Hartford, CT – It’s been 25 years since my sister and I have simply hung out together for a week at her home in Connecticut. Last week, we did just that. One day, we took a tour of the Mark Twain House & Museum, just a few blocks away.
I had loved reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and various quotes and quips from the prolific writer. I had even impersonated him when I had to make a speech in seventh-grade language arts class, because we shared the same birthday, November 30.
But I never realized Mark Twain (actually, Samuel Clemens) had lived in Hartford. I’d only heard of his boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, of his adventures as a riverboat captain and newspaper journalist, then of his worldwide meanderings as an observer and critic of human nature, expressed in the spoken and written word. Having lived from 1835-1910, Clemens had a lot to say about the direction our country (and our world) was headed through a historic period of rapid change that covered the Civil War, the end of slavery, westward expansion, industrialism, Victorianism, racism, immigration, big government and foreign wars. With every observation he made, he delivered stirring comments that exposed the absurdity and shortcomings of human nature. Usually, he railed against injustice for the powerless at the hands of ‘dictators,’ which often came in the guise of respected authority figures.
Clemens was committed to walking the thin line between acceptable free speech and dangerous, inflammatory expression which would sully his name and result in censorship. Perhaps that’s why his pen name is so fitting. A “mark twain” is a traditional riverboat phrase, meaning “exactly two” fathoms of water. This was the minimum depth needed for boats to operate safely without running aground. Clemens was constantly navigating along that thin margin between safe and treacherous waters.
As we learned from the outset of our guided tour, Clemens reached way beyond his rough-and-tumble pedigree in his choice of a wife. Speaking of his own lineage, Clemens wrote, “my parents were neither very poor nor conspicuously honest,” and that almost all of his ancestors were born to be hanged – and for the most part were hanged, according to Clemens’ recently-released Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I. It was published in 2010, 100 years after his death, kept under lock and key until Clemens was “dead, and unaware, and indifferent.” Therefore, he was free to speak his “whole frank mind” when he dictated his unsuppressed, rambling life story from 1876-1903 in fits and starts.
Olivia Langdon Clemens was born Olivia Louise Langdon in 1845‚ in Elmira‚ New York. Her father, Jervis Langdon, was very successful in the timber and coal business. The Langdons were one of the leading families of the community‚ both financially and in terms of their idealism, participating in the Underground Railroad and socializing with leading doctors‚ theologians and suffragists of the time.
Sam Clemens wrote about his future wife to his sister in 1869: “I take as much pride in her brains as I do in her beauty‚ & as much pride in her happy & equable disposition as I do in her brains.” Samuel and Olivia Clemens were married in 1870 and moved to Hartford in 1871. The family purchased land on Farmington Avenue and commissioned New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter to design their house in 1873. Construction delays and the ever-increasing costs of building their dream home frustrated Clemens‚ but he and his family enjoyed what the author would later call the happiest and most productive years of his life in their Hartford home.
The sprawling house — set atop a hill overlooking the Park River and wooded rolling expanses — was part of a scholarly neighborhood known as Nook Farm. Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was a notable neighbor, along with other famous writers, social activists, suffragists, actors and Civil War generals. Among his personal friends, Clemens counted Ulysses S. Grant, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller, to name just a few.
The Clemenses’ house boasts 11‚500 square feet‚ and has 25 rooms (with many modern conveniences of the time, including seven bathrooms) distributed through three floors. Louis C. Tiffany & Co.‚ Associated Artists‚ (the son of the founder of the famed jewelry store‚ Tiffany & Co.) stenciled the walls and ceilings of their home to look like inlaid mother-of-pearl‚ particularly the entry hall.
He wrote, “To us, our house had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.” The Clemenses and their three daughters lived in the whimsical Victorian mansion for nearly 20 years, until after daughter Susy’s death in 1896.
The Clemenses sold the property in 1903, after which other families moved in. But over time, it was converted to apartments, used as a children’s library, and finally as a storage facility. Its original features were covered over, taken down and nearly forgotten before renovations began in the 1960s to restore the house to its former look and glory, as the Mark Twain House & Museum.
Each room tells a powerful story. Learn more at www.marktwainhouse.org or plan to visit yourself, next time you travel to Hartford, Connecticut.