill was $500 a month, our guide tells us, a fortune in the 1870s.
When the house was built, Clemens planned to write in a second-floor room equipped with a long, low window shelf topped by cushions. He soon discovered the folly of this plan as the laughter of company, and the opening and shutting of doors, drifted up the stairs. The second-floor study became a schoolroom for their three daughters, Susy, Clara and Jean, and Clemens escaped to the third floor. Here, in a long, light-filled room, he would write the books that would bring him fame and fortune, including "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" as well as "Huckleberry Finn," believed by some to be the greatest American novel ever written. "In fact, he created modern literature," Allison tells us, a claim that is no exaggeration.
But he seems to have brought his distractions with him. The study is dominated by a billiards table, and billiard sticks and cues are painted on the ceiling. The views - of the Park River, since buried underground, and rolling farm fields - tempted him so much he was forced to put his desk in a corner, away from the windows. And at night, the study became a venue for rollicking parties that carried on until 3 a.m., our guide says, and Clemens's devoted butler, George Griffin, often was forced to sleep in the guest room next door, lest his employer need something.
The third-floor study is perhaps most revealing of Clemens the man. His fascination with technology, with the new and improved, is here in the form of a typewriter; he was the first American author to compose an entire novel on the new device, according to our guide. (Biographer Ron Powers, however, reports that Clemens exaggerated when he made this assertion.) Framed on the mantel is a copy of a $200,000 royalty check he cut to Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant after publishing her late husband's memoirs. His generosity and foolhardy investments would bring him to the brink of financial ruin.
We wound down the servants' stairs to conclude the tour and opted to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe house next door. How fitting that two of the greatest writers of the Civil War would live next door to one another and, despite a generation gap of thirty years, enjoy a fast friendship. If Stowe, through "Uncle Tom's Cabin," was the little lady who started the great war, to paraphrase President Lincoln, then Twain was the man to deal with its aftermath, as Huck Finn wrestles with his conscience over the fate of Jim.
Stowe's home is much more modest, with a plain gray façade. You can't imagine the Clemens home being anything but a museum today, but Stowe's house looks like it could easily be renovated into a bed-and-breakfast. Guests enter through a narrow hallway with no fireplace. Here one finds more calling cards, but less room to linger. The rooms are full of the same sort of Victorian bric-a-brac that clutters her neighbor's house, including a candelabra with a depiction of Uncle Tom and Little Eva, and the very desk on which she wrote the famous novel (in Brunswick, Maine). Many of the rooms are lined with her naïve paintings of flowers and animals, and a photograph upstairs depicts the remarkable Beecher family, including her preacher brothers and sister Catharine, who pioneered education for women.
Our guide delivered a tour that was a little more rehearsed, and rushed, than the one next door, and she was a little less able to go off script. On Stowe's bureau, for example, was a leather satchel of homeopathic medicines (engraved with the author's name) that she brought along when she traveled. But our guide couldn't shed much insight into Stowe's health, other than to note she lived to be 85, a considerable achievement in the nineteenth century. In fact, Stowe battled a number of complaints throughout her life, stemming from a bout of cholera and mercury poisoning that prompted her to take the so-called Water Cure in Brattleboro, Vt., in the 1840s, and to champion homeopathy as less risky than the conventional cures of the day.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the author's birth. A trip to Hartford offers the rare chance to visit the homes of two authors who had an incredible impact - the woman whose novel outsold every book but the Bible, and the man who created America's modern literary voice.
IF YOU GO
The Mark Twain House and Museum is located at 351 Farmington Ave., off Exit 46 or 47 on I-84. A large, free parking lot is located next door. The on-site Murasaki Café offers Japanese and American dishes (we opted instead for City Steam Brewery, in downtown Hartford). Admission costs $16 for adults, $10 for children (ages 6 to 16). A ramp leads to the museum, but the upper floors of the house are not wheelchair-accessible. Through Sept. 6, the museum gallery is featuring "American Storytellers: Norman Rockwell and Mark Twain." For more information, visit www.marktwainhouse.org.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, at 77 Forest St., is located across the lawn from the Twain compound. Admission costs $9 for adults, $6 for children (5 to 16); the first floor of the adjacent Katharine Seymour Day House is included in the price. For more information, visit www.HarrietBeecherStowe.com.