Our first Sunday drive was not really a planned one, in keeping with the spirit of spontaneity for these drives. We left the house at noon and set the GPS towards Boston. We knew it was wishful thinking to ever actually arrive in Boston, but we set it as our goal anyway. As we hit Hartford at 3 pm, I quickly pulled up the number one place to visit on TripAdvisor and it recommended the Mark Twain house. I mention this because, I want people to realize that it is ok not to plan most of these drives, with three kids of our own that is almost an impossibility, but you can still enjoy the drive and do many things with half a day. Sometimes "seizing the day" means just that, it doesn't require perfect planning.
A Brief Historical Background
At first, you might be confused thinking Mark Twain grew up on the Mississippi, and why in the world is his house in the center of Connecticut? And you would be correct in the first assumption, except Twain moved here shortly after getting married and lived there from 1874 until 1891.
Hartford was at the time at the epicenter of American progress, as the richest city in the nation per capita and was also the location of Samuel Clemens publisher (Cindy Lovell, Executive director for the Mark Twain Society, CSPAN video). Driving through downtown, you can get a sense of the historic charm. You will also see Harriet Beecher Stowe's house, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, right next to Twain's, and as you can imagine this place held a special importance. If you make a whole day of this drive, make time to see both homes, I will probably return to see the Stowe home.
The house is hard to miss, as was the intention. Much like Twain who was a character himself, the house has a unique sense of personality. It is bright red with many peaks, in the gothic revival style, and some say it looks like a steamboat. Our wonderful tour guide of the house mentions that Samuel Clemens commissioned it red to match his fiery hair. Many of Twain's important works were written in this house, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, among others. The house was under both private and public ownership for several years, until it was saved by preservationists in 1929. His daughter, Clara, donated furniture and artifacts(Mark Twain Museum and House, tour guide, February 2016). His belongings were dispersed according to historians due to the family's worldwide travels and some sold at auction by his daughter Clara (LeMaster & Wilson, The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, 1993). Conservation efforts began and it was declared a Historic Landmark in 1963(Mark Twain Museum). Since then, according to the guide, the historical society has been tracking down items from auctions following Twain's death and recreating some rooms with good detective work, an amazing process in itself to ask the guide about if you visit.
When you first lays eyes on the house, you are immediately blown away by the elaborate decks, huge carriage house, and enormous porch. Upon entering you find intricate painting on woodworking in the foyer that will catch your eye, and for a reason, it was completed by no other than the Tiffany family. The formal living room or parlor has many elements of the Gilded Age, and when I ask a question about that, the guide quickly informs me that Mark Twain actually coined the term "The Gilded Age," and in my research I discover that his disapproval for the social standards of the day grew more deeply as he aged.
After visiting many of these historic mansions, I remind myself I need to read his book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. I find the house a bit of a parody, because while the house is not as ostentatious, its entryway is certainly a reflection of its time. The layers of the house slowly reveal an interesting complexity, almost a bipolar relationship between a very private Samuel Clemens, and an extremely public persona, Mark Twain. There is this grandiose side, with elaborate need for show, yet also, there is a very humble, hardworking side that is dedicated to his family and to the world through his writing. The home is somehow able to showcase both sides, if you look closely at the way the furniture is arranged, or the attention to the children's needs.
The entry parlor room is elaborate and has that uncomfortable, fancy feeling. The center fireplace has an enormous antique mirror, that the guide explains was found from auction records in a beauty parlor in New Jersey. I can almost image siting before it while getting my perm done in Jersey in the 1980s! Despite its ornateness, once you move into the family rooms you see another side of the writer.
Almost immediately, you feel drawn into the library room, with its small story time chairs for each member of the family, including little ones for his three daughters. Knickknacks surround the room, and soon the guide explains that the portrait of the cat with a ruffed collar next to the fireplace, was used as a story time ritual in the Clemens family. Each night, the girls would ask their father to tell a story, and it had to begin with the "cat in the ruff" and use all the knickknacks surrounding the fireplace in the same order, to tell an elaborate story. You get a sense of a very personal side of the writer from this, and see how he was a dedicated family man and father.
The home beams with a feeling of happiness and familiarity, almost like it is inviting you. The library fireplace mantle has an Emerson quote which reads, "The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it," and you are immediately reminded that you too are now Mark Twain's guest.
