“Mark Twain” was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and it was in this house in Hartford that he wrote “Huckleberry Finn,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Innocents Abroad,” and others, including “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” One wonders whether his neighbors appeared in that story.
Clemens incorporated his opinions on a number of topics – race, equality, growing up, gender, religion, and more – into his novels, although he kept his thoughts about religion to himself, mainly. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” he wrote in “Innocents Abroad.” It was what he believed.
Sam Clemens earned his certificate to pilot riverboats on the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and St. Louis, in 1859. It was on the river that he learned the language of measuring the water’s depth – “mark twain” meant two fathoms, i.e. twelve feet. It was enough to float any steamboat on the river and was, therefore, considered safe water. (“Twain” is an old-fashioned English word for “two,” as in “Never the twain shall meet,” hence, “mark twain” was two fathoms.)
Clemens married Olivia Langdon, daughter of Jervis Langdon, a rich coal businessman, from Elmira, New York, in 1870, and moved into a house in Buffalo, New York, that Olivia’s father had bought for them. Later, in 1871, the Clemens moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to be closer to the American Publishing Company that handled Clemens’ works. Sadly, their first-born and only son, Langdon Clemens, died shortly after they moved to Hartford.
At first, the Clemens rented a house, but soon property and plans were developed for a house that would be built for them. This is the house I visited, pictured below, where the family moved in 1874.
The years that the Clemens family spent here were among their happiest. Livy edited Samuel’s writings, and she was an active proponent of women’s suffrage, along with her friend, Julia Beecher. Their three daughters were born here. Twain’s books were successful and the family participated in the social and literary life of Hartford.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Clemens initiated or participated in a number of business ventures, most of which were failures, such as the Paige Compositor, which was expensive to make, required lengthy training, and even then, linotype machines beat it to market. A self-pasting scrapbook/photo album was moderately successful, but the “Memory Builder” game prompted one reviewer to compare it to a “combination of an income tax form and a table of logarithms.” By 1901, Clemens would remark in his lectures: “My axiom is — to succeed in business, avoid my example.”
The only venture which had some success was the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company that had been founded by Clemens and his niece’s husband, Charles L. Webster. The company published Clemens’ writings, as well as Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, with great success. But it was not enough – other writers’ works did poorly. Those losses sank the publishing company, and in 1894, while in Europe, Clemens declared bankruptcy.
Clemens and his family had closed the Hartford house in 1891, permanently as it turned out, and moved to Europe. Ultimately, the house was sold. Clemens spent a couple of years giving lectures filled with his humorous – and often pointed – observations of humans and society, and was in great demand. This helped him pay off his debts, but personal losses – Livy died in 1904, Susy had died in 1896, and Jean died in 1909 – depressed him, despite success with further writings and lectures and an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Oxford, England, in 1907.
Clemens spent most of his years after Livy’s death in Manhattan, New York. He had been born two weeks after the closest pass of Halley’s comet in 1835. He frequently said that he expected to go out with Halley’s comet, and in 1910, two days after the closest pass of Halley’s comet that year, he had a fatal heart attack. Clemens is buried next to Livy in the Langdon family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York. His surviving daughter, Clara, had a two-fathoms-tall monument made to mark the Langdon plot.
Hal Holbrook, born in 1925, performed a one-actor show called “Mark Twain Tonight!,” where he dressed in Clemens’ signature rumpled white linen suit (“my dontcareadamnsuit,” as Clemens called it) and a wig, and spoke as Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens. The show was 90 minutes long and covered a wide range of Clemens’ writings.
Holbrook performed this show from 1954 until 2017, sixty-three years, making time for an active film and TV career, such as portraying Lincoln the president in a mini-series based on Carl Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln, the grandfatherly figure in “Into the Wild,” Republican Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and the character Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men,” among many other roles. Holbrook passed away in Beverly Hills, California, on January 23, 2021.
There is a small, very enjoyable museum in the visitors’ center, and it does a good job of illuminating Clemens’ life beyond the writing of his novels.
