The good humor man: Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum and other literary landmarks

  • Mark Twain’s rambling — it has 11,500 square feet of space — home in Hartford makes for a great architectural and historical tour. Photo courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum

  • The billiard room on the third floor, where Twain wrote much of his masterpieces like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Photo courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum

  • Samuel and Libby Clemens and their three daughters on the porch of their Hartford home, circa 1880s. Photo courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum

  • The conservatory, where Libby Clemens maintained a lush garden. Photo courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum

  • Twain, who lived all over the U.S. and Europe as an adult, spent his longest single stretch of time — about 17 years — at his Hartford home.  Photo courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum

  • The mantelpiece for this fireplace in the library of the Twain house came from a castle in Scotland. Photo courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum

Staff Writer
Published: 12/25/2019 9:34:36 PM

Aside from writing a few books, Mark Twain was known for his quick wit. The man was a veritable quote machine, and you probably didn’t want to be the subject of some of his more pointed barbs, like one he offered on the sagacity of the nation’s legislators of his day: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”

The famous novelist, journalist and live storyteller also didn’t mind poking fun at himself. At his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived with his family from 1874 to 1891, Twain and his wife, Olivia (better known as Livy), slept with their feet at the base of the expensive, ornately carved headboard of their bed — backwards, in other words. The reason? “So every morning I can wake up and see what I wasted my money on,” Twain quipped.

That’s just one of the many interesting stories and anecdotes you’ll hear on a visit to the Mark Twain House, built in 1874 and painstakingly decorated and finished over the next several years at a total cost of about $50,000 (the rough equivalent of $1.26 million today). The 11,500 square foot home, with 25 rooms spread over three floors, is something of an architectural carnival, boasting intricate woodwork, a sweeping central staircase and numerous types of wallpaper and design motifs influenced by some of the European and Mideast countries that Twain (born Samuel Clemens) and his wife visited over the years. There’s a good amount of original furniture and other decor on view, all of it lovingly restored over the years.

It’s also the place where Twain wrote many of his best-loved books and stories: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” And, notes Donna Larcen, communications specialist for the house and museum, the peripatetic Twain, who lived in multiple places in the United States and Europe as an adult, spent the longest single stretch of his life in one place in his Hartford home.

The Mark Twain House — easily reached from downtown Hartford off Interstate 84 — makes for a great central focus of a day trip to the Connecticut capital, or rather a modest section of it. Just across the grounds of the Twain home is the Harriet Beecher Stowe house, where the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” spent the last 23 years of her life, about 17 of them as a friend and neighbor of the Clemens family.

A few blocks away, you can also grab lunch or dinner at a popular Mediterranean-style eatery, Tangiers International Market. And for a complete historical experience regarding the written word, you can drive a short distance to West Hartford to visit the birthplace of Noah Webster, who published the American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, marking the first official distinction from Britain’s version of the language.

A house tour with Livy Clemens

The Recorder recently enjoyed a one-on-one visit at the Mark Twain House with Beth Avery, one of a number of guides (you must be part of a tour to see the home) conducting “Living History” tours, portraying a member of the Twain family or staff. (There were up to 10 people working at the home at times, including a governess, two cooks, a butler, a coachman and wet nurses.) Avery, who has a background in theater, was decked out in a high-necked Victorian dress that reached to the floor.

Avery also does straightforward tours of the house, and she used that mode to touch on some of its interesting historical notes. For instance, much of the design work was headed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the soon-to-be-famous decorative glass artist, and Candace Wheeler, a textile artist and a pioneer in opening up the interior design business in the U.S. for women. Tiffany and Wheeler and two other key designers helped fill the home with its varied layers and styles, like the first-floor design motifs that come from Morocco‚ India‚ Japan‚ China and Turkey.

The designers also had to find ways to incorporate some of Twain’s unusual purchases, like the elaborately carved headboard of the marital bed — he and Livy found that in Italy — and an enormous oak mantelpiece from a Scottish castle that ended up on the wall of the home’s library.

Amid all this splendor, there was space set aside for fun, like some playrooms for Twain’s three daughters and a little alcove in the library where dad liked to read to his children. Avery says Livy and the girls — Susy, Clara and Jane (the latter known as “Jean” by family and friends) — gave him editorial suggestions when he read them drafts of new work, such as “The Prince and the Pauper.”

The house includes a few guest rooms, too, in one of which Twain’s old friend and first editor, Bret Harte, once stayed — or overstayed. The two later had a falling out, Avery notes, in part because Harte evidently wore out his welcome in Hartford. “He was here for three months,” she said. “They never really patched things up afterward.”

Perhaps the most interesting spot in the house is the third-floor billiard room, a sort of 19th-century man cave where Twain did most of his writing (and a lot of cigar and pipe smoking). He deliberately faced his writing desk away from the billiard table, Avery said with a laugh, so he’d be less tempted to get distracted or procrastinate.

Those familiar with Twain’s biography know that for all his success as a writer and lecturer, he and Livy also dealt with great sadness and hard times during their marriage. Their only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria in 1872 at 19 months, and Susy, the oldest daughter, died at age 24 in 1896. Jean, the youngest, developed epilepsy as a teen and spent time in sanitariums before dying at age 29. Twain also suffered serious financial setbacks in the late 1880s and early 1890s (including the loss of much of the inheritance of Livy, who came from a wealthy family).

Given all that, both Avery and Larcen say, the Mark Twain House appeals in part because Twain spent his most productive and arguably happiest years here, and in Hartford in general (he and Livy first moved there in 1871, in part because his publisher, Elisha Bliss, Jr., also called it home). “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief,” Twain said when he first visited Hartford, then a leafy town of 40,000, in 1868. “You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.”

The Mark Twain House is located at 385 Farmington Avenue in Hartford. Be sure to visit the attached museum to learn more about the history of the home, which was slated to be turned into an apartment building almost 100 years ago before efforts to preserve it as an historical monument were launched. The house and museum also offer group tours, regular lectures and research opportunities. Visit marktwainhouse.org for full details, including directions from the Valley (it’s about 48 miles from Northampton and located just a few blocks from exit 46 on I-84 west).

While you’re there 

Walk over from the Twain house to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center (official address 77 Forest Avenue) to see where the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the seminal 1852 anti-slavery novel, lived from 1873 until her death in 1896 (she and Libby Clemens also helped found the Hartford Art School in 1877). The center offers guided tours and a number of special programs about Stowe, and it has a collection of some 6,000 objects and over 200,000 manuscripts, books, photographs and other materials. Visit harrietbeecherstowecenter.org for more information.

Worked up an appetite by now? A few blocks to the west of the Twain House, at Tangiers International Market at 550 Farmington Avenue, you can get a range of Mediterranean meals to go or to eat in house: falafel, gyros, chicken kabab, baked stuffed eggplant, grape leaves, chickpea salad. You can also buy olive oil, Greek and Bulgarian cheese, dates and plenty of other things to bring back to your kitchen. More details at tangiersmarket.com.

Last but not least, the Noah Webster House, at 227 South Main St. in West Hartford, is about a 10-minute drive from the Mark Twain House. The home, where Webster was born in 1758, is open seven days a week, from 1-4 p.m., for self-guided visits as well as docent-led tours. It’s small: just four period-furnished rooms on two floors. But the house sponsors a number of public events as well. Full details at noahwebsterhouse.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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