Upstairs you find the family bedrooms and a homeschooling room. The house reveals some of the freedoms afforded to the three girls in the family, such as their own piano and a reading room. My two daughters, Amada and Lilliana, are very enthralled at this point in their scavenger hut, which was provided to them before the tour. The girls are also intently listening to the stories they can relate to easily, of Clemens' three young daughters playing and roughhousing in the house. They especially seem to like the conservatory, which reminds me of a florida room we had with lots of plants while growing up, and the family referred to as "the jungle" for the games their father played. The rooms have some interesting items, and the guide points out a very large bed with angels on each post. The guide explains this bed turned out to be a fake antique the family purchased in their travels to Europe and Twain liked sleeping towards the footboard so he can look at the angels. Another story touched on how the girls would remove the angels from the four posts of the bed and play with them. It reminded me that in the end, they were ordinary people too, and it made me think the house was probably bustling with sounds of kids playing, just like mine.
The most impressive part of the house tour is Mark Twain's writing room on the fourth floor, where you find a pool table and two very different desks. One grand table facing the billiard table was kept more for show, and the guide explains was probably too distracting for Twain as it faced his favorite game. In the corner, you'll see a very small table facing a wall. This unassuming table was where Clemens wrote the beginnings of American literature, and created a distinctive voice for America in the world. The room is surrounded by several balconies, one which faces a woodsy creek. As I am standing in that room, it is just a lot to take in as the birthplace of American literature; you need to go there, you'll feel it too.
Before leaving the writing room, the guide goes on to tell us a story about when she was in the house one day. Apparently, the empty house had set off a fire alarm; when the firemen entered they all seemed to find the same peculiar smell in the billard room: the smell of cigar smoke. I wonder if maybe, Mark Twain stopped by the house to have a cigar, and remember old times? The museum society does host ghost tours of the home, for those interested in that aspect of the past.
My two girls ages 6 and 9, most enjoyed the stories of Clemens' three girls. His daughters, according to the guide, were an integral part of his persona and development as a writer. The abundance of play and imaginative areas in the house, stand as a stark contrast to the Hyde Park mansion of the Vanderbilts were children were not even allowed in the main home. The areas for the children, in my view, reflect a softer side of him that was deeply committed to his children. The homeschooling room has a sense of history in itself, and my girls loved seeing the way children learned back then, and was a testament also to a sense of history in itself, as it was used to educate girls in a time when that was all less common.
The Museum Center
If you do visit, find the time to spend an hour in the museum center. There you will find the large printing apparatus, called the Page Compositor. This invention was supposed to replace human component of the typesetter for printing. This machine is important to take in, because it ultimately bankrupted Mark Twain. According to the tour guide, Alexander Graham Bell visited Twain's home to ask him to invest in the telephone, but instead Twain pursued this invention which miserably failed. The home actually had one of the first telephones installed too, even though Mark Twain had a private disgust for it, as he once wrote (Old Telephones Blog, 2012), "It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us . . . may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss-- except the inventor of the telephone...” Thank God he didn't see modern day cell phones!
Another feature of the museum that resonated with me is showcasing Clemens' dedication to social change. He believed in treating people fairly and called out the treatment of slaves during his time. If you have time, find an audio clip of Clemens upbringing as a child. It tells a story of how his mother instilled in him a sense of compassion for all people, and criticized slavery. Clemens would later adopt this in his life, by sponsoring the first African-American to attend Yale University Law School. There is a letter in reference to this in the museum center that is indicative of Clemens' commitment to social advocacy. He was often censored, and some of his later works went unpublished due to disapproval from society. In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time.
My Take Away from this Drive
Perhaps the most you take away from a visit to the Mark Twain house is what you do not see, as with most traveling. You can not see the feeling of coziness in the writer's room, or the serenity of the location next to the creek from which inspiration probably flew, and you can not see the warmth that emanates from the family study where Mark Twain told many stories to his girls. These invisible things, while not part of the amazing historical home, are what truly makes a visit to this home special. You truly wonder if the inhabitants of this home are somewhere watching, knowing they are being remembered.
The greatest thing I took away is to get sense of the man America grew to love as 'Mark Twain' by his pen name, and also a glimpse into a very personal side of Samuel Clemens as a family man and writer. No matter what, I promise you that you will find something, for me it was a renewed sense of appreciation for writing. The museum society offers many programs in its efforts to support writers, such as writers' workshops and even the opportunity to have the house to yourself for a time to write. There are also specific programs for children and schools.
Address: 351 Farmington Ave, Hartford, CT 06105
Parking is free!
Set GPS for 385 Farmington Ave, Hartford for our parking lot entrance.
Daily (Sunday through Saturday)
9:30am to 5:30pm, last tour leaves at 4:30pm
Adults, $19 Children (6-16) $11 Senior Citizens, $16 Children under 6 are free. Parking is free. Museum only: $6