Reading Tom Sawyer at the Mark Twain House

“For me, writers’ houses […] remind me of death. And they aim to do the impossible: to make physical–to make real–acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters […] within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft […]. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves. The curators at writers’ house museums rarely seem to get this. They are often astoundingly sincere, prompting in me a knee-jerk cynicism.”

A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses by Anne Trubek
*This is an Amazon affiliate link in case you’d like to hate-read the rest of the book.
**The rest of the post includes affiliate links for Twain’s novels in case you’d like a book worth reading. If you purchase a book through these links, I’ll make a few cents at no extra cost to you! Thank you for supporting the blog.

Well, that’s about when I disgustedly put down Trubek’s book. I happen to be good friends with Jodi DeBruyne, the curator of the Mark Twain House Museum, however, so I made the trip to Hartford, CT to tour the Mark Twain House for myself and chat with Jodi.

Upon arriving, I discovered there’s more than just a once-owned-by-an-author house on the property. There’s a huge, modern visitor center which contains the reservation desk, the gift shop, gallery rooms, and the Twain Archives. Judging from the size of the center, clearly more people appreciate visiting author houses than don’t (I’m glaring at you Trubek).

Twain’s house is only accessible via a timed guided tour, so I found my group in the Visitor Center. I’d take the tour first, then meet up with my friend. Following our guide, we walked outside past what used to be the Clemens’ family Carriage House, or barn. This building is surprisingly large. It used to contain a sleigh, horses, ducks, cats, and living space for the Clemens’ driver and his family. Clemens even had space in the hay loft to set up a desk where he wrote the last two chapters of Tom Sawyer! Now the building houses museum staff offices.

Right next door is the former Clemens residence. Of course, I wasn’t looking to “join Huck on the raft”, I was there to find out more about Samuel Longhorn Clemens, the author behind Huck and his raft and the pen-name Mark Twain. There had to be more to the man that brought us this famous piece of fiction than just that his name is printed across the bottom of my book. I figured a tour of his house would create a fuller picture of his personality, and perhaps shed light on his inspiration for writing a book that ended up on several banned book lists. Boy was I right.

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” -Mark Twain

The Pen Name, Mark Twain

First of all, young Samuel Clemens only had a formal 6th grade education! His father died when Sam was 11 and he left school shortly after that to work. He did a number of jobs before eventually becoming a journalist, one of which was work his way up to the position of riverboat pilot on the Missouri River. This part of his life not only later inspired Huckleberry Finn, but also provided the pen name he adopted as a journalist. Mark Twain means the shallowest depth of water needed for a river boat to pass through. Luckily his angry readers didn’t realize this. Clemens chose to use a pen name while working as a journalist because he had a habit of fictionally embellishing stories, which led to angry readers showing up in search of Mr. Mark Twain. Clemens would then claim that Mr. Twain had just stepped out! We hadn’t even started the tour and I couldn’t wait to hear more stories of funny Mr. Clemens.

Purchase Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn via Amazon  or Bookshop

The Clemenses House

The Mark Twain HouseAt the door to the house our guide informed us that at the time Samuel and his wife lived in the house we would have been greeted by a butler who then would have gone off to find the master or mistress of the house. Now our guide put a key in the lock and let us into the stunningly large foyer. The 3 story, 25 room mansion is quite large compared to other author houses I’ve visited, but the architect also used a few tricks to make the interior feel more spacious. For example the foyer is open all the way to the third floor so the high ceiling and natural light filtering down from upstairs windows make it feel big. Also the stair banister rail is strangely low, which causes it to appear farther from the ceiling, also creating the illusion of more space. (Sidenote, while you can’t photograph or touch anything in the house, the one exception is YOU CAN touch the banister which Clemens/Twain touched!)

While most writers struggled to make an income and lived in meager establishments, Samuel Clemens had managed to marry a wife with means. His wife, Olivia (fondly known as Livy), came from a wealthy, Northern abolitionist family. It was her money the Clemens’ used to build the opulent house in the richest city in the country, in a neighborhood already known for its intellectual neighbors. In fact, the house shares a lawn with the Harriet Beecher Stowe house! Samuel Clemens moved here with the ambition of becoming famous, and it seems to have worked!

Harriet Beecher Stowe House
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House next door to the Mark Twain House

It was in the dining room, just another “empty room full of pitchers and paintings”, where we not only learned more about the author but also the inspiration behind not the character Huck, but Jim. Although the table in the dining room has been made small to accommodate the tour groups, in Clemens’ day it would have had several leaves in it because he loved entertaining large dinner parties full of actors, writers, and intellectuals. He used these parties to test out stories and jokes on an audience, but the most important attendee was George, his butler.

George had been a slave in Maryland who had walked all the way to Connecticut, knocked on the Clemens’ door to ask if he could wash their windows, and stayed for the next 20 years! He became the second highest paid servant in the house, had a room on the 3rd floor for when he stayed at the house after a late dinner party rather than going home, and became close friends with Clemens’. George would listen to the dinner conversation from the pantry, and if needed, he would laugh loudly at Clemens’ punch lines to get the guests laughing. The character of Jim, the runaway slave in Huckleberry Finn is based on George.

As we followed our guide through the rest of the house we learned more about Clemens’ personality. He had a short temper and loved to swear.

“When angry, count to 4. When very angry, swear.” -Mark Twain

Family Life

But he was also friends with the house staff, as he hated class, racial, and social divisions, despite having grown up in a poor, but slaveholding family in the South. And he was a loving father.

