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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mark Twain's House

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway, no slouch of a writer himself, said this, and the thoughtful reader of Mark Twain sees his greatness. Why not visit his home for the opportunity to gain more insight? Carol and Anne were up for it, so on a lovely Aug. day, we took a ride to Hartford, CT and Mark Twain’s home at Nook Farm.

Twain’s home is conveniently located just a few blocks off the I 84, and there are signs on the highway and on the city blocks to direct drivers to the parking lot. In Twain’s day, the home was in the country, removed from Hartford, the most prosperous city in America at the time. Things have changed, however, and even the river that ran through the property is now underground. Still, the view from the famous porch that appears in any movie or documentary (Ken Burns’ for PBS, for instance) or from the glass sunroom or from the third floor billiard room allows us to imagine the verdant scenes Twain enjoyed.

We arrived just in time to book two tours of the home, one leaving almost immediately—the 45 minute Servant’s Wing ($3.00) and the hour long House Tour ($14.00).

Twain’s simple instruction to his architect was to build a red house. And that’s exactly what he got. His architect had primarily designed churches, and Twain’s house shows many “churchy” touches. It’s dark and heavy inside—allowing Twain to skimp on the interior, finding ways to “suggest” more expensive decorations than he could afford. For instance, he hired Louis Comfort Tiffany’s design company for the interior, but the stenciled wall designs are paint rather than the mother of pearl they suggest.

On the Servants’ Wing tour we learned that Twain had several long-time servants. The most important was George Griffin, his butler. Some suggest that George is the basis of Jim, the runaway slave who becomes a wise, father figure to Huck. At any rate, though married and with his own home in Hartford, Griffin maintained a room in the Twain household and was with Twain for 18 years. His butler’s pantry is spectacular, and his management of the household affairs led him to become Twain’s friend and confidant. Twain wrote of Griffin and a visit they took to New York City.

"A white man and a negro walking together was a new spectacle to them. The glance embarrassed George but not me, for the companionship was proper; in some ways, he was my equal, in some others my superior; and besides, deep down in my interior I know that the difference between any two of those poor, transient things called human beings was but microscopic, trivial, a mere difference between worms."

Another long-time servant, Kate Leary, wrote a book about her 30 year tenure with the Clemens family, and that’s another addition to my “to read” list. Should be interesting.

There were quick turnovers for most of the Clemens’ servants. Sam and Livy were party people and threw dinner parties frequently with elaborate menus requiring long hard hours for their staff. George stayed overnight on those occasions, but the kitchen staff just tired! On the House Tour we saw the dining room with its faux leather wall paper (the Clemens could not afford the real leather wall paper popular in their day) where the parties and conversations occurred. Then the women withdrew to the drawing room, and Twain and his cronies puffed cigars and talked in his library—Twain is reputed to have smoked 20 per day—or drank and played billiards on the third floor—he was such an avid billiard player that his writing desk in that room was angled so he would not look at the table and be lured from his work.

We loved looking at the titles in the Clemens’ library—beautifully bound classics from America and England, books in foreign languages, etc. Books that made us smile. His personal copies are kept in a separate library maintained for scholars and available by appointment. He was a voracious reader, but he was also a margin writer, commenting, applauding or criticizing in the margins! Those books are too valuable to leave on public shelves. He never wrote a negative comment in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s books; they were neighbors. He did not enjoy Jane Austen, however, and those margins are filled with negative and sometimes awful comments. I’d like to go back and browse through those books.

The library has an ornately carved wooden fireplace mantle and wall complete with coat of arms. Not Clemens’ coat of arms. Clemens visited a Scottish castle, saw the fireplace and bought it. When he got it home, it was too tall for the room. The top section was removed and placed above the doorway to the dining room. Voilá.

Are you beginning to see the eccentricities inherent in Sam Clemens and his home?

Upstairs is the master bedroom and a most unusual bed. The Clemens family bought it in Venice. It was reputed to be a valuable antique, and they paid a handsome sum for it. Turned out it was not an antique and Clemens had been swindled! He and Livy used the bed anyway, but they slept against the footboard. He explained that since he had paid so much for the bed, he might as well be able to look at the carvings on that ornate headboard and enjoy them!!!! The children were able to take off and play with the wooden cherubs on the bedposts as long as they replaced them after the game.

We had a wonderful guide, Matt, whose enthusiastically animated presentation of Sam Clemens as a man rather than as an icon made this trip even more worthwhile.

We had lunch in the Museum’s cafĂ©, and I recommend that as well as their expansive gift shop filled with Twainabilia (is there such a word?). I picked out some items including a Mark Twain for President bumper sticker with his picture and this quote: “It’s better to be popular than right.”

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