The Things to be Learned at Mark Twain's Hearth

Apologies for my long absence: I have been out of the country, with extremely shaky internet access and a distinct lack of free time. But more on that soon: first, a long promised tale.

Virtually my first action as a doctor was to undertake a visit to the home of Mark Twain (who clearly could rock the academic attire with the best of us) an easy drive from my university home of the past six years, but one (since I am not a driver) that I have never made. So, naturally, after a perfect party thrown by my delightful friends and family, after robing and hooding and receiving my diploma, after almost everyone had gone home and D had headed off to Philadelphia on a 24 hour work trip, where else would my parents and I go but the very eccentric home of Samuel Clemens, whom my father happens to resemble to an uncanny degree.

In fact, I was disappointed when only a couple of our fellow visitors remarked on the likeness. It must be admitted that the resemblance was strongest when my father was in his twenties and had not yet grown a goatee. This choice of facial hair and a reluctance to don white linen suits as Clemens self-consciously did in his later years means that although Père Sycorax at college age almost exactly resembled the photo to the right, he currently looks only distantly like the older Twain shown above.

At any rate, off we went to the home of my father's doppelganger, which, it turns out, is a very interesting house indeed. When he bought the house, Clemens was not yet a successful writer, having sold just a few pieces. He bought and built it with his wife's money (she had a considerably more genteel upbringing than her husband), which unfortunately ran out just as the house was constructed but before it was decorated. When they finally scrounged up enough money for the decoration, their dreams were glamorous but their budget was still small. As a result, the social rooms of the house are models of trompe l'oeil tricksiness, with (for instance) elaborately painted enamel covering all the surfaces of the entrance hall, which then appeared to be absolutely awash in expensive mother-of-pearl inlay. A sign of how struck Clemens was by the luxuries of his new home: The bed in the master bedroom is made up backwards, with the pillows at the foot. Apparently Clemens was insistant that, having paid so much money to secure a beautiful bed, he wasn't going to be cheated out of the sight of its best feature, the headboard.

Other tidbits to be learned at the Mark Twain house:

  • A man of exuberant glibness, his truest truism (or at least my favorite) may be: "An uneasy conscience is a hair in the mouth." How visceral...
  • Clemens loved Hartford for the sobriety of its citizens and its extensive green spaces, and he reportedly considered it one of the most beautiful places in America. This may come as something of a shock to those who know the modern Hartford.
  • Clemens was never quite comfortable in the strict, formal world of society in which his genteel wife and he moved. At dinner parties, his children would play a "game" that involved hiding behind a screen in the room that adjoined the dining room, and signaling to their mother when they saw "papa" committing a faux pas (monopolizing one guest's conversation, for instance, while ignoring another). His wife would then say, "My dear, did you happen to see the card I left out for you?" and Clemens would know that he had wandered into dangerous social territory.
  • You can see in the photo above that the house is possessed of an abundance of intriguing balconies on the attic floor. This floor, apart from the butler's room, was entirely taken up by Twain's study, which, with its desk, billiard table, and perpetual haze of cigar smoke, was deemed so offensively masculine by Mrs. Clemens that she would never allow women or children onto the third floor. Twain was so social in the house that he despaired of getting any work done, and he eventually instructed the butler to tell all visitors that the master of the house had stepped out. As soon as Mrs. C. caught wind of this, she paid her husband a little visit: did he realize, she asked, that he was actually lying to guests in his home, and that if these lies became known, no one would ever trust them again? He was perturbed, and soon gave his butler new instructions: if the guest was someone Clemens didn't care to talk to, the butler should tell him or her that the author had "Just stepped out" as before. As he was carrying this message back to the guest, Clemens would step right out onto one of these many balconies with his cigar, and wait there until the guest left. What a truth-teller!
  • The Clemenses left the house after many happy years there in a morass of financial difficulty that made it an impossible burden to maintain. They toured Europe (Twain, like Dickens, was a famous performer of his own work) in increasing financial comfort. Many years later, their eldest daughter Suzy decided to return to Hartford to visit with friends and family, and she stayed in the house. While she was there, she contracted spinal meningitis and died. The Clemenses were an extremely close family, and they were undone by this news. When they did return permanently to America, they never felt they could live in the house without Suzy. Twain entered a serious depression. Eight years later Mrs. Clemens died, and Twain and his daughter Clara (the only member of his family to survive him) cared for his epileptic daughter Jean until her death five years after that. The post-Hartford years were hard ones for the Clemens family.
  • I will leave you on a jollier note, however, with this picture of Twain's favorite room of the house (and mine), the library. Twain was (as you might imagine) a voracious bibliophile, although I can't agree with every aspect of his taste. He famously despised Jane Austen, saying, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone." (Does anyone else find it delightful that amidst this flamboyant, overinvested act of criticism, Twain admits that he has nonetheless read P&P multiple times?) On the lefthand side of the picture above, you can see the glass of a small greenhouse that forms the end of the library. This room was the space in which the Clemens family spent most of their time together, reading or, when the children were small, pretending that the trees and plants in the greenhouse were a jungle, and that "papa" and the butler were ferocious beasts for them to hunt and ride. Oh for a library/jungle of my very own!

A postscript: In the aftermath of my delightful visit to the Mark Twain House, I was alarmed to see this article about the dire financial straits that historic houses in America (including Twain's and Edith Wharton's) find themselves in. If you get a chance to stop in and support these landmarks and museums, grab it!

One Response so far.

  1. Bybee says:

    Wow, thanks for the tour! This was delightful...and I, too, have always wondered about Mark Twain reading Pride and Prejudice multiple time if he hates it so much. This kind of reminds me of myself and Top Gun or The Breakfast Club. But books? If I hate them the first time, I never crack their covers again.

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