The Clemens’ had three daughters and one son, only one child lived to adulthood and she had no children herself. There was evidence of the children in several of the rooms. There was the school room with childrens desks where the family homeschooled the girls until high school. Clemens even hired a German governess to teach the girls German because he’d taught himself the language! In a bedroom off the library, a replica of a costume from Twain’s Prince and the Pauper lies on the bed because the children used the room as a dressing room when presenting plays.

Watch the only known motion picture of Samuel Clemens and what is believed to be two of his daughters.

And finally the Library/Family Room is where Clemens would hold after dinner story time with his girls until bedtime. They used to play a game where he had to use items in the room one by one in a story and if he missed one, he’d have to start over with a completely different story! The Library and attached Conservatory (a sunroom filled with plants and a central fountain) was my favorite room, although I’d find out later that this room is a nightmare for the museum conservator.

I had actually expected to like the room Clemens turned into his writing den the best and was most excited to see it. This is the billiard room at the top of the house. All his famous books were written at a desk in the far right corner of the room. He would write, smoke, and shoot pool to clear his mind. He smoked 20-30 cigars a day and often the room was just filled with a haze of smoke! Unfortunately the room is mostly roped off from guests, so you couldn’t even get close to where this funny author put pen to paper!

Travel

If you can’t visit the house in person, or want to walk farther into this room, you actually can virtually!

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” -Mark Twain

If I had bothered to read either of Twain’s travel memoirs, The Innocents Abroad or A Tramp Abroad (both written in the billiards room!), before visiting I might have realized sooner that Clemens and I have something in common! We both love/d to travel and learn! According to our guide, the first thing Clemens did when visiting a new city was go to the library and absorb as much information as he could! A man after my own heart. The Clemens’ also filled their house with items brought back from travels. That too sounds familiar.

Purchase The Innocents Abroad (Amazon | Bookshop) or A Tramp Abroad (Amazon | Bookshop)

Twain and I have one other thing in common… he wrote in his books! Apparently in the books he hated he’s written, “Author is an ass.” He thought Charles Dickens was brilliant. He’s not wrong there! But I strongly differ with his opinion of Jane Austen”

“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” -Mark Twain

So Samuel Clemens wasn’t perfect. But he was now more human to me than when I’d started my tour.

Museum Curator Life

Visit with Mark Twain curator
Jodi, the Mark Twain House Director of Collections, takes us into the collection storage where the Clemenses sleigh is housed!

Now having been inside the house museum my friend gets to work at every day (how cool is her job?!?), it was time to meet up with her. I found Jodi, the Mark Twain House Director of Collections, and fellow travel blogger on the side (find her at Musing Jo), back at the visitor center wearing a mask boldly proclaiming her a “MUSEUM NERD”.

I asked her to explain what she does and if she is in fact “astoundingly sincere” about “empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings”. Turns out she is, with good reason!

When the museum was first opened, many items which include furniture, art, and trinkets, were used in the house simply because they were period appropriate. Since then, newer acquisitions of actual Clemens family ownership or more period appropriate pieces have been gathered or donated to the museum. Jodi determines when it is time to exchange an item on display in the house for a different collection item and must keep track of the origin/ownership of all pieces.

Remember the difficult Library room I mentioned earlier? It’s the Director of Collection who has to keep a backup library full of old, period appropriate, books in order to switch out books in the house that get damaged either by someone trying to clean dust and spider webs off bookshelves, or visitors who attempt taking a book off the shelf. FYI, NEVER grab an old book off the shelf by the top of the spine! Some of these books Jodi takes for repairs, but some are beyond help and just need to be replaced, because it would certainly ruin the experience for later visitors to the Library to see a pile of old book pieces!

The other problem with the room is the real plants in the Conservatory. Real plants can mean bugs. And bugs are the last thing a curator of collections wants right next to and inside with artifacts like books and cloth furnishings! So Jodi also keeps track of bugs caught on sticky traps to watch for infestations.

And unfortunately, she cannot replace the Conservatory plants with fake ones because some of the plants actually date back to the Clemens family!

Another part of Jodi’s job requires her to stay overnight in the Mark Twain house when the staff is on hurricane watch. During the recent east coast hurricanes, Jodi spent nights in the museum with buckets and plastic on hand to limit any water damage that might occur. And no, she didn’t get to stay in any of the beds! She slept in Clemens’ Library on an air mattress. (Cool, right??)

Jodi does a million other things too to maintain the house and the visitor experience. Those that come looking for Huckleberry Finn to come to life may be disappointed. But those that come looking for other reasons- perhaps to see how a favorite author lived, or just to be close to where a favorite novel, story, or poem was created, or to learn more about the human that produced written words that made an impact on you- will appreciate a curator that makes it their daily mission to give us the experience of being a guest in a writer’s home as it would have looked during the writer’s life time. If only for a short while, we can pretend we’ve stepped through time and our beloved author might just step back through the door at any moment. 

Thank you to Mr. Webb for a fantastic tour, and to Jodi for the behind the scenes look at what goes into creating the visitor experience!

And if you can’t visit just yet, you can check out the video series Catching Up With The Clemenses Jodi and her coworkers have been producing!

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2 Comments

  1. His daughter Clara had a daughter named Nina and Sam Clemens wrote Innocents Abroad before he built the house – that is why he came to Hartford to meet a publisher.

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