Visiting the house is available only to hosted group tours, and photographs are not allowed inside the house. I was one of a dozen people on the noon tour, hosted by an actor playing a character in the Clemens household and costumed accordingly. Our host was “Patrick, the coachman,” who lived with his wife and eight children in the apartment over the stable and coach house. He brought his mandolin and sang “Froggy Went A’Courting.” We joined in on the chorus. It’s an old song, whose composer is long lost in time, but was still a “traditional” song in the mid-1800s.
The Clemens moved into the house in 1874, but the interior was yet to be decorated as would befit a well-off family of the era. The interior was done mainly by the Louis C. Tiffany & Company, Associated Artists – the public rooms on the main floor and other touches throughout the house.
Most impressive is the stenciling that was done in the entry and the drawing room. The entry is finished in dark wood paneling. Because it does not have many windows, the effect is very dark, indeed. But the dark panels have been separately filled with small, stenciled silver triangles, including the ceiling, coordinated with a few other geometric shapes. The effect is like looking at a wall of dark wood inlaid with small triangles of mother-of-pearl, shimmering in the pale light of the entry.
The stenciling continues into the drawing room, but the effect is entirely different because the drawing room has much more light, and the small triangles form different shapes. There are several pineapples, composed of small triangles, and while “Patrick” did not say so, I’m sure the pineapples were symbolic of the welcome a host would extend to their guests. It’s a tradition in America that dates to early colonial days.
The interior could generally be described as Victorian – lots of wood, and textiles, used with some restraint. The house was filled with all of the “modern conveniences,” such as seven bathrooms, with flush toilets and copper-lined bathtubs, hot & cold running water that was connected to the city water system. The large kitchen was on the first floor, and had “modern” equipment such as a large wood range with two roasting ovens, six “burners,” and warming oven, and the ice box on the opposite wall. Throughout the house was a system of “communication tubes” for communicating with servants.
There was also a guest room on the first floor. “The Mahogany Room,” as it was called was a lovely room with, yes, a mahogany bed that looked both beautiful and comfortable. This guest room had a bathroom with two sinks, a tin-lined bathtub, and a flush toilet, and a separate dressing room (on the right.) It also had truly stand-out wallpaper designed by one of the Artistic Associates. It’s a beautiful representation of honey bees at work, done in a gold metallic ink, with a suggestion of the hive’s hexagonal wax cells in the background.
The second floor held Sam and Livy’s bedroom, a guest room used frequently by Livy’s mother, Susy’s bedroom (the eldest daughter,) the nursery for Clara and Jean, and a school room, where the girls were educated.
The third floor had another guest room, the butler’s room, and Sam’s writing studio, where he sometimes entertained male friends. It has a billiard table, a fireplace, his writing desk, chairs, and access to three balconies.
If you want to see more of the interior house, you can go to mark twain house.org and find the “Virtual Tour.” It’s very well done, with notes along the way.
The conservatory that you see from the outside is attached to the library room of the house. It’s a comfortable library with a substantial collection of books, but in the Clemens’ house, the main function was a place for the family to gather in the evenings. Clemens entertained his daughters by making up stories (no repeats!) utilizing the knick-knacks on the shelves and mantel in the room.
On the third floor above the conservatory, the balcony is attached to Clemens’ writing studio. It had his desk, a fireplace, chairs, and a billiard table. To the left side of that balcony is another balcony, and to the right is the hexagonal balcony. All of them can be accessed from the studio. I wondered if there was another servant’s room up there, but that part of the house was not open to the tour, nor is it on the virtual tour.
I had a great day learning more about Samuel Clemens and his family. I’m not usually given to falling in love with dead men, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Mark Twain. What a character! And he loved his family – it’s clear from his writings and from how happy they all were in this house. Reading about them makes me hope that they are now all together again, gathered in the library, watching their husband/father making up stories. I think Twain would find Heaven filled with